A Princely Farewell in Pennsylvania Ballet’s Program of Firsts

Photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

During the curtain-calls for the cast of Matthew Neenan’s “Archiva” with its themes of the seasons of a dancer’s life still floating at the May 15 matinee performance in the Academy of Music as longtime principal dancer Francis Veyette took his final bows with the company. It was a two-way mirror of life imitating art imitating life.  And as we now know, his exit coincides with several other dancers who are departing as this season winds down and artistic director Angel Corella calibrates the future of the company.

The performance opened with George Balanchine’s 1934 iconic ballet “Serenade” and without fail audiences still instantly applaud when the curtain rises on the image of ballerinas in tulle, their arms uniformly raised, bathed in blue light on the Academy stage with Tchaikovsky’s strings engulfing the Academy.

The ballet is so revered it can lead to skittish performances even by the most seasoned companies. Both technical clarity and performance immediacy are essential to lift it out from under dance museum glass. Despite the beautifully serene opening images at the closing matinee performance, things got off to a rocky start in the developing ensemble passes, with the corps de ballet struggling with shaky unison work and some erratic pacing in the transitional steps. The leads- Kathryn Manger, Ana Calderon, Marjorie Feiring, Edward Barnes and Jermel Johnson- also with some bumpy moments, but things settled in during the back half, and the company locked onto more cohesive musicality and esprit de corps.  Fine-line symphonic detailing by conductor Beatrice Jona Affron and the orchestra really spiking their sound in the Academy.

In contrast, the company caught a wing right out of the gate in the North American premiere of Royal Ballet choreographer Liam Scarlett’s 2010 ballet “Asphodel Meadows” scored to Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for two pianos.  The composer’s fevered piano dialogues, laced through baroque orchestral threads and Scarlett choreographically mining the counterpoints.

He creates thrilling fluency for the corps de ballet sections, with the dancers in a dynamic balletic stream of perpetual motion.   Meanwhile, three central couples moving in and out of the action with stylistically disparate duets- Lillian DIPiazza and Arian Molina Soca delivering a sultry adagio pas deux featuring silky lift patterns and subtle intimacy; Amy Aldridge and Ian Hussey bring witty expressiveness and a wry chemistry; Evelyn Kocak and Craig Wasserman charging through the crowded corps with a torrent of intricate footwork.

The dancers are set ‘in’ the backdrop of a large abstract white canvas with black dripping paint lines, the leads in elegant dark costumes and the corps dancers in beige.  At the center of Poulenc’s score, with its torrent of orchestral cross-streams, the sterling command of pianists Martha Koeneman and Alexander Timofeev.

Then the finale of Neenan’s “Archiva” and it is not a stretch to predict that this will be a Pennsylvania Ballet signature ballet.  Neenan collaborated with composer Troy Herion in a score of chromatic architecture and earthy orchestral resolves that was equally entrancing.

This is a surrealistic fantasia about the seasons of a dancers’ stage life.  The stage busted open with the unusually hidden rigging and rails exposed and this industrial backstage world frames the surreal reality of a ballerina at a crossroads.  The character reconciles what the world of ballet expects from her and what she has experienced as the embodiment of the art form. Amy Aldridge portrays the ballerina with her artistry prowess indelibly matched to Neenan’s liberating fusion of ballet forms.

Aldridge is suddenly in duets with James Ihde, Ian Hussey and Francis Veyette, by turns, each conveying a different era and mystery. In the background, dancers, meanwhile orbit in an array of time-traveling dance outfit (inspired designs by Martha Chamberlain) and flash scenarios emerge featuring wry characterizations by Ana Calderon, Jermel Johnson, Lauren Fadeley, Francis Veyette and Oksana Maslova.

Now in a blue silk robe looking dazed, then appears in a sunburst hued tutu, is this real crossroads, or just another ephemeral role?   Meanwhile the corps is busy in a whirling choreographic mosaic of ballet history, an illusion that repeated collapses into bare-bulb backstage reality that lurches toward the denouement of their exit via the cement freight stairwell at the back of the Academy stage.  Archiva is one of Neenan’s most intriguing and perhaps most mature of his large company ballets. It is also full of droll whimsy, heart and artistic honesty.

And then…

It was time to say goodbye.  Just weeks ago it was announced that Veyette would be leaving, then the revelation that over a dozen more dancers would also be exiting the company as the  season winds down next month.

Throughout the last year Veyette has danced valiantly, on an injured knee and on this day after he turned in his last performance in Archiva, and stood center stage, in tears, clutching his heart during the thundering ovation, roses raining at his feet from an audience in a scene that didn’t stop for 15 minutes as one by one the entire company filed on to give him a single rose, several departing colleagues stepping forward for single bows as they are moving on as well.

Finally, Veyette looking princely in his black doublet from Archiva and Lauren Fadeley Veyette, in a gold tutu, at his side now as they moved downstage and basked in their last moments as Pennsylvania Ballet partners on the Academy of Music stage. Sometimes, everything is still transcendentally beautiful at the ballet.

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