Pennsylvania Ballet – Adagios, counterpointes, stars & dancers in Space

photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal

After the Pennsylvania Ballet performed three big ballets for their May program , director Angel Corella devised a quieter bill called “Balanchine and Beyond” to close the season, comprised of three chamber dance pieces with a company favorite, George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. It played to an almost full Merriam Theater on opening night, with no visible audience attendance fall out after the recent roster shake-up resulting in a significant number of dancers leaving the company, some on their own, most because their contracts had not been renewed.

The changes that Corella has made these past two seasons, show clear direction and experimentation (always a good thing) in his re-branding the company.  There is more focus on more choreographic range, as well as re-envisioning story ballets like Don Quixote, as Corella keeps a spotlight on a roster of emerging company stars, and with several duos in works packed with substantive duets.

photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev

Those duets were most compelling on this night in Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier made in 1973. It is Manen’s signature ballet and requires both steeled and airy technique for the six dancers. Beethoven’s Hammerkavier commands full attention and Manen builds reflexive choreographic motifs before our eyes that interlock with the music’s unexpected moments of gravitas and exquisite lyricism.

Ludwig’s stirring piano lines have the dancers in adagio phrases that suspend, then release in the most understated way, a shifted gaze by the dancer, for instance, or sudden exit.  Deceptively simple choreographic motifs, such as the dancers’ having their arms raised in a V over their heads, for instance, as they step into extended, languishing full arabesques. At other points they drop to the ground in deep fifth-position plies, meant to look knotty, so they can be floated to intimate lift patterns.

The ensemble sections bloom with Manen’s unadorned choreographic eloquence as well and performed with voluptuous artistic clarity by these dancers.  For this performance Lillian Di Piazza and Ian Hussey, Marria Cosentino and Jermel Johnson, and Oksana Maslova and Arian Molina Soca, carving out separate scenarios and personas in their entrancing duets.

The long anticipated premiere the Trisha Brown 2004 ballet O zlozony / O composite, with text and music by Laurie Anderson, is not only a company premiere, but the US premiere of the Brown’s work, on an American ballet company. Brown is recognized as an American innovator and major (de)(re)constructionist on the international dance scene. The ballet coincided with a Trisha Brown artistic residency and course study at Bryn Mar College, curated by Lisa Kraus.

This work with highly stylized visual elements, proved a healthy experiment, if not completely successful concert piece. The noir whispers of Anderson are heard as the curtain comes up on Aaron Anker and Ian Hussey rolling Lillian DiPiazza body being between them against a celestial backdrop (Dancers in space! Could be a perfect universe)   Polish poetry and shards of music that desiccate before our ears. The dancers similarly are in a dreamy, fragmented motion.

Interesting as far as it goes, which is static in the first half, with a quality of choreographic pondering?  A lot of evaporating phrasing, punctuated with busted up balletic fusion, interesting as far as it goes, but some of self-conscious forensics best left on the rehearsal studio floor.  It comes to taste, Brown purposely not writing flashy or showy dance, admirably, but still leaning on it in key moments. There is a quicker tempo trio passage and Lillian Di Piazza has wry solo that at least one viewer was begging to be extended.  Brown’s abstract ideas come together most effectively in the ending segments that circle back to that opening spacey image. Meanwhile, principals Di Piazza and Hussey proving fine idiosyncratic technicians, and apprentice Anker delivers a breakthrough lead performance.

Next is Jean-Pierre Frohlic’s Varied Trio (in four) scored to music by Lou Harrison, is at first a teasing Robbins-esque pas de deux uncorks to sizzling duet for Arian Molina Soca and Oksana Maslova. Shifting moods of Lou Harrison’s wry score, played from the pit by Luigi Mazzocchi (violin), Clipper Erickson (piano), and Ralph Sorrentino) has the flirty couple in a flashdance challenge, ala a ballet tarantella. Soca moves around the stage like a panther, his centered turns and jumps and dazzlingly supple phrase finishes and is matched by Maslova’s equally fine virtuosity, showcasing her diamond arabesques, dynamic line and flawless transitional phrasing.

Scored to Paul Hindemith’s Four Variations for String Orchestra and Piano, Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments is still an undisputed classic on PAB.  The corps women looked a bit shaky in some of those beatified ensemble sections in Serenade last month, but here they never looked better with their attack for the 4T’s aggressive unison drive.  Those sharp angled configurations, never looking Balanchine arch, but building thrilling balletic text.

The opening three couples- Maria Cosentino and Russell Ducker, Aaron Anker and Elizabeth Wallace, Laura Bowman and Etienne Diaz- summoning the themes as the Temperaments appear.

Melancholic’s anguished movement is danced with full throttle expression and technical control by Ian Hussey.  Later, Sanguinic’s sprightly patterning is danced with lusty esprit by Amy Aldridge and Craig Wasserman. The quicksilver pointe work was momentarily interrupted when Aldridge took a hard fall off pointe, but was back up in a flash, to a triumphantly finish in the fast moving section.

Jermel Johnson’s Phlegmatic is locked in precision intensity with Amy Holihan, Kelsey Hellebuyck, Rachel Maher and Sophie Nelson. All five dancers making those tangled Balanchine’s famous entwined body-sculptures as fluidly as possible.  Then in the coda, Mayara Pineiro is flinty Choleric, her mach-speed pirouettes and dramatic fire taking full command.  In the orchestra pit, conductor Michael Pratt and PABallet orchestra keeping crisp pace as Martha Koeneman delivered Hindemith’s volcanic piano lines.


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