by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | Photo Credit: Alexander Iziliaev
Pennsylvania Ballet followed up their very successful run of Ben Stevenson’s updated Cinderella last month with their contemporary ballet bill called Revolution, so named by artistic director Angel Corella because of the rebellious choreographic templates of George Balanchine’s American neo-classicism, English ballet fusionist David Dawson and the acrobatic alchemy of Philadelphia choreographer Brian Sanders.
Corella concertizing in ways to build new audiences and has said he wants to build a company of all-stars at PAB, proficient in Balanchine but ready to dance outside the ballet box in myriad disciplines.
This quality was is front and center in Dawson’s 2010 ballet “The Third Light” scored to music by Gavin Bryars for string orchestra of basses, violins, violas and cellos. Dawson’s ensemble configurations are both abstract and infused with potent lyricism, creating a lucid choreographic stream that keeps moving in unexpected ways. Much credit goes to stager Christine Marchant for the artistic precision and liberated performances by these dancers. A work you instantly want to see again, because you miss many of the fine details, starting with Dawson’s fluent lift patterns and pointe work.
The striking set design by John Otto of angled black, grey and white panels with shadowy lighting design by Bert Dalhuijsen in tandem with Dawson’s fine sense of stage composition and choreographic breadth. The women are in lacey purple tunics by costumer Yumiko Takeshima and the men in purple tights.
Among the many standout moments- Oksana Maslova and Sterling Baca in a flash mise-en-scene- as lovers in a breaking up. Alexander Peters, side-lined for much of last season with an injury, is in top form, for Dawson’s eloquent male solo that characterizes the lead violin line played by virtuoso Luigi Mazzocchi. And throughout Ballet Orchestra conductor Nathan Fifield elicited such lushness from the orchestra that the sound seemed to wrap around the dancers on the Merriam stage.
‘Square Dance’ Balanchine’s 50’s confection, set to baroque music by Vivaldi and Corelli, is a choreographic blend of arty classicism do-si-doeing’ with Americana folk idioms, charming in its day, but by now, looking overly contrived, but however dated, it requires sharp technique and sustained ensemble focus.
The cast caught a wing right out of the gate on opening night with the corps de ballet flying through those flinty configurations with precision and élan. But after that things got bumpy at key points, especially in the mid-tempo pacing- scrambled transitional phrasing, erratic ensemble pacing and tight duets among the hoe-down partners. Even lead couple principals Amy Aldridge and Alexander Peters also got knotted up in those body twister variations Balanchine was so fond of. Seconds later they immediately recovered, nailing those quicksilver baroque tempos with thrilling technical artistry and radiant chemistry.
Choreographer Brian Sanders creates netherworld dance-scapes with his company JUNK and for his first commission with Pennsylvania Ballet he doesn’t back off his creative edge and sardonic impulses. “Chicken Bone Brain” is he notes in the program inspired by Denise Levertov’s poem ‘Suspended’ with the end-lines “For though I claw at empty air and feel /Nothing, no embrace, I have not plummeted) as well as from 70’s folksinger Melanie’s hit tune “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” specifically the line “They picked my brain like a chicken bone, and I think I’m half-insane.”
As the audience was filing in from intermission, a sinister sounding fog horn as the curtain goes up on new PB principal Sterling Baca bathed in blood red light looking like he is running in space (he’s actually on a treadmill) then bounds off crouched at the front of the stage as the curtain parts, 20 dancers are in repose under a matrix of fiberglass bone sculptures designed by artist Pedro Silva (frequent JUNK collaborator). This stunning visual drew applause and is completed by Martha Chamberlain’s netherworld costumes- the men in padded Samurai belts and the women in gauzy bikinis wraps.
Meanwhile, the menacing soundscape is interrupted by dancer Marjorie Feirling floating across the stage in silvery bed and satin garb while Melanie’s warbled, and this dreamscape is eclipsed by techno music which floods in as Sterling Baca, Jermel Johnson, and Arian Molina Soca are the dance mount 20ft bowed bones or otherwise strike various muscled poses with impeccable balletic line.
But as beautifully sculpted as they look spinning, dangling or hanging like bats from, some of the pure – strength contortions are not seamlessly executed. In general the aerials have less intricate daredevilry than Sanders concocts for his JUNK troupe. Meanwhile, the ensemble sections kick in an earthy, sensual and very athletic way with the dancers with long bones on their necks with their arms extended across and bodies spinning at mach speed across the stage. Later In the male-female duets the couples hold a bone (of contention?) between them as they torque each other’s bodies in a psychosexual dance…or maybe it is just a display of Sanders’ vintage acrobatic spells. Whatever the intent, this audience went wild on Brian’s ballet junket.