Review: Pennsylvania Ballet’s On Edge

Pennsylvania Ballet "On Edge" Program, Thursday, November 9, 2017 at the Merriam Theater, Philadelphia, PA. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano

By Debra Danese for The Dance Journal

After coming off a successful season opener last month with The Sleeping Beauty, Pennsylvania Ballet completely switched gears this weekend with a mixed repertoire program. On Edge featured three contemporary works by choreographers Helen Pickett, Alexander Ekman, and resident choreographer Matthew Neenan.  This was one of the most exciting programs I have seen the company perform as it clearly highlighted the diversity and artistry of the dancers.

Helen Pickett’s world premiere of Tilt opened the performance and was a masterful and well-thought out piece.  Pickett said the initial inspiration for Tilt came from a painting by Louise Bourgeois, at London’s Tate Modern museum. The set featured two large, connected rock formations that supported a tilted back wall. Every detail seemed to come together to bring the audience a unique visual experience. Costume and light design by Emma Kingsbury enhanced the choreography throughout. With a running time of 26 minutes, Pickett kept the movement unified without being repetitious. As a commissioned piece by Artistic Director, Angel Corella, Pickett said she did not create the movement prior to working with the dancers but waited to see how they handled and interpreted the work. With this approach, Pickett seemed to have capitalized on the dancers technical and artistic strengths.  Tilt was performed with energy and meticulous accuracy.

Matthew Neenan’s It goes that way was also a world premiere and demonstrated just how well he knows this company of dancers.  This is Neenan’s 10th year as Choreographer in Residence and his work continues to evolve. It goes that way was a series of variations set to the music of Laurie Anderson.  The dynamic changes in Anderson’s songs allowed for alternations between fluid movement and sharp lines and expansive arms. Corps de ballet member, Albert Gordon, was featured in a solo which he performed with a strong emotional and physical presence. Jermel Johnson was also a powerful force every time he entered the stage.

The program concluded with a quirky and humorous piece by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman. Episode 31 started with a video presentation showing the rehearsal process. The dancers described the challenges and rewards of learning choreography so different from their classical training. The company took the rehearsals outside to the streets of Philadelphia where they were observed by mostly bemused onlookers. It was interesting to get a rare look at the creative process and to see how it culminated onto the stage. The piece began with a male dancer in front of the curtain. He turned on a light that was set on stage and began walking across the front. While doing so, the curtain rose and lowered on the company dancing different variations. Much of Ekman’s movement vocabulary was pedestrian and involved vocalizations, something the dancers said was unnerving at first but evolved into a feeling of freedom.  The lone male dancer continued a slow-motion walk around the stage perimeter as the rest of the company danced with abandonment.  He returned to his starting position in time to turn the light off as the final movements were performed.


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