Pennsylvania Ballet’s modern muses are heard

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo credit Alexander Iziliaev 

Pennsylvania Ballet’s program of four ballets set the music by Igor Stravinsky played to a sold out Merriam Theater April 4.  Artistic director Angel Corella savvy programming bookended two works by George Balanchine- Apollo and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, with the Jerome Robbins’ ballet shocker The Cage and the premiere of Deco by Pennsylvania Ballet resident choreographer Matthew Neenan. The program showcased several newer company dancers in key roles in and for the company women, all the ballets are en pointe, as is not always the case with contemporary programs.  And all the works with live musical accompaniment, an exquisite experience indeed, with Pennsylvania Ballet maestro Beatrice Jona Affron conducting Stravinsky.

Balanchine and Stravinsky’s first seismic collaboration was Apollo in 1928 at the Ballets Russes. It was not only a defining choreographic masterpiece by Balanchine, but remains a hallmark, literally and symbolically, of neoclassical ballet.  Principal dancer Sterling Baca portrayed the Greek god Apollo, who summons the muses.  Calliope, the poet, is danced by Alexandra Hughes, Mayara Pineiro portrays Polyhymnia, the mime,  and Terpsichore, the muse of music and dance, is danced by Lillian DiPiazza.

Baca and DiPiazza, frequently partnered, captivating the audience as they rightly lean on their technical clarity in Balanchine’s central pas de deux   Even with some tentative moments in his transitional phrases, Baca’s interpretive artistry commanded in this role, especially in the litheness of his aerial solos.  In the final passage, the muses entwine with Apollo in an iconic bodyscape that still takes your breath away.  Meanwhile, Beatrice Jona Affra builds on Stravinsky’s evocation of Apollo in all of its musical richness.

Matt Neenan’s Deco is set to Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata and Tango and aggressive piece dissonant of his Piano Sonata, performed with all its sharpness by pianist Martha Koeneman.

Albert Gordon states Neenan’s witty and equally edgy moves in the opening solo, laced with crouched leg leaps and buoyant expressiveness.  Jacqueline Callahan and Kathryn Manger join him, and in fact, they tango off together. Jack Sprance and Peter Weil fly on in with a jaunty duet, and Zecheng Liang suddenly appears in an athletic and sinewy solo. Neenan is clearly inspired by the counterpoint, rhythmic, and chromatic drive of Stravinsky’s piano music, without any narrative implications.

Meanwhile, as steely as some of Igor’s music is, Neenan’s choreography makes it warm, witty and fun. The performance is beautifully costumed by Christine Darsh with the men in multi-hued silky tops (with a Renaissance flair), and the women in glittery, shredded tulle shirts.  During interludes in the music, Neenan keeps the dancers intriguingly in motion. Choreographically, Neenan strips away some of his own signatures and really starts to define his minimalist balletic line.

Jerome Robbins The Cage, shocking in the early 50s, still packs a punch for its depiction of a tribe of women, with ‘insect’ instincts who trap and kill male intruders. At this performance, Ian Hussey and Liang are the victims, clad in primal briefs, who find themselves in a sudden dance of death. Oksana Maslova is the novice, being initiated into the tribe, who dances them around before striking. This is one of the most choreographically inventive works by Robbins. Some of its angularity of movement is insect-like, but Robbins’ cagily quotes some of Nijinsky’s plastique moves in The Afternoon of the Faun.

The corps de ballet, with frizzy manes, swarm with the intensity of a warring army.  Dayesi Torriente is the Queen warrior whose moves are most electrifying. Maslova, a great character dancer, disappears in this brutal role as the novice who learns quickly how to trap and kill.   The music is Stravinsky angular string tempests of his of Concerto in D for String Orchestra composed in 1946, and in this performance, Affron keeps the sound spiked and tempos deadly.

In contrast, Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto has a fluid musicality, both compositionally and choreographically, with a mix of toccata, capriccio for the ensemble sections, and string arias for the two lead couples.

Balanchine originally used the score in 1941, but went he revived it in 1971, he couldn’t remember his own work, so he redid it. The music sings along with expressive violin passages and wry counterpoints. Balanchine plays with Stravinsky’s wry orchestral crosscurrents.

In the aria section, pas de deux, Ian Hussey and Dayesi Torriente circle around each other in a dodgy, sensual duet, where the intensity builds and they lock into dramatic erotically charged positions. Soca and Nayara Lopes in a more romantic and just as captivating in a subtler choreographic key.

Balanchine’s playful ensemble sections are ‘at ease’ with the ensemble dancers in playful patterns of jaunty movements, with skips and warm ensemble esprit, complete with smiles. Still, in this performance, they looked a bit too scrambled, but it hardly detracted from the full impact of this ballet and this stellar evening of dance. The virtuosity of the ballet orchestra’s principal violinist Luigi Mazzocchi just spellbinds. Affron and Mazzocchi joined the cast for the final bows and a lusty applause in this stellar program

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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