PA Ballet dancers 27th benefit concert for MANNA

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | Photo courtesy of MANNA

The Forrest Theater wasn’t completely full for the 27th Shut Up & Dance concert on April 13, but the crowd that was there made up for it in enthusiasm.  Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Alexandra Hughes was producing-director for the benefit for the second year in a row.  At the VIP-pre-party in the Forrest ballroom the mood was festive and the spirits, literally and figuratively, were generous.  MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance) reports that the dance event brought in $157,000 (and counting).

Former PA Ballet principal dancer James Ihde and veteran of 22 benefit performances commented before the performance “This is my first time to feel the magic as an audience member. It’s always very hectic putting the show together, but not in an anxiety-inducing way,” Ihde said. “Every single year as the dancers fit in the time to volunteer, somebody says ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ and every year those same dancers end up saying that, yeah, I’ll be back next year, and wouldn’t miss this experience.

The magic that Ihde refers to is not only the show but the relationship that the dancers and choreographers have developed with MANNA over the years. MANNA provides medically supervised meals 365 days a year to over 1200 clients in the Greater Philadelphia Area.  The nutritional diets are designed to aid patients fighting a range of illnesses including HIV-AIDS, cancer, and diabetes.

The show got off to a late start, but everyone was immediately hanging on every move by co-hosts and cabaret divas, John Jarboe of the Bearded Ladies and joined by Martha Graham Cracker (MGC). They launched into a night of music, drop dead drag and tons of shade as the co-hosts lead the opening number, conceived by Hughes and the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet.  Jarboe and MGC worked through the audience singing Dolly Parton’s hit 9 to 5,  then careening into the 60’s dance song Do You Love Me? (now that I can dance). The inspired ballet dancers then tried their chops on the 60’s dance crazes including the mash potatoes, the frug. and of course the twist (however sloppy the technique).

Among the show’s many house-down moments –

PA Ballet corps de ballet dancer Adrianna de Svastich’s  offered a witty Entr’acte’ with Katherine Capristo, Sophie Savas Carstens, and Emily Wilson as ballerinas collapsing in their dressing room, shucking their tutus in disgust and pounding their pointe shoes into the floor, before they launch into a barefoot balletic freelance full of snarky variations.

De Svastich was onstage herself later in ‘Sullivan & Sarah’ with Aaron Anker, who co-choreographed a poignant period duet, accompanied by ballet orchestra violinist Luigi Mazzocchi. The story was conceived and narrated by Tony Costandino, with music composed by Jay Unger. Anker dance storytelling of a soldier off to war and the love he left behind.

BalletX was one of the guest artist troupes with Caili Quan choreographing a tropical fling to Harry Belafonte’s Jamaican Farewell for Andrea Yorita and Blake Krapels who wrapped around each other like a cool island breeze.

PA Ballet principal Lillian DiPiazza also choreographed a duet Something Else’ with PAB partners Marjorie Feirling and Peter Weil, whose erotic chemistry burned with blues scorcher to Nina Simone’s rendition of I Put A Spell on You.

The virtuosic Albert Gordon tossed off air-slicing jetes and cyclonic pirouette in runs for choreographer, Jesse Lyon’s Inter Mundos. Later, while Jarboe & Martha were coaxing more donations from the audience, someone tossed up $100 bucks if Gordon dared to pump out 50 continuous grande pirouettes in a row.  And he did so (throwing in a few double-whips) finishing off with a leap and a dive.  James Ihde also was game enough to come onstage for a return performance as a flash Chippendale, raising $200 bucks (from the balcony no less) for letting Jarboe and MGC take off his shirt, James quickly scurried offstage laughing.

Choreographer Durante Verzola dazzled with his exquisite Le Debut danced by Jacqueline Callahan, Emily Davis, Lucia Erickson, Cassidy McAndrew, and Craig Wasserman. Verzola continues to present classical ballet vocabulary in unfussy, thrilling ways and these dancers made the most of it.

Also virtuosic was classic Irish Step Dancing by Emily Davis and Nick Schwasman, accompanied by the composer and fiddler extraordinaire, Nathaniel Barnett. Before becoming a PA Ballet corps dancer Davis was on the international step dance circuit.  Their intricate footwork and technical artistry rocked this audience.

Every year, one of the most anticipated moments of the show is the performance of Dying Swan set to the music by Camille Saint-Saens. PA Ballet principal Ian Hussey, producing director for the benefit for five years, danced the solo this year. This was particularly poignant moment since Hussey will be retiring from the company at the end of this season. Choreographer Colby Damon’s modernist take on Fokine’s Dying Swan offered no liquid arm port de bra movements ala Anna Pavola this time. The choreography was more abstract but just as tragic. Pianist Trisha Wolf and cellist Jennie Lorenzo stuck to the pristine transcendence of the music.

Kyle ‘JustSole’ Clark and Danita Clark led six students from Uarts in the ‘praise’ hip-hop number Through it All. They burned the floor with ensemble unison work featuring breakout solos from each dancer.

Jarboe cueing the whole audience to stand and sing the National Anthem, launched into the gay national anthem Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Not only did everyone seem to know the lyrics but everyone was on key. Jarboe knows his audience.

The finale of the show Nobody puts John and Martha in the Corner had the dancers back onstage to revisit the (I’ve had) The Time of My Life number from the movie Dirty Dancing.  Martha and John in blinding silver lame futuristic flapper dresses were both belting it out in a raucous arrangement by pianist Heath Allen. After the two-hour-plus show, the dancers and many audience members headed over to Voyeur, to dance the rest of the night away to the pulse of WXPN host Robert Drake’s club mix.

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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