The Pennsylvania Ballet pirouettes into their fall virtual season

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Ángel Corella launched his Director’s Choice Digital season online, with broadcast films of the company’s premiere works.  Corella spoke about the current programming via ZOOM from his family home in Barcelona, Spain.

Ángel Corella
Photo credit Alexander Iziliaev 

Corella said the company’s dancers, choreographers, musicians, and teachers have become “experts on Zoom cause that’s what we do all day now. We’re not going be in the studios, and like most companies we are doing everything online.”

Some dance companies are launching paywalls for content. The Pennsylvania Ballet has decided for the initial digital programs this month that there will be no fee. Viewers just have to register on the website for access.

PA Ballet has been broadcasting previously filmed repertory ballet throughout the summer.  “The first digital season that we did on social media everyone understood was a learning curve, and the choreographers, designers, composers, agreed to wave contracted fees for broadcast.

Corella said that for the second fall digital season, “it was more difficult to secure all the rights.” 

Corella said that the artists for this line-up generously agreed to come on board. The first round of programming started Nov. 12-18 with choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s Ghost Stories and Andrea Miller’s Evenings. This will be followed later in the month with recent ballets by Helen Pickett and Matthew Neenan.

Even though ballets are routinely filmed now by former principal dancer Alexander Iziliaev, other copyright and broadcast permissions by choreographers, composers, and designers also have to be arranged

“We thought it would be best to do it this way at this time to stay connected to our audiences and patrons.”

“We were actually very pleased to see that all the works we have on film are of excellent quality.  We could show a lot of them on social media or Vimeo for this digital season.”   Iziliaev (Sasha) filmed the first weekend of the performance runs.

Corella said the company is as busy as ever preparing to return to the stage and planning for any scenario that plays out as the pandemic continues.

“We have not started rehearsals yet. We’re one of the few ballet companies that haven’t gone back. Our problem is mainly space. Our studios are not finished, and the building is not finished. It is extremely challenging now, and we are looking into other places where it is possible to fully utilize the space or even create pods (for instance).”

“Some of the dancers are recording class alternating turns going into the recording studios. But it’s definitely not the same. The hardest part of this pandemic is keeping the dancers in (performance) shape and keeping the dancers motivated. This has created anxiety in everyone,” he intimated. “It is the hardest thing to be seeing as an artistic director… Not to be able to have in-person direct contact with the dancers, We are connected by energy. To be in the same room and be connected by that energy…is an essential part of it.”

“We have so many scenarios about what could happen. What we are trying to do is to be as prepared as possible with different plans.  In case there is another closedown…. To see how we can go back, not only to the studio and the theater. And reconnect with our audiences and patrons safely.”

“You can’t gamble with people’s lives. It’s hard on them because we don’t even know what will happen. Things are still changing, literally, by the minute. They are young and healthy, but they have all been very supportive about it and ready to do what they have to do,” Corella adds, “and we have to also think of their families, our audiences’ families.”

“We have to say that the dancers have been very mature about it. Of course, they all want to know what is going on. But they all want to help to get back on stage in a safe way. Corella said he maintains a five-year plan for the company, now with unpredictable variables as the Coronavirus rages on.”

“Within one year, we have had different plans in place. We’re talking to different theaters. How we can accommodate our season in case the Kimmel shuts down again. Corella is fielding every possible scenario. Meanwhile, the dance season goes on, and Corella is planning to broadcast PA Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker next month. Stay tuned for updates.

Ghost Stories & Evenings Nov. 12-18

Ángel Corella couldn’t have chosen more dramatic ballets for the first broadcasts of Director’s Choice with two of America’s most prolific ballet choreographers, Nicolo Fonte’s Ghost Stories set on the company in 2017, and Andrea Miller’s 2018 premiere of Evenings.

The ballets were filmed by former principal dancer Alexander Iziliaev during the first weekend of performance. They are now routinely filmed from the back of the theater, the standard repertory of full stage framing with minimal close-ups, and no cutting or edits. Their use was designed for in-company viewing and not meant for public broadcast.

Even in this simplified format, they are captivating film documents. Thematically, both works speak to this cultural moment.

Sterling Baca, Dayesi Torrienti & Harrison Monaco in Nicolo Fonte’s Ghost Stories
Photo credit Alexander Iziliaev 

Fonte’s Ghost Stories opening tableaux with principal dancer Oksana Maslova in a slash of light, her body crouched, rises with supple and steely combinations, and suddenly is joined in pas de trois with Sterling Baca and Ian Hussey. Busoni’s chamber music counterpoints as piano and violin- mirror Fonte’s sinuous and angular phrases. Followed by Max Richter’s more propulsive orchestral and Fonte’s ensemble choreography, it reaches a breathtaking clip, highlighted by a technically ferocious pas de deux by Hussey and Alexandra Hughes. 

The five couples – Dayesi Torrienti & James Ihde; Ian Hussey & Alexandra Hughes; Nayara Lopes & Harrison Monaco; Yuka Iseda & Aaron Anker; and leads Maslova and Baca – all distinguish themselves in dramatic duets, of Fonte’s shadowy themes.

Albert Gordon in Andrea Miller’s Evenings | Photo credit Alexander Iziliaev  

As symbolically evocative as Ghost Stories is, Andrea Miller’s Evenings is directly somber and contemplative. Miller created it on PA Ballet just a year after her father’s death, who was struck by a car.

Scored to Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memory, an elegy to Benjamin Britten, the opening mournful chimes and descending strings engulf a dark stage with the dancers already in motion, their black clothing casting moving shadows on shadows. Katheryn Manger, Oksana Maslova, and So Jung Shin are in flowing dance skirts while Jermel Johnson, Ian Hussey, and Albert Gordon are in black pants.

The six dancers swirl around in chaotic motion and paralytic friezes, with bursts of frenzied jetes. As the music decrescendos, they cluster, hands clasped together, bowed, and circling backward. The pools of diffused spotlights fade in and out.

A solo by Albert Gordon begins with the dancer standing on his head and collapsing into a knotted position that he untangles with silky balletic turns and jetes, only to end up tangled in another halting step. Miller’s visceral expressionism ignites Gordon’s lyrical athleticism.

Next, So Jung Shin performs a perilous sequence, statically unstable on full pointe, falling forward as Ian Hussey rushes on stage to catch her, leading into a somber duet. Later, Maslova and Jermel Johnson partner in sublime inventive lift sequences that simply flow. Miller’s meditative bodyscapes not hinting at any rote dance duet scenario other than intense human connection.

As the Pennsylvania Ballet remains in the performance wings, the fall season’s opening ballets evoke loss, sorrow, and cathartic dance journeys that resonate now on so many levels.

The second installment of Director’s Choice will be broadcasts of Matt Neenan’s Deco and Helen Pickett’s Tilt available Nov. 19-25.

To register for access to Director’s Choice go to www.paballet.org

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