Pennsylvania Ballet II Phrenetic dancing at Dilworth Park

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

The temperature hovered around 88 degrees on May 19th at Dilworth Park under the looming edifice of City Hall, where Pennsylvania Ballet II (PBII) was getting ready for performances of choreographer Maria Konrad’s ‘PHrenetic’ ballet.  The dance event was part of the park’s free concert series The Arts on Center Stage, scheduled through August. This month, the ballet premiered at the ‘Spread Your Wings’ visual art exhibit on the Cherry St. Pier.

Before the performance kicked off, Dilworth Park was filling up with people just enjoying the beautiful day. Relaxing on the benches or the grass in front of the staging area and kids running in and out of the plaza’s deck fountain.

There were signs posted about mask requirement, but the city had already announced that it was ending that this week- many in attendance were, just as many were not- a snapshot of social uncertainty about covid precautions at public gatherings, after a year of restrictions.  

The PBII dancers strolled in 15 minutes before showtime and unpacked their gear to the side of the staging area, stretching, taking swigs from their water bottles, chilling and chatting, using the iron rails that skirt the building as a warmup barre.   

But, without doubt, this public happening was a possibly back-to-sort-of-normal performance moment, and what better way to celebrate the occasion of dancing on the open streets of Philadelphia.  The ballet’s theme of the history, people, and pulse of the city couldn’t have been more in sync with this diverse audience.  

Maria Konrad is a Florida-based choreographer and teacher and was able to work directly with the dancers instead of virtually developing the piece.  PBII Artistic Director Eddy Tovar collaborated with Konrad on some of the specific themes of the choreography for this piece.  

 PA Ballet orchestra trumpeters Nozomi Imamura and Brian Kuszyk played the jazzy set of dance heralds to kick off the show in Dilworth Park.   

The ballet is packed with narrative ideas concerning the city, set to classical, contemporary, and soundtracks that reflect the history and culture of Philadelphia.  Choreographically, it is a tight 35-minute montage of pedestrian, social, modern dance idioms punctuated with balletic fireworks. It showcases PBII technical prowess, range, and ensemble esprit. Altogether, ‘PHrenetic’ is a movement gallery of urban rhythms, in concert and contrast.

The opening scene is set to a solo jazz sax riff with the dancers posed on the iron railing as Charles Clinton dances center stage in a solo that introduces some of Konrad’s abstract themes, as the rest of the troupe joins in for flash duets and breakout solos.

A central scene has the dancers in a ballet court dance set to baroque music played on the glass armonica, an instrument invented by Ben Franklin. The scene opens Corrine Mulcahy, Grace Hill, and Isabella   Diemendio in an elegant modern dance on pointe scored to the eerie sounds of the Ben Franklin invented instrument, the glass armonica. The three men join in, and the scene gives way to a balletic court dance comprised of arabesques, jumps, turns, and lifts.

At the other end of the spectrum, Garritt McCabe dances a mesmerizing solo set to vocal narration about the sights and sounds of the city. The choreography is full of feral, abstract, but technically impressive moves.

Dimendio and Ben Schwarz spun romantic chemistry dancing Konrad’s pas de deux, in adagio, that seemed to float in on a summer breeze. Later, McCabe and Mulcahy performed a more athletic duet set to a smoldering percussive groove. Schwarz and Clinton partnered in a steely lift sequence, then were joined by McCabe for a double-tempo precision finish.

Konrad is particularly fluent in mixing styles that liberates vocabulary without looking forced or cobbled together. Laced throughout are thematic transitional moments with the dancers in a freeze-frame or group sculpture with expressions that evoke urban street scenes.

PBII continues to go in directions that show they are artistically ambitious and engaged with the community and school outreach projects. ‘PHrenetic’ is a ballet that is particularly poignant at this moment as the city is reopening from a year of social distancing, and closed public venues. A movement meditation celebrating positive energy of the city.

Tovar commented after the performance that some of the dancers had put in extra hours to tackle some of Konrad’s idiosyncratic range of gear-shifting choreography within one piece. Not an issue on this day, on this hot spring day in the shadow of Billy Penn. Even in their breezy summer outfits (including one in a LOVE park T-shirt), all the dancers were drenched in sweat but smiling by the end of the piece as they soaked in the applause, with just a half-hour to cool down before the second show.

PBII will be performing PHrenetic at the Philadelphia Flower Show’s Family Frolic event on Saturday, June 12.

***Photo courtesy of Center City Development Corporation

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