Philadelphia Ballet New Works
photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev

Philadelphia Ballet explores time & memory in new work by Alba Castillo

The Philadelphia Ballet premiered three dances on Thursday, February 3rd, at the Perelman Theater. The most striking was The Persistence of Memory, choreographed by Alba Castillo. After dancing professionally in her native Spain, Castillo joined the Ballet Theater Basel. Since embarking on her choreographic career in 2012, she has made works for Scapino Ballet Rotterdam and OpeÌra National du Rhin. In a stroke of good fortune for Philadelphia audiences, this commission is her first creation for an American dance company. The program of contemporary works will continue with four more performances from February 8-12.

Castillo’s piece brings the kinetic feeling of Salvador Dali’s painting, “The Persistence of Memory,” to life on the stage; the complex production elements work together to create a mysterious world where time is suspended and memories float by like wispy clouds. Lukas Marian’s wondrous lighting design juxtaposes layers of darkness with puffs of swirling smoke to define the architecture of the dance. Like Castillo, Marian is closely associated with Theater Basel, and the pair are previous collaborators.

As the piece opens, a metronome placed front and center is set to ticking off the time. The dancers soon coalesce into a sculptural group, locking arms to make a circle that spirals and stretches out of shape. They wear pants and shirts (designed by Christine Darch) in shades of blues and browns borrowed from Dali’s painting. Their undulating, shapeshifting bodies reproduce the melting clocks from the well-known painting.

The score is a compilation of music by five composers (Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds, Emanuele Errante, Christopher Bissonnette, and Lambert) carefully deployed to support the unfolding structure of the piece. Buoyed by shimmering tones or low, rolling piano chords, ensemble sections give way to solos, duos, and trios. Principal dancers Oksana Maslova and Mayara Pineiro are spotlighted in the piece, while the remaining eight dancers are drawn from the company’s talented depths. Sinuous corps de ballet member Gabriela Mesa is a stand-out.

Castillo has created a unique movement language for the dance that explores a full range of possible body articulations. In several instances, a dancer rolls his or her hands and feet in a wavy walking motion – as though treading through an elastic space-time continuum. The dancers move with dreamlike ease through the imaginary, surreal landscape. Near the end of The Persistence of Memory, Maslova walks downstage and stops the metronome from ticking. As she wafts through the dance’s closing phrases, the audience is left to meditate on the nature of time and to wonder about the possibility of greater freedom outside its boundaries.

Also on the program is Alignment, created by the Philadelphia Ballet’s newly-appointed resident choreographer, Juliano Nunes. The piece begins with fourteen dancers performing measured exercises, accented with flicks of the head, arms, or hands, in unison. They wear gray unitards demarcated with thick red lines (designed by Mikaela Kelly). Eventually, the dance opens up, with leaps, turns, and running entrances and exits. The melodic score by Luke Howard grows more passionate, yet the dancers maintain their composed solemnity. In a final tableau, they assume a clever pose that aligns the red lines on their unitards like a roadmap.

Making a rare appearance at the intimate Perelman Theater, the dancers are wonderful to see up close. Their technique is phenomenal; even when running and leaping en masse they land almost silently. The moderation that characterizes Alignment makes for an interesting exercise in attempting to reign in their considerable star power – especially for megawatt principal dancer Arian Molina Soca.

In contrast, Andrew Winghart’s Prima Materia generates a fiery conclusion to the program. Like a sorcerer, soloist Ashton Roxander calls upon the gods, and three large mirrored discs descend from overhead, illuminated by streaming purple beams of light. Principal dancer Yuka Iseda leads a lyrical ensemble of women; their energy is countered by an ensemble of men. The costumes (designed by Darch) feature swirling skirts and loose pants that pick up the pink and purple colors of Nick Kolin’s lighting design. The multi-talented Winghart composed the hypnotic musical score in tandem with his choreography for the piece. He has worked with Cirque du Soleil and pop artists such as Billie Eilish and Lorde, and his showbiz sensibility is put to good use in the theatrically charged Prima Materia.

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