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Jermel Johnson and Yuka Iseda of Philadelphia Ballet in "Grosse Fuge", choreography of Hans van Manen.
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Jermel Johnson bids a heartfelt adieu

Jermel Johnson gave his final performance as a Philadelphia Ballet principal dancer at the Academy of Music on May 15 to an audience of his longtime fans and many former company members who danced with Johnson over the years. Artistic director Angel Corella introduced the program by asking the audience how many had traveled in from around the country just for the occasion.

Then the curtain went up on ‘Humankind,’ comprised of three ballets by famed Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen. In a virtual video with van Manen earlier this month, he cited Barbara Weisberger, founder of the company, as the first US director to commission his works in the 1970s.

Johnson was in typical top form for his performances in the lengthy opening ballet “Grosse Fuge’ and the closer’ Variations for two Couples,’ both stylistically different and technically demanding.

‘Grosse Fuge’ offered a starkly translucent otherworldly space for Naraya Lopes, Oksana Maslova, Yuka Iseda, and Mayara Pineiro, sans pointe shoes and dressed in white singlets and mantillas, poised but not moving. Zecheng Liang, Sterling Baca, Jermel Johnson, and Jack Thomas, bare-chested, in skirted trousers (designed by the choreographer), enter downstage in halting strides before they sweep over the stage in unison leaps and breakout solos to line up facing the women. The women approach the men, who are now sidelined in regimental formation. 

The women plie, flex their muscles and face off with the men. Then there is a series of male-female duets, each choreographically different. The taut strings of Beethoven’s fugue fuel the couples for van Manen’s abstract erotic scenarios.

The men shed the billowy garb stripping down to black shorts with belts around their waists. The final segment with the women grasping leather straps around the men, in position under them, strikes as unseemly this many years later. Still, it can also be read now as merely acrobatic, not suggesting any submission. 

Beethoven surpassed the conventions of his era with musical ideas. The composer’s compositional intricacies inspired van Manen as he animates the tension and drive of the strings. Beatrice Jona Affron conducts a stellar string quartet with concertmaster Luigi Mazzocchi and Chris Jussell (2nd violin), Hannah Nicholas (Principal Viola), and Jennie Lorenzo (Principal Cello).

Next, van Manen’s ‘5 Tango’s scored to music by Astor Piazzola in tango fireworks en pointe display. The ensemble was razor-sharp, with a few bumpy moments in the critical transitional steps, but mostly this was a slow burn of tango/ballet fireworks, en pointe. 

Lead couple Nayara Lopes and Aston Roxander burned the floor in their duets and seared the air in their respective solos. Tango has a history of dances for same-sex couples, and Van Manen’s male tango between Russel Drucker and Peter Weil was as smoldering as all of the other male-female duets. 

The concert finale ‘Variations for Two Couples’ staged by Jozef Varga, scored to a mix of music by Astor Piazzolla, Benjamin Britten, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Stefan Kovacs Tickmayer. The couples, all principals – Arian Molina Soca & Dayesi Torriente, and Yuka Iseda & Jermel Johnson displayed van Manen’s unfussy ballet stylings. Still, this performance ignited the precision and chemistry of the dancers. For Johnson, his beautiful final moments on the Academy stage were as radiant as ever with his interpretive artistry. 

The quartet took their bows in front of the Academy curtain. Johnson stepped back to center stage and drank in thundering applause and bravos from the audience, and one by one, the current roster of dancers came on with long stem roses, tears, and hugs to say goodbye to Johnson. The procession latest for close to half an hour as confetti rained down when Johnson’s husband, David Jackson, came on with their two young children. 

Johnson, originally from Baltimore, attended the School of American Ballet and was awarded the prestigious Princess Grace Award for dance in 2008. He joined the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004 and was the only black dancer in the company for many years. Johnson has a distinguished artistic legacy with Philadelphia Ballet, breaking race barriers dancing the ‘Prince’ roles in the classical repertory, and creating new roles in contemporary ballets. Johnson is also a jewelry designer and is now a professional massage therapist, and plans are that he will continue to collaborate with the company dancers. 

Nayara Lopes and Ashton Roxander of Philadelphia Ballet in "5 Tango's", choreography of Hans van Manen. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Next, van Manen’s ‘5 Tango’s scored to music by Astor Piazzola in tango fireworks en pointe display. The ensemble was razor-sharp, with a few bumpy moments in the critical transitional steps, but mostly this was a slow burn of tango/ballet fireworks, en pointe. 

Lead couple Nayara Lopes and Aston Roxander burned the floor in their duets and seared the air in their respective solos. Tango has a history of dances for same-sex couples, and Van Manen’s male tango between Russel Drucker and Peter Weil was as smoldering as all of the other male-female duets. 

The concert finale ‘Variations for Two Couples’ staged by Jozef Varga, scored to a mix of music by Astor Piazzolla, Benjamin Britten, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Stefan Kovacs Tickmayer. The couples, all principals – Arian Molina Soca & Dayesi Torriente, and Yuka Iseda & Jermel Johnson displayed van Manen’s unfussy ballet stylings. Still, this performance ignited the precision and chemistry of the dancers. For Johnson, his beautiful final moments on the Academy stage were as radiant as ever with his interpretive artistry. 

The quartet took their bows in front of the Academy curtain. Johnson stepped back to center stage and drank in thundering applause and bravos from the audience, and one by one, the current roster of dancers came on with long stem roses, tears, and hugs to say goodbye to Johnson. The procession latest for close to half an hour as confetti rained down when Johnson’s husband, David Jackson, came on with their two young children. 

Johnson, originally from Baltimore, attended the School of American Ballet and was awarded the prestigious Princess Grace Award for dance in 2008. He joined the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004 and was the only black dancer in the company for many years. Johnson has a distinguished artistic legacy with Philadelphia Ballet, breaking race barriers dancing the ‘Prince’ roles in the classical repertory, and creating new roles in contemporary ballets. Johnson is also a jewelry designer and is now a professional massage therapist, and plans are that he will continue to collaborate with the company dancers. 

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