Review: At Pennsylvania Ballet, Lots of Pillows and Pas de Deux

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A scene from “Somnolence,” by the Pennsylvania Ballet’s resident choreographer, Matthew Neenan, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

Credit
Alexander Iziliaev

PHILADELPHIA — Ángel Corella, a former star of American Ballet Theater, has been artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet for almost three years now. Much is unchanged: Beatrice Jona Affron remains music director and conductor; Matthew Neenan remains resident choreographer; and the company gives most of its performances in the gloriously beautiful Academy of Music here.

But much has also changed. Only five of the company’s 10 principal dancers are from the pre-Corella era; two of those five leave this month, including Amy Aldridge, who has been with the company for 23 years. The old Pennsylvania Ballet was based in the Balanchine style; a number of its members have moved, or are moving, to Miami City Ballet, whose Balanchine credentials are impeccable.

The “Re/Action” program that brings the company’s 2016-17 season to a close begins with “Rush” and ends with “Somnolence.” “Rush,” made by Christopher Wheeldon for San Francisco Ballet in 2003, is a Pennsylvania premiere; “Somnolence,” by Mr. Neenan, is a world premiere. These larger 21st-century items sandwich a number of older pas de deux.

I remember admiring the world premiere of “Rush,” an ensemble piece for eight male-female couples, each pair in matching costumes that spread a bright modernist array before a Rothko-like red-and-maroon backdrop. (The designs are by Jon Morell.) The music is Martinu’s Sinfonietta La Jolla (the score for Justin Peck’s “Pas de la Jolla” at New York City Ballet and in the film “Ballet 422”); its slow movement inspired Mr. Wheeldon to a sustained pas de deux, while the outer movements explain the “Rush” title. The Pennsylvania dancers, however, dance it with a jerky, staccato quality I don’t remember; they look — or are made to look — like marionettes.

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The Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancers Ian Hussey and Oksana Maslova in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush.”

Credit
Alexander Iziliaev

In “Somnolence,” the dancers certainly look human, but not serious. They are dressed in sleepwear; there’s a hill of pillows at the back of the stage; and most of the dancing — dottily — shows the performers with more pillows (sliding on them, wearing them as hats, carrying them as cargo). The stage action responds to the music (by Vivaldi) only with surreal dream logic. This keeps verging on being poetic, funny, jolly; absurdly solemn processions, nonsense trios and lingering tableaus all variously overlap. At the end, one performer drops not a pillow but a porcelain dish, as if to break the dream. The fantasy, however, has never really taken off;…

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