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Pennsylvania Ballet -'Rhythm and Blues'

'Fearful Symmetries,' 'The Crossed Line,' 'Blue Until June'

Pennsylvania Ballet Goes Red, Blue, and Modern

by Lori Ibay

April 15 evening and April 17, 2004 matinee -- Merriam Theater, Philadelphia

In the second to last program of their 2003-2004 season, Pennsylvania Ballet switched gears with "Rhythm and Blues," a gala program featuring works by contemporary choreographers Peter Martins, Trey McIntyre, and Pennsylvania Ballet (PAB) company member Matthew Neenan.

The modern-flavored program opened with Peter Martins' "Fearful Symmetries," a plotless ballet set to a racing score by John Adams. Sitting comfortably in my chair, I was instantly brought to the edge of my seat by the pulsating energy of the music. Dancers costumed in red matched the frenzied energy of the score beat for beat with quick, sharp movements and focused intensity.

As I watched the twenty-three performers move against a backdrop that melted into deeper reds and cooler blues, it took me just a moment to realize that not only was I hearing the music -- I felt as though I was watching the music as well. Couples moved together with controlled recklessness; bodies created angles and unusual shapes; and the solid groundwork of a corps of three men, six women, and four pairs translated the frenetic sounds into motion.

As the music reached its climax, the two principal couples, soloist couple, and the corps amalgamated for a high-impact ensemble finish that had the revved-up audience shouting and applauding. However, the piece was not quite over, and the applause was slow to fade as the stage simmered to a cool blue and the ensemble peeled away to leave with the two principal couples poised in a final symmetric tableau.

The second time I saw the piece, I ran into the theater ten minutes late after dodging traffic to cross Broad Street -- and standing out of breath at the back of the balcony, I didn't feel quite the same energy from the stage as I did a few nights before. Maybe it was the effects of distance, or perhaps the dancers were feeling some Saturday matinee sluggishness -- or maybe my own relatively frantic state dulled the frenzy on stage. However, the view from my perch gave me a greater appreciation of the ensemble's precise unison and the corps' wonderfully symmetric, quickly transitioning formations.

The premiere of Matthew Neenan's "The Crossed Line" followed a brief intermission. Evolving from a piece Neenan developed on three couples at the New York Choreographic Institute last September, "The Crossed Line" is set to Chopin piano concertos transcribed for piano, violin, and cello and features six couples in costumes designed by principal dancer Martha Chamberlain.

The abstract piece explores relationships and boundaries. In nine segments, the twelve dancers express passionate emotions -- a pair pushes each other through a confrontational pas de deux, an oblivious dancer weaves through a couple and forms a pas de trois, a dancer is tossed over her partner's head and caught by another, someone is dragged off by her feet, a couple slowdances, a woman sits swaying in her partner's arms.

As emotions shift, the choreography takes unexpected turns -- circles open into lines, a soloist pushes through a line of dancers like a turnstile, and were we supposed to see that dancer run across the stage behind the scrim before entering from the wings? Neenan's crisp choreography, creativity, and innovativeness are refreshingly unpredictable, and I look forward to seeing more work from him in future seasons.

The performance closed with Trey McIntyre's "Blue Until June," a crowd pleasing ballet set to songs of Etta James. With James' bluesy, soulful vocals and the dancers costumed in breezy pastels, the audience was transported to a different era while a superb cast of eight (Christine Cox, Riolama Lorenzo, Brian Debes, Tara Keating, James Ady, Edward Cieslak, Neil Marshall, and Philip Colucci at the first performance and Hawley Rowe, Meredith Reffner, James Ihde, Keating, Ady, Cieslak, Michael Patterson, and Jonathan Stiles at the second) rendered timeless vignettes of heartache and love.

Standout performances came from Christine Cox, who opened the piece pouring her heart out in a passionate solo to "You Can't Talk to a Fool" and later returning in "I'd Rather Go Blind." In the same role at the second performance, Hawley Rowe loosened up as she danced, eventually flinging herself desperately into the other seven dancers clustered behind her.

James Ady and Edward Cieslak conveyed the most emotion, dancing a heartwrenching pas de deux to "Fool That I Am" before they broke away and exited at opposite ends of the stage, Ady hand in hand with a woman waiting in the wings. Philip Colucci, staggering onstage with hair and clothes in disarray, danced a deliciously lovesick, drunken solo to "One for My Baby" and returned for the finale neatly groomed (and sans the gray streak in his hair that all the other dancers donned) for a heartwarming pas de deux with Tara Keating to James' classic hit, "At Last."

Pennsylvania Ballet ends its season with the highly anticipated world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake" June 4 through June 12.

Edited by Jeff.

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