'Ballo della Regina,' 'Agon,' 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue'
by Lori Ibay
November 3-7, 2004 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
As the curtain dropped for the last time last summer, the last memory of Pennsylvania Ballet that was burned into my memory was of a radiant company taking its well-deserved bows after their triumphant world premiere of a brand new “Swan Lake.” While we waited for the curtain to rise once again, the audience buzzed with anticipation and high expectations. The company's first program of the new season featured three Balanchine works, "Ballo della Regina" (with music by Guiseppe Verdi from the opera "Don Carlos"), "Agon" (with music by Igor Stravinsky), and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" (with music from "On Your Toes" by Richard Rogers).
On opening night, "Ballo della Regina" began the program with a glowing women's corps of sixteen that framed principals Zachary Hench and Amy Aldridge. The corps featuring solos by Valerie Amiss, Heidi Cruz, Tara Keating, and Jennifer Smith was polished to a shine on opening night, with smooth, graceful movements and clean unison. Hench, who joined the company as a principal last spring for Wheeldon's "Swan Lake," looked princely once again opposite the regal Amy Aldridge. Aldridge danced lightly on top of the beat kept by the orchestra (conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron), making intricate pointe work look easy. Hench was a solid partner, and demonstrated strong technique with clean pirouettes and tours.
At Sunday afternoon's performance, James Ady was a conscientious partner to Arantxa Ochoa, the pair's partnering unwaveringly steady and smooth. Ochoa was dainty and light on her feet and looked as though she was thoroughly enjoying herself. Opposite her, Ady's excellent partnering skills were paralleled by his crisp beats and tours.
Costumes were by Ben Benson, lighting design by John Hoey, and repetiteur Merrill Ashley took her own regal bow after the opening night performance.
"Agon" began with the four men, Alexei Borovik, Meredith Rainey, James Ady, and Neil Marshall, moving in sharp synchrony with perfectly timed movements, as if they were running on the same internal clock. Joined by the four featured women, Martha Chamberlain, Arantxa Ochoa, Heidi Cruz, and Tara Keating, and Ashley Flood, Elysia Lichtine, Hawley Rowe, and Meredith Reffner, the ensemble's precision was marred only by the harshness of the orchestra's brass.
In Part II, Borovik danced as one with the music, his movements following the small nuances of the score. Cruz and Keating also seemed to dance as one, creating nearly perfect mirror images of each other. In the second pas de trois, Chamberlain, Ady, and Marshall danced smoothly and easily together, exhibiting style and attitude. Chamberlain made easy work of the intricate rhythms, dancing right on top of the beat with perfect timing in her suspensions and exquisite balance.
The final pas de deux, Ochoa and Rainey, stole the show with Ochoa's phenomenal flexibility and Rainey's rock solid partnering that drew gasps and applause from the audience. The two moved deliberately and hypnotically into poses and lifts, with sudden swift transitions, but always with complete control and steady balance.
The final piece, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," a one-act ballet that was originally choreographed as a part of Rodgers and Hart's Broadway musical "On Your Toes," began even before the audience had settled back into their seats and the lights were dimmed ending the intermission. Alexei Borovik entered as the hilariously exaggerated premier danseur noble who pays a gangster (played by Michael Antoine Braun) to shoot the danseur's rival, the Hoofer, danced by Philip Colucci. Borovik instructs the gangster to attend a dance performance where Colucci's character falls in love with the girlfriend of a mob boss and ends up shooting himself in the end -- and to time his shooting with the precise moment Colucci is to shoot himself in the performance.
Julie Diana, who joined the company as a principal dancer this season, played the flirtatious Strip Tease Girl who wins the boyishly charming Colucci's heart. The Big Boss, David Krensing, was the stereotypical gangster who so quick to pull his trigger that he accidentally shot his own girlfriend, and other colorful characters included James Ady, James Ihde, and Jonathan Stiles as three Keystone-Cop-like policemen, as well as bartenders Brian Debes and Meredith Rainey, who danced their feature with lit cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
On Sunday afternoon, Alexander Iziliaev was the wonderfully spoofed premier danseur; Amy Aldridge was a slinky Strip Tease Girl opposite Jonathan Stiles; Jamar Goodman, Matthew Neenan, and Meredith Rainey were the oblivious policemen; Alexei Charov and Andre Vytoptov were the amusing bartenders; and Philip Colucci took the role of the gangster.
From the Strip Tease Girl's opening strip tease, to the sweet and tender pas de deux between she and the Hoofer, to the antics of the policemen and bartenders, to the Hoofer's frantic tapdance leading to his "suicide," the piece is full of fun and comedy (and great dancing) from start to finish, and the company seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the audience enjoyed the entertainment. After the company's annual "Nutcracker" run from December 11 to January 2, Pennsylvania Ballet will present "Nine Sinatra Songs" choreographed by Twyla Tharp to the recordings of Frank Sinatra, and "The Waltz Project" by Peter Martins in early February.
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