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Pennsylvania Ballet -

'Nine Sinatra Songs', 'The Waltz Project', '11:11'

Ol' Blue (and Black) Eyes is Back

by Lewis Whittington

February 2-6, 2005 -- Merriam Theater, Philadelphia

Philadelphia has never been more frantic about a home team than the Eagles appearance at the Super Bowl this year. We lost in Jacksonville, but there was a victory at home when Pennsylvania Ballet was performing their short run of a modern program of Peter Martins' "The Waltz Project" and Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs" for a sold out run.

As it turned out, both of those famous works were sacked by the triumphant premiere of Matt Neenan's "11:11," scored to a song cycle by Rufus Wainwright. In addition to being an MVP corps member several years, Neenan is a prolific choreographer, not only creating six commissions for Pennyslvania Ballet since 2000 but also being co-founder of Phrenic New Ballet.

Both weekend matinees opened with Martins' "The Waltz Project," scored to abstractions by such contemporary composers as Philip Glass and Morton Gould. Music muscularly delivered live on piano by company pianist Martha Koeneman.
Deconstructionism was the theme clearly stated in the opening John Cage entry "Waltzes for the Five Boroughs," which Martins turns into a landscape of urban angst and, in lighter moments, city cynicism. Dancers make a jungle gym with their bodies and lugubriously suggest ironic architecture and cultural fragility: obviously a Balanchine influenced work, both in it derivation by Martins and as a point of departure. Martins only gets past that headiness during moments of the subsequent duets.

Highlights: Valerie Amiss vamped it up as a schoolyard Lolita (in sneakers and pigtail) to Alexander Iziliaev's street-corner hood in 'Dejavalse' by Tom Constanten. David Krensing and Arantxa Ochoa were tender in the terse 'Modern Love Waltz' by Glass. Later, Ochoa was a complete marionette in Milton Babbitt's 'Minute Waltz' (or 3⁄4 or 1/ ). It was interesting to compare performances for this taut work. The performance on Saturday had a studied feel to it while the next day the cast seemed to forget Martins' heavy hand and danced. Koeneman's crisp interpretations of the musical abstractness nonetheless allowed rhythmic tenderness in the dissonant tonals, so vital in dancing.
Next came "11:11" scored to the baleful vocals of Wainwright floating over very danceable orchestral structures, that clearly have inspired Neenan. The title, a song by Wainwright not used by the choreographer, refers to his accidental habit of looking at the clock at that time.

Soloist Meredith Rainey and new principal Julia Diana opened the work with 'Vibrate' flanked by four other couples with an airy duet, with the dancers bringing drama suggesting that they may be tenderly on again and brutally off again partners. At the end of the pas de deux Rainey stoically tossing Diana offstage.

The women's quartet during 'Natashia' has Christine Cox, Heidi Cruz, Jessica Gattinella, and Tara Keating was convulsive on the floor one second and in beautifully appointed flight in another. Neenan's choreography has already spawned signature phrases -- what Merilyn Jackson, principal critic for the Inquirer, calls his faux poses, and the New York Times critic has termed classroom choreography. Neenan's playfulness with the body and with partnering has never been more simplified or more interesting. Sumptuous during a central duet by principal dancer Riolama Lorenzo and returning dancer Francis Veyette. This 'At ease' classical pas de deux, smolders in its intimacy.

'Poses' introduces Arantxa Ochoa and two males being spirited across the stage by Zachary Hench and James Ihde, only to be shadowed by another trio and another vignette by Laura Bowman, James Ady and Philip Colucci were studies in delicate emotions and nuanced movement.

'Oh,What a World' just keeps blooming on the individual dancers and the ensemble. The opening featuring the male corps. The first lines - men reading fashion magazines, straight men reading ... drew instant laughs. It not only had homoeroticism, but also a metrosexual edge.

Earlier, Tara Keating made fists as if she was pulling a life-line. Then she repeats the pose as she pulls in the rest of the company onstage. It is just such a moment that makes Neenan's choreography unforgettable. The women jete back on and the ensemble cascade out during Wainwright's sampling of Ravel's Bolero, with a group carousel that keeps flowing, provided Neenan a glorious crescendo.

Neenan is ultimately a formalist. His "Frequencies" with Phrenic New Ballet faced off classical and modern concrete structures. And "La Travail" (for PB) based on Degas canvases evolved into a story ballet with social undertones. In a starting ending moment, Neenan magically erases the dancers from the stage, leaving the floating narratives to be completed by the imagination of the audience, who will never forget some of these dances or Wainwright's music.

"Nine Sinatra Songs" sank again to the depths of Tharp's cynical view of modern relationships. That her acid palette is placed in the aural bittersweet romanticism of Sinatra makes me once again question her motives. Tharp's dance wit and irony is buried under a cheap and bitchy look at the beauty of the ballroom. It's almost like she wants to knot up her dancers to make them look ridiculous.

She's also pretty tough on the men. When they are not fork-lifts, ferrying their partners across the stage, they are often brutish manhandlers. The overtly comic sections 'One for my baby' and 'Something stupid' work the best. Hearing Frank sing 'My Way' twice in a half hour (one studio, one live) almost confirms the insincerity of this work.
Past that, PA Ballet did what they could with this Tharpy (or harpy) work. Colluci and Laura Bowman are charmingly partnered for 'Somethin' Stupid', Sinatra's playful 60s duet with his daughter, Nancy -- two virgins learning the moves past blushes and missteps on the ballroom floor. Equally effective is Tharp's darkly comic rendering of 'One for my baby' here captured by Anantxa Ochoa and Thomas Balrushunas. Their portrayal of a boozy couple trying to hold things together on the dance floor and in life is funny and heartbreaking. With hair overdone, Ochoa is hilarious playing against her steely ballerina persona in a sousey black Oscar de la Renta cocktail dress.

Edited by Staff

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