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Pennsylvania Ballet - 'La Fille Mal Gardee'

by Lewis Whittington

March 4-12, 2005 -- Philadelphia

Pennsylvania Ballet's Artistic Director, Roy Kaiser, keeps mixing it up for his company in ways that no one anticipates. He took a gamble earlier this year with a Matt Neenan ballet and now with Frederick Ashton's ˜"La Fille mal gardee" (The Wayward Daughter) a work he's always wanted to do.

This is the first time Pennsylvnania Ballet has tackled the Ashton style and it paid off both fair and (sumptuously) fowl: the work is both classically decorous and demandingly burlesque (those dancing chickens could drive old McDonald out of the barnyard, never mind ballerinas). Birds notwithstanding, Ashton's storybook ballet requires technical clarity in both disciplines. Not hedging his bets, Kaiser chose the work at a time when the company has been matriculating a dozen or so new dancers.

A month ago the company enjoyed huge success with their modern program billed around the guaranteed draw of Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs." Theatergoers may have been there to hear 'Ol Blue Eyes, but Tharp was upstaged by the lyrical choreography of company member Matthew Neenan. His "11:11" even had ordinarily stoic matinee audiences applauding lustily for his dance drama set to the unlikely movement of a song cycle by Rufus Wainwright. Everything about it worked. Maybe the icing on the cake was a stunning opening duet that introduced new principal dancer Julie Diana partnered with brilliant veteran Meredith Rainey.

Now Diana led the 2nd cast of the "La Fille" as the simple country girl, Lise, that 'wayward daughter,' attending to her chores on the farm while having a secret affair with the rakish guy next door, Colas, danced with charming deportment by James Ady.  Zachary Hench and Arantxa Ochoa led the first cast and even the pairs had a few technical problems, there was so much chemistry between them it hardly mattered.

Not many men can dance in canary yellow tights and portray a straight man, but both Hench and Ady were as virile as Edward Vilella and as tender as Rudolf Nureyev. Ady captured both the cartoon and sincere qualities of field-hand country courtier, while Hench was more of a straightforward matinee idol. Ady actually met most of the technical demands with quick pantomimic comedy against dancer noble phrases. Just for the record, Ady has one of the best grand pirouettes in town right now. Here, he's so good, his turns and jumps stay craftily in character. Hench's classical prowess is instantly established when he steps onstage, yet this night he struggled to keep his turns centered and bailed out of a few tours, finishing with corrected steps. Otherwise,
his characterization, his air –slicing jumps and snappy attitude won everybody over.

Hench and Ochoa wowed audiences last year in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake." In the Sinatra program, Ochoa cast against type was hilarious as the boozy broad in a black Oscar de la Renta 60s cocktail dress dancing in Tharp's "One for my Baby." And, again in an atypical part, she clearly relished playing a bucolic coquette and her technical aplomb was first-rate. The frothiness of Ashton's choreography carried the evening and so did both of the lead women in two completely satisfying interpretations of the part that required both balletic virtuosity and complete silliness. Diana was attendant to all of the technical aspects, while clearly keeping the farmer's daughter
a naughty ingenue. Ochoa commanded with a comic interpretation that was classically deft and otherwise a complete riot.

Another great asset here, Philly's greatest dance asset, Matt Neenan, performing in his best comic turn to date as Alain, the rich suitor to Lise, . As accomplished as this dancer has been, he put an indelible stamp on this role as the foppish would-be suitor. Two nights later Neenan danced in his newly formed company Ballet X in a modern program. Tougher than a pro-athlete who would stay out rather than risk further injury, Neenan danced both roles suffering from a full-blown flu.

Ashton's borderline vulgarity, recalling the music hall tradition in England and vaudeville in the states is completely captured by Neenan. Always a strong character dancer, Neenan had moments of comedic brilliance that reminded one of Chaplin, even Keaton. A completely different performance, but no less effective was Philip Colluci's interpretation as Alain in the 1st cast, interpreting the part as a hayseed boy next store who can nontheless jump so high that it would scare away any cock in the barnyard.

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