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Pennsylvania Ballet

'Swan Lake'

by Lori Ibay

October 1, 2 (matinee) and 5, 2005 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia

There is always a buzz surrounding a company’s first performance of the year, and Pennsylvania Ballet’s run of “Swan Lake” to open their 2005-06 season was no exception.  Along with the usual excitement, add the expectations of returning audience members who vividly remember the company’s triumphant world premiere of Wheeldon’s remake just over a year ago --  not to mention the anticipation of newcomers who felt the ripples from the splash PAB made across the Atlantic at the Edinburgh International Festival.

The company also had to deal with its share of the unexpected, including last-minute casting changes (such as the cancellation of Boston Ballet prinicipal Yury Yanowsky and PAB principal Julie Diana’s performances in the leading roles when Yanowsky was unable to make the trip to Philadelphia).  All things considered, PAB had more than a few hurdles to leap over to start their season.

The production itself continues to be a work in progress.  In addition to small embellishments of the costumes and sets in Act I, newly added mime clarified relationships between characters -- when Jeffrey Gribler as the ballet master gave the dancers corrections and showed his criticism, they became more believable as a company rehearsing a new production.  Even from one performance to the next, the wealthy patron’s interaction with the principal dancer evolved from a foreboding glance to a more aggressive gesture with his cane, accentuating the parallel between these two “real life” characters and the characters of Von Rothbart and Odile.

However, as one of the returning audience members who vividly remembers the company’s world premiere and having heard the buzz from the company’s summer performances in Edinburgh, I expected to see a corps polished to a high finish and choreography performed so many times it was ingrained into their bodies.  Unfortunately, on the evening of Saturday, October 1 -- their third performance in two nights -- they simply looked tired.  Act I lacked energy, making it seem to drag on and on.

In the matinee on Sunday, October 2, the corps was much more alive and enthusiastic.  In the first entrance, the women’s poses were so well synchronized that they truly seemed to freeze into live Degas paintings for moments at a time.  The first act was bright and energetic -- a complete turnaround from the previous evening’s performance.

The highlight of Act I on October 1st and 5th can be summarized in two words: Jermel Johnson.  Amy Aldridge and Valerie Amiss (the other two-thirds of the Pas de Trois) were graceful and dainty, but Johnson was nothing short of spectacular.  His powerful leaps were so high, he seemed to be bouncing on invisible springs, and his landings were so soft he seemed like a feather floating an inch above the ground.  Francis Veyette also did an admirable job with the role in the matinee on October 2.

The swans had their moments of beauty and flashes of brilliance -- at times they moved in beautiful unison, demonstrating Wheeldon’s unique vision for the corps.  Unfortunately they were also disappointingly inconsistent -- at other performances they were sloppy and uninspiring, and though they may have looked like swans gliding on water, they sounded more like a stampede of horses.  An uncharacteristic collision between the Big Swans gave away confusion or maybe a lapse in concentration. 

The Cygnets (Rebecca Azenberg, Jessica Gatinella, Courtney Hellebuyck, and either Abigail Mentzer or Laura Bowman at different performances) were among the few constants, showing precision, focus and near perfect synchroneity at all three of the performances I attended. 

Of the characters in the third act, Amy Aldridge stood out in a seductive Russian striptease, and on October 2nd, Julie Diana danced this part provocatively and with flair.  Heidi Cruz, James Ihde, and Yosbel Delgado were feisty but choppy in the Spanish Dance, and the Czardas (Meredith Rainey with Gabriella Yudenich on October 1 and Alexei Charov with Christine Cox on October 2 and 5) was lively and energetic.

The Can-Can, however, fails to fulfill its potential as a spirited and rousing dance -- this is the one time when Wheeldon’s choreography falls short.  The dancers were wonderfully in character, but their dancing was careless -- with sloppy rond de jambe en l’air and some girls even failing to pick up all layers of their skirts -- they didn’t seem to be making any attempts at synchronization or gracefulness.  Ironically, the most exciting part of the dance was the end, when four men join the dancing to finish the segment.

The dancers playing the main characters each brought their own individual talents to their roles.  Alexei Charov was an icy, sinister, wealthy patron and a menacing Von Rothbart while Meredith Rainey was more suave and scheming in the roles.

On October 1, Riolama Lorenzo was a beautifully regal Odette/Odile with graceful lines, exquisite balance, and her impressive extension.  While she expressed the emotion of the swan queen, she failed to convey the vulnerability of the cursed swan.  As Odile, Lorenzo danced passionately and showed off her impeccable technique (her only obvious stumble was unfortunately on her 29th pirouette in the Third Act pas de deux).

As Lorenzo’s Siegfried, Zachary Hench was princely and charming, but he was most impressive in his athletic solos during the pas de deux in the Third Act, with strong pirouettes à la seconde and clean double tours effortlessly landed in solid fifth position.  Together, the pair’s parterning was textbook, but they seemed to lack the chemistry between them that is so crucial to their roles.

On October 2 and 5, Arantxa Ochoa was a stunningly expressive Odette/Odile -- her transformation from fragile to seductive could be sensed just by the change in her facial expression.  As Odette, she was amazingly swan-like and as Odile she tossed easy double pirouettes into the never-ending sequence of fouettes in the Third Act. 

Opposite her, James Ady was equally expressive -- his countenance and posture made you wonder what was weighing on the principal dancer’s mind as he lingered in the empty dance studio.  His partnering was strong and attentive, and together, their chemistry, emotion, and the tragedy of their love story could not be missed. 

With an ambitious start to their 2005-2006 season, PAB showed their promise in moments of magnificence, and with many more exciting programs to look forward to this season, the company has the potential to create even bigger splashes as they develop their consistency.

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