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Pennsylvania Ballet - 'Franklin Court' and 'The Firebird'

by Lori Ibay

March 11, 2006 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA

Celebrating the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth, Pennsylvania Ballet presented Christopher d’Amboise’s “Franklin Court,” set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “G Minor Fugue” (arranged by Jay Krush).  As a Philly native, I remember growing up learning with particular interest about Franklin’s life, and like d’Amboise, (quoted in the program), “Of all the Benjamin Franklins – statesman, writer, politician, printer, philosopher -- Franklin the inventor fascinates me most.”

According to the press notes, Pennsylvania Ballet’s world premiere of “Franklin Court” on September 12, 1990 inaugurated d’Amboise as the company’s new Artistic Director and commemorated the 200th anniversary of Franklin’s death (the same year my grade school class celebrated Franklin by participating in the “Invention Convention”).  Now, nearly sixteen years later, the company has revived the work with equal success.

The piece begins with an overture played (by Cecile Brauer) on a glass harmonica, an instrument Franklin invented, inspired by “the sweet tone that is drawn from a drinking glass” (as quoted in the program).  In contrast to the music’s antique tone, the “highly technological” abstract beams suspended (sometimes seemingly precariously) by wires above the dancers' heads gave the piece a modern feel.

In “Bifocals,” Amy Aldridge (replacing Valerie Amiss) and Matthew Neenan danced in the foreground while Abigail Mentzer and Jonathan Stiles danced mostly in the background, symbolizing the different views through the bifocal lenses Franklin invented.  In “Spark,” Julie Diana was graceful and deliberate as she and James Ihde drew energy from each other, ending with fingers touching as if creating a spark.

In my favorite segment, “Swim Fins,” Laura Bowman floated upon, somersaulted through, and was tossed by the "waves" (Thomas Baltrushunas, Maximilien Baud, Alexei Charov, Yosbel Delgado, Jermel Johnson, Michael Patterson, Jonathan Stiles, and Andre Vytoptov).  The solid men's corps with the buoyant Bowman performed the difficult lifts and acrobatics with remarkable fluidity, creating a real sense of swimming through a water-filled stage.

Returning in “Electricity,” Diana and Ihde again showed excellent control and seemed to re-energize with every touch of their hands.  The entire ensemble returned for the final “Fugue,” gaining momentum and ending in unison while the beams hanging above shifted into a fragmented but recognizable frame of Franklin’s house at Franklin Court.  The wavering beams were the only hint of instability in the entire piece.

During intermission, I sensed a great deal of excitement around me (especially from the child seated behind me) for James Kudelka’s “The Firebird,” set to music by Igor Stravinsky.  Indeed, the program’s description of a compassionate prince, a demon king, and a magical bird that shed tears of diamonds filled the audience, myself included, with eager anticipation.

The curtain opened on a spectacularly lavish, sparkling set, with Prince Ivan (James Ihde) hunting among the creatures of the forest.  Like the set, the costumes -- from the Warthogs to the Firebird itself -- were almost overwhelming with rich hues and glittering ornaments.  Unfortunately, the fascination ended there, for the choreography and dancing failed to match the depth and range of the colors of the sets and costumes and hardly scratched the surface of the story promised in the program’s synopsis. 

As the Firebird, Riolama Lorenzo at times was remarkably bird-like, but in contrast to the odd, jerky bird movements and cocking of her head, there were also smooth, graceful segments that made the character inconsistent and difficult to understand. When Prince Ivan -- danced nobly by Ihde -- finds her, the Firebird’s lack of emotion in being caught makes him seem a shallow hero -- there are no tears of diamonds, and hardly any feeling at all, before he compassionately releases the creature he set out to capture.

There is barely more emotion between Prince Ivan and Princess Vasilisa (Amy Aldridge), and though Matthew Neenan’s Kastchei the Deathless radiated the most energy and passion, through to the ends of his claw-tipped fingers, the character was not as formidable as the story demands.

Ihde was impressive as he turned to stone, his rigors apparent as he pulled the Firebird’s plume from his breast. Later, he momentarily broke out of his statue-esque stance to partner the summoned Firebird, undermining the strength of Kastchei’s spell.  By the time Kastchei was killed and the spell was broken, I was too emotionally detached from the story to find interest in either the Firebird’s farewell flight or the nuptials of Ivan and Vasilisa.

The corps did well to create a magical atmosphere in the forest, with notable performances by Ian Hussey and Keith Mearns as An Old Reptile and an Older Beast, Jonathan Stiles and Francis Veyette as the Warthogs, and Philip Colucci as the Jaguar. 

Pennsylvania Ballet presents another magical story later this month in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”                          

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