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Pennsylvania Ballet


by Lori Ibay

February 8, 2007 -- Merriam Theater, Philadephia, PA

On Thursday evening, I was one of many in Merriam Theater’s audience rubbing my hands together, coughing into my sleeve, and hoping that the performance would erase both the icy reminiscence of the wintry weather outside and the long wait in the Will Call queue.  Luckily, as soon as the curtain rose and the orchestra began the overture, the company’s sparkling performance melted away the lingering remnants of the chill.

The plot of “Giselle,” with its disguises, intrigues, and love triangles, warrants a pre-performance review of the synopsis, especially for those seeing the classic romance for the first time.  However, the clarity of the leading dancers’ characterizations helped to detangle the complexity of the story.

As Giselle, Julie Diana danced radiantly, with her usual impeccable technique and spectacular extension.  Crisp, vibrant footwork expressed the youthful joy of her character, and her incredible poise and balance made some segments seem as though she were performing in smooth, calculated slow motion.  With the careful deliberation of the weak-hearted Giselle, Diana made easy work of the difficult solos, including nearly thirty hops en pointe with hardly a waver. Diana’s clear, effective mime was augmented by the wonderful expressiveness emanating from her face down through her fingertips.

There was no chemistry lacking between Diana and her Albrecht, danced by Zachary Hench (her real-life husband).  The pair clearly knew each other well, and moved together with the smoothness and ease that comes only with complete trust of one’s partner.  Hench was a mischievous and playful Albrecht initially, but after Giselle’s death, was overcome with passion and emotion.  Strong in the first act, Hench’s reckless abandon in his Act II performance was even more impressive.

Alexander Iziliaev’s Hilarion was subtly sinister, and as he seemed more interested in exposing Albrecht than in winning Giselle, one wondered whether his jealousy stemmed more from his love for Giselle or abhorrence of his competition.  His best performance was also after Giselle’s death, when at her gravesite he is forced by the Wilis to dance to his death.

In Act I, Valerie Amiss and Francis Veyette were lively in the Peasant Pas de Deux.  Amiss was graceful, quick and light on her feet, with a smile never leaving her face.  Veyette impressed with his crisp double tours and pirouettes, and muscled through a series of beats that gained height, jump after jump.  In Act II, Hawley Rowe replaced Amy Aldridge as Myrta, the Queen of the Wilis, and her eerie expressionless countenance with her long, graceful lines combined for a wonderfully ghostly effect.

In Act I, the corps does a lot of standing around and watching others dance, but when they were featured, they did a nice job smoothly transitioning through the angular formations.  Unfortunately, the men’s corps was a bit sloppy during the harvest celebration.  In a feature that offers an opportunity to shine with challenging choreography (and chock-full of double tours), the men seemed more like romping revelers who’d had too much to drink.

Thankfully, the women’s corps was exactly the opposite, showing graceful, precise unison especially as the Wilis in Act II.  The eighteen women, portraying maidens whose fiancés failed to marry them before their deaths, were led by Rebecca Azenberg and Abigail Mentzer as Moyna and Zulma.  Costumed in white tulle wedding gowns and shrouded in veils, they moved as one ethereal being, with every outstretched arm and every pointed toe in identical position, and every subtle movement performed in perfect synchrony.

With sparkling performances from the corps to the principals in this production, Pennsylvania Ballet kicked off the new year inspiring high expectations.  The ambitious productions ahead – notably company member Matthew Neenan’s new version of “Carmina Burana” next month and Twyla Tharp’s vigorous “In the Upper Room” in the  spring –offer even more opportunities for the company to show off its talents and wow its audience in these challenging works.

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