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Pennsylvania Ballet

'Serenade' and 'Carmina Burana'

by Lori Ibay

March 17, 2007 - 2pm -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA

As I made my way to the Grand Old Lady of Broad Street on St. Patrick’s Day afternoon, I passed several green-clad revelers trudging through snow and ice that remained on the sidewalks and street corners after a late winter snowstorm caught the northeast by surprise the day before.  It was hard to imagine that just days ago, it was a balmy 79 degrees in the city, and these same revelers were clad in shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops.

Like the fluctuating weather, Pennsylvania Ballet’s highly anticipated remaking of “Carmina Burana” coupled with Balanchine’s “Serenade” had steamy hot and frigidly cold moments, often – like the unexpected snowstorm – catching the audience completely by surprise.

The program began with Balanchine’s classic “Serenade,” set to Tschaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48,” played beautifully by the orchestra’s strings, conducted by Salvatore Scarpa.  The corps looked light and lovely against the simple blue background, moving through simple ballet-class movements in unison, and making neat formations and patterns on the stage.  The four featured corps members (Heidi Austin-Cruz, Tara Keating, Abigail Mentzer, and Barette Vance) danced fluidly and consistently, but Keating’s partially flexed elbow in their extended arm pose was the only distraction from otherwise precise synchrony.    

As the first of the three featured soloists, Julie Diana was quick and light on her feet and danced a graceful, seamless pas de deux paired with Sergio Torrado.  Amy Aldridge danced joyfully with impressive ballon, and Riolama Lorenzo’s somber solos showed off her remarkable extension and balance.  Newcomer (from San Francisco Ballet) Torrado danced with a wonderful presence and with a regality of posture and displayed some gravity-defying leaps in his solos.  James Ihde danced solemnly in “Elegy,” the segment that most resembles a plot, his movements emanating tender sadness in the pas de trois. 

After intermission came the moment we had all been waiting for – company member Matthew Neenan’s recreation of “Carmina Burana.”  Neenan had made it known in press releases and interviews that he had departed from John Butler’s “Carmina” (which was considered one of the company’s signature works) and that he had taken several risks in his re-envisioning of the piece.  According to the program notes, while some of the poems on which “Carmina” is based are interpreted literally, the setting is not medieval, but rather an “otherworldly landscape.”

Neenan certainly excels at creating spectacular visual effects for the audience.  The set (designed by Mimi Lien) is simple, abstract, and continually changing, allowing the dancers to enter and leave the stage unconventionally.  The costumes (by Oana Boetz-Ban) ranged from flesh-colored, form-fitting fabric with extra sails of material that served as hoods, tethers, and capes, to bizarre, otherworldly bird-like and bee-like creatures in black and white, some with long black evening gloves and ruffled white tails and others with pointed headpieces and rigid wings.  In between were lavenders, reds, and flowing dresses. 

Neenan’s choreography is refreshingly different and anything but ordinary, blending hip-hop moves you’ve seen N’Sync do, with ballroom steps most recently popularized by shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and with traditional ballet.  He uses his fellow company members craftily, exploiting their individual strengths in his innovative choreography.  For example, the piece began with Jermel Johnson’s jaw-dropping athletic acrobatics; Valerie Amiss was sensual and seductive throughout; Philip Colucci provided a jolt of energy with a quick-footed, frenetic solo. 

However, there were some cold moments that detracted from the creativity, starting with the separation of the Philadelphia Kantorei in the boxes immediately to the left and right of the stage.  With the sopranos and altos to one side and tenors and basses to the other, sitting in the left orchestra, there was a disjointed, echoing effect separating the voices by a split second that may have been eliminated simply by mixing the voice-parts on both sides.  At times, it was so distracting that focusing on the dancing became a challenge.

The translucent fabric of the set was sometimes not translucent enough, and dancers were often nearly completely hidden behind the facade – perhaps the result of being too strongly front-lit, or not back-lit enough, or the density of the extra fabric that created a tunnel effect when the set was turned.  The dancers also pushed and turned the set themselves, which sometimes worked, but at times was distracting and incongruous to the other actions taking place. 

Although the set, costumes, and choreography – with the brilliant voices of soprano Alicia Berneche, tenor Richard Troxell, and baritone Levi Hernandez – effectively brought the audience to another world as Neenan intended (noted in the program, “it’s as if Orff’s music carries us to another universe”), at times, the universal, tangible emotions of “Carmina Burana” seemed left behind.  Though there was no shortage of passion in the dancing, there were moments when the scattered motions of the odd-looking creatures and the dancers pushing the abstract set across the stage seemed completely foreign and unrelated to the human themes inherent in the 13th century poems.

Still, there were some spectacular moments, and Neenan’s innovative choreography, unique vision, and fresh perspective on “Carmina Burana” make this production worth seeing. 

Beatrice Jona Affron conducted.

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