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Pennsylvania Ballet

'Serenade' and 'Carmina Burana'

by Sigrid DaVeiga

March 17, 2007 -- The Academy of Music, Philadephia

After a stormy weekend in Philadelphia that closed down Friday night’s performance of “Carmina Burana,” the lobby of The Academy of Music was overflowing with attendees hoping for a last chance to see the world premiere of Matthew Neenan’s production.  Audience members breathed sighs of relief as they were seated for the closing night’s presentation.  The production began with George Balanchine’s “Serenade” set to Tchaikovsky’s classic score

“Serenade” was a peaceful and pleasant piece to watch.  The curtain opened on a beautiful blue backdrop with the dancers dressed in simple yet classically beautiful blue and white costumes.  The timeless choreography suited the dancers very well and their delivery as a corps was among the best I have seen from the Pennsylvania BalletThe dancers truly moved as a corps de ballet, all looking quite lovely and no one in particular standing out.  The port de bras were very smooth and consistently maintained throughout the piece.

Alexander Izilaev partnered Valerie Amiss in tonight’s performance.  Both performed exceptionally well and they were a surprisingly nice pairing.  Amiss’ turn sets were delightful; she seamlessly became a part of the corps and then would depart in her moments as a soloist to take control of the stage as a truly strong dancer.  Her footwork was superb while her arms maintained great length and grace.  For the length of the piece, she maintained her poise consistently and smoothly with no missteps in the choreography.  Amiss’ performance this evening was unexpectedly impressive; her strength in this piece speaks to her technical capacity and her promising future as a ballerina. 

Other highlights in “Serenade” included Arantxa Ochoa’s spin in arabesque.  The audience released a collective gasp of awe in this moment.  Ochoa maintained perfect balance, as still and even as a ballerina in a music box, while James Ady spun her from underneath her tutu; Amiss lay underneath Ochoa’s outstretched leg.  Martha Chamberlain’s footwork was immaculate throughout this evening’s performance and she did a nice job leading Heidi Cruz-Austin, Tara Keating, Barette Vance and Abigail Mentzer through a very pretty variation.  The group’s intertwining arm work was charming and a pleasure to watch.   

The second part of the evening’s production stood in stark contrast from “Serenade.”  The Philadelphia Kantorei echoed through the theater in the dramatic exalted chants of Carl Orff’s cantata, “Carmina Burana.”  When the curtain opened, it was so dark on stage that it was difficult to make out which dancers were performing.  The set, created by Mimi Lien, was reminiscent of another world, with one stunning section in particular that looked like a sail.  The dancers worked their way around it and at times seemed to push their way through it.

Jermel Johnson, a powerhouse among Pennsylvania Ballet’s dancers, was notable in the opening scene.  He was strong, sharp and essentially incredible in his delivery of the choreography.  Julie Diana was a breath of fresh air in the midst of an onslaught of movement.  Diana’s legs and feet were incredible; her extensions were extraordinarily impressive and she was one of the few dancers that made this choreography look effortless and fun.  Johnson and Diana were an interesting pairing for a brief portion of the opening.  These two dancers are positively electrifying and I never want to take my eyes off them when I see either of them perform, but especially together!  After the opening of Matthew Neenan’s “Carmina Burana,” the piece became frenetic.  Looking away from the stage for even a second caused this viewer to lose any particular dancer amidst all of the movement occurring at once.  The choreography was intense and difficult, with some definite high and low points.

Laura Bowman, Barette Vance, and Gabriella Yudenich notably delivered.  Their minimalist costumes, designed by Oana Botez-Ban, were sublime.  They looked at once trapped and able to reach beyond a human extension while being partnered in these costumes that took the form of lengthy rubber bands.  Neenan took full advantage of Bowman’s weightlessness and her unending capacity to fly through the air.  Francis Veyette and Philip Colucci performed their variation quite well, creating  interesting movement with amazing jumps, lifts and precise footwork.  The two were smooth and strong in their delivery of this unique piece.

Tara Keating, Amy Aldridge, Martha Chamberlain and Heidi Cruz-Austin were among the group that performed in varied white costumes.  The group was made to look at times like creaturesque brides.  This choreography was particularly difficult to follow.  It was sophisticated but too harsh.  The dancers, particularly Keating, made it seem complex to do, which made it even harder to watch.  These dancers would be inserted into other movements throughout “Carmina Burana;” at times this made sense and at other times their insertion just added to the seeming chaos that defined most of this production.  Arantxa Ochoa, Julie Diana, Zachary Hench and James Ady performed a brief variation together.  Ochoa and Diana flitted around in movement suggestive of two angry queen bees.  It was not flattering.

“Carmina Burana” closed with all 32 dancers on stage in an impressive formation with varied lifts.  The music and the choreography ended simultaneously with a bang that sent the entire audience to its feet, giving the Pennsylvania Ballet a standing ovation at the closing performance of Matthew Neenan’s world premiere.  Unfortunately, I was not one of the many audience members that had this overwhelming response to the piece. 

Although there were moments of brilliance and some images that left unforgettable impressions, I was left with an overall lack of understanding of Neenan’s “Carmina Burana.”  In an effort to leave John Butler’s production behind, a new production that was said to carry “us to another universe” was created.  The poems from the 1280 manuscript found in a Benedictine monastery were not clearly intelligible in this creation of “Carmina Burana.”  I certainly felt that I was carried to another universe, but was left wishing I had been safely returned to the ground.  

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