by Lori Ibay
March 8, 2008 at 2:00pm -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia
On a soggy Saturday afternoon, Pennsylvania Ballet created an atmosphere of warmth and brilliance inside the doors of the Academy of Music with the company's premiere of former Artistic Director (1982-1990) Robert Weiss' 'Messiah,' set to Handel's famous oratorio. Appropriately presented during the Christian observation of Lent, the work begins with a gathering congregation, and according to the program notes, "we experience their inner response.and the elation they feel as the story of the Messiah is told."
Divided into three sections, the work is comprised of fifty-three numbered movements, and as the program notes acknowledge, the choreography starkly contrasts - and at other times fuses - elements of neoclassicism and modern dance. At times, the choreography portrays literal representations of the libretto; in other movements, the themes are symbolically, and more powerfully, represented.
The music was masterfully provided by the Pennsylvania Ballet orchestra, under the direction of Beatrice Jona Affron, and the voices of the Philadelphia Kantorei, under the direction of Elizabeth Braden. Soprano Alison Trainer, Mezzo-Soprano Emily Langford Johnson, Tenor Javier Abreu, and Baritone Levi Hernandez were placed on stage during the appropriate movements, while the sometimes haunting voices of the full chorus seemed to waft in from the wings of the stage.
The program began slowly with the gathering congregation, and the initial men's corps segment was sloppy and out of synchrony. However, momentum began to build with the strong performances of the leading dancers, foremost Zachary Hench, Francis Veyette, Jermel Johnson, James Ady, and leading women Barrette Vance and Amy Aldridge, with Rebecca Azenburg, Rachel Maher, Abigail Mentzer, and Meredith Reffner.
Hench gave a spectacular performance, blending grace and athleticism while emotionally portraying triumph and despair, glory and suffering. He showcased his leaping abilities in Part I as the chorus sang, "Glory to God in the highest," and then led the company in a strong finish to Part I as the choir performed the Hallelujah Chorus. In Parts II and III, Hench was expressive and emotional as he depicted "Jesus' path through suffering to glory" (as described in the program notes), and his solo at the close of Part II with flawless pirouettes and acrobatic leaps was simply stunning.
Vance and Veyette partnered steadily and deliberately early in Part I, but were even more impressive in their solos. Vance was beautifully elegant, especially in her portrayal of Magdalene at the start of Part II. Veyette, strong and steady throughout, wowed with his solo in movement 48, when he fired off six perfectly centered pirouettes with hardly a waver.
Johnson was impressive as usual with his gravity defying leaps, and Ady and Aldridge's pas de deux in Parts I and III were gracefully seamless, and all the more impressive for their seeming effortlessness. From the corps, Joaquin Crespo Lopes stood out for his agility and athleticism, and the women's corps was striking as they framed Hench with joined hands and interwoven patterns in "The Blessing of the Multitude."
Of the many memorable moments, the most powerful were more often the abstract and symbolic. The black flowing fabric representing darkness in the tenth movement was more effective than the manger scene that soon followed, and Ady and Aldridge's pas de deux as new parents Joseph and Mary would have been just as effective - if not more so - without the passing around of a swaddled baby representing the infant Jesus. However, nothing was more gripping than the final vision of Hench rising into the rafters, spinning, resurrected. As the curtain fell, this memory left the audience feeling inspired - and hopefully ready to brave the downpour outside the sanctuary of the theater with umbrellas in hand.
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