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Pennsylvania Ballet

Building on Balanchine: 'Agon', 'This Part in Darkness', 'Who Cares?'

by Lori Ibay

April 14, 2011 -- Merriam Theater, Philadelphia, PA

Pennsylvania Ballet opened “Building on Balanchine,” a program including two
Balanchine works and a world premiere by Benjamin Millepied, on Thursday evening
before a packed house at the Merriam Theater. The audience buzzed with energy as it filled the theater, perhaps fueled by the ongoing Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (which contributed in part to the funding of Millepied’s “This Part In Darkness”), or the long-awaited seventy-degree springtime weather, or simply the anticipation of seeing a triple bill including a world premiere (or a combination of all of the above). Regardless, ballet-goers on Thursday evening were not to be disappointed.

The program began with “Agon,” (Greek for “contest,” or “agony, struggle”), the third
and final collaboration of Balanchine with composer Igor Stravinsky. With twelve pieces
of music for twelve dancers costumed in black and white, the ballet is frank and exact.
The four men (Ian Hussey, Francis Veyette, Andrew Daly, and Amir Yogev) danced the
opening Pas de Quatre with sharp, crisp movements, soon joined by the eight women
(Amy Aldridge, Arantxa Ochoa, Brooke Moore, Gabriella Yudenich, Caralin Curcio,
Lillian Di Piazza, Rachel Maher, and Kaia Annika Tack), who danced with the precision
and exactitude characteristic of Pennsylvania Ballet’s women’s corps.

Though stark, the ballet is not emotionless, as seen in Part II. The First Pas de Trois
(Hussey, Moore, and Yudenich) showed lightness and ballon in their steps, with
Yudenich and Moore displaying beautiful symmetry in their unison, creating perfect
mirror images. In the Second Pas de Trois, Aldridge exhibited steady balance (with the
support of Daly and Yogev) and impressive musicality, dancing the Bransle Gay with
quick steps that were perfectly married with the music. In the Pas de Deux, Arantxa
Ochoa was absolutely mesmerizing, commanding attention with her gasp-worthy
extension and graceful, deliberate movements. Veyette was her solid partner, working
steadily through seamless transitions and supporting Ochoa’s unwavering balance.

In contrast to “Agon,” the final piece of evening, “Who Cares?” set to sixteen songs
by George Gershwin, showed another side of Balanchine – full of color and character,
celebrating the spirit of Broadway. Costumed in vivid pastels and before a backdrop of
the New York City skyline, the ensemble of twenty filled the stage with lively dancing.
Even an unfortunate slip and fall early in the piece could not dull the sassiness or the
smiles of the dancers.

Principal dancer Martha Chamberlain (who will retire at the closing performance
of “Building on Balanchine,” after a 21-year career with Pennsylvania Ballet) was radiant
and regal in pink, taking the stage to enthusiastic applause from the audience. With
Zachary Hench in “The Man I Love,” the pair danced a sweet, romantic pas de deux.
Later, in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” Chamberlain showed off her quick feet and the classic
charm that has made her an audience favorite for over two decades. Gabriella Yudenich
sparkled in a solo to “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”; Ochoa showed her sweet and
innocent side in “Embraceable You” with Hench, and in a solo to “My One and Only”;
Hench partnered the women expertly, but lacked some of his usual flair until his solo
to “Liza.” The final number, “I Got Rhythm,” with the complete ensemble on stage,
brought the evening to a rousing end.

Sandwiched between the classic Balanchine pieces was Benjamin Millepied’s “This Part
In Darkness,” set to mesmerizing music by David Lang. The piece began after the first
intermission with little ceremony – there was no flashing of the house lights signaling
the end of the break, no orchestra warming up or reintroduction of the conductor. The
curtain opened to a bare stage, wings exposed, and a large screen on which was projected
a live camera shot of the audience still making their way back to their seats. The camera
gradually honed in on one woman, a dancer (Barette Vance), who slowly made her way
down the aisle to the back of the theater and out into the lobby, where she was met by
another dancer (Francis Veyette).

The camera stayed close to the pair dancing an intimate pas de deux in the empty lobby,
allowing the audience inside the theater to see their faces and feel their connection from
a unique perspective. As the pair separated, the shot followed the male dancer making
his way backstage, and as he strode out of view, the action began to explode on the
stage. Three men, in simple black pants and dark green shirts (costumed by Paul Cox)
were joined by two, then three more, and though the wings were in view, the entrances
happened so quickly that there was no anticipation – no notice of dancers waiting for
their cues to enter – until the eight men commanded the stage, exuding athleticism and
masculinity with their movements.

The screen abruptly switched to a top view of the stage, again allowing the audience to
see a novel perspective of the formation of men before them. Later we saw a split screen,
with half of the view of the men lined up on stage, and the other half foreshadowing the
line of women forming opposite them, although they hadn’t yet appeared. When they did
burst onto the stage, dressed in black pants and deep purple tank tops, they were just as
powerful and relentless as the men, hair flowing loose, with passionate commitment to
the choreography.

The projection on the screen continued to change – while Jermel Johnson and Ochoa
were engaged in an intense pas de deux, a corner of the screen showed off-stage action: a
pair of hands reaching for each other, past each other, finally meeting. Later a steadicam
(held by Alexander Iziliaev) appeared on stage and shot the action around the dancers, giving
the audience multiple perspectives at once – the customary view of the stage, but also
multiple views from the cameras that made the dancers scattered on stage seem closer
together and more interconnected. It’s as though you were looking at the director’s view,
a participant’s perspective, and the final product all at once. Overwhelming at times, but
also exhilarating.

The intensity of the music and the dancing built to a climax that felt much like the
endurance test of “In the Upper Room,” but whereas Tharp’s piece makes me feel like the
dancers have just completed a marathon, Millepied’s made me feel like I just witnessed
a triathlon. With so much going on all at once, the audience’s experience is likely to be
new and different at each performance.

Although live cameras and projections have been used before (and sometimes with
more deliberate views, illusions, and special effects designed), Millepied’s use of them
seems more pragmatic and realistic, allowing the audience to experience the piece almost
omnisciently, with a seemingly multi-dimensional flooding of the senses. I did wish that
the long cords trailing the cameras could have been hidden out of the views, which took
away from the magical sense of omnipresence, but the triviality did not keep me from
coming to my feet along with many other audience members at the close of the piece.

“This Part In Darkness” is technically Millepied’s second collaboration with
Pennsylvania Ballet, the first being his work with fourteen company members who
appeared in the film “Black Swan,” directed by Darren Aronofsky and choreographed by
Millepied. With two triumphant successes in a row, let’s hope it is not his last.

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