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The Pennsylvania Ballet

'Agon', 'This Part In Darkness', 'Who Cares'

by Jerry Hochman

March 15, 2011 -- Merriam Theater, Philadelphia, PA

Benjamin Millepied’s dances aren’t dull. But, of the pieces of his that I’ve seen, it’s not
quite clear how to describe what they are. Competently executed, of course, stylistically
contemporary (which in this case means that the viewer can’t yet discern any particular
style), and at times curiously interesting, his creations also have appeared to this viewer
to be frequently unfocused and unfinished-looking, both existential and frenetic (as if
created by a Jean-Paul Sartre with a NYCB accelerant). They’re ok, but not anything I’d
go out of my way to see a second time.

Mr. Millepied’s new work, “This Part In Darkness,” is all of this - except it’s also
inventive, energetic, stimulating, and exciting to watch. In short, it’s the best work by
Mr. Millepied that I’ve seen.

Given its world premiere the previous night, “This Part In Darkness” is a multi-media
unified performance. By that I mean that it is a single choreographed work taking place
in multiple locations (from within the audience, the theater lobby, the backstage bowels
of the theater, the wings, and the stage), from multiple angles (side views, angled views,
front views, views from above, and close-ups of the dancers - or parts thereof), and with
different media (the dance is seen both on the stage, and as images on an upstage screen).

Most importantly, all of it is in real time – the images on the screen are not projections
or recorded images; they are the televised images of the dancers performing the
choreography as seen and transmitted to the screen by a live camera from locations that
the audience is unable to see directly, as well as televised images showing different views
of the part of the performance that takes place in front of them on the stage. And there
are times when some dancers are on stage and some off, so if the camera is focused on
the off-stage dancers, the audience sees images of the dancers off-stage that are televised
on the screen at the same time that they’re seeing dancers performing in front of them on
the stage.

This sounds considerably more distracting than it really is. On the contrary, as conceived
by Mr. Millepied and executed to perfection by the PA Ballet dancers, this viewer found
the multiple contemporaneous points of view (including that overhead view that briefly
– very briefly - brought to mind camera views of the June Taylor Dancers from the old
Jackie Gleason Show) to be enlightening and exhilarating rather than distracting. For
example, I found the opportunity to view two sets of dancers (as I recall, divided male/
female), seen separated right-left on the stage, simultaneously with a view of the same
dancers at the same time from a different camera angle switched left-right on the screen,
to be visually intoxicating.

Displaying multiple views of performers on a split-screen, or screening images in the
background while dancers perform on stage, are not novel ideas. And there probably
have been performances that feature live images on a screen behind the dancers on the
stage also, though I can’t recall any. But a staged/screened unified piece of choreography
that allows multiple simultaneous images and views of the dancers while they perform
in front of the audience, and which also displays action that the audience cannot see at
the same time and in the same view as action that the audience can see directly in front
of them, is something else again. Perhaps it’s been done before. Perhaps it was an idea
generated by Mr. Millepied’s acquaintance with hand-held cameras as they are used
in moviemaking (“The Black Swan.”). It doesn’t matter. The idea appears fresh and
inventive and makes “This Part In Darkness,” if not unique, at least highly unusual.

The piece begins with the screen spread across the back of the stage, displaying an image
of Barette Vance, appearing to be looking for something or someone. Shortly thereafter,
the audience realizes that this image is a live shot of Ms. Vance walking up the right aisle
of the orchestra, captured on camera and viewed on screen at the same time. Ms. Vance
then exits the orchestra, enters the lobby, where she has a rendezvous with Jonathan
Stiles. They circle each other (or the camera circles them), exchanging uncertain
romantic-infused but somewhat emotionally detached movements, all displayed in close-
up on the screen in front of the audience as it takes place in the theater lobby. Eventually,
Ms. Vance and Mr. Stiles separately exit the lobby, proceed back along the theater’s
internal alleyways (captured by the camera – as both surrogate for and messenger to
the audience), and eventually join the other dancers in the piece. And then the ‘real’
performance begins.

Although the concept dominates the piece, and informs my recollection more than the
actual choreography, Mr. Millepied succeeds in creating a movement dynamic that grows
on you and eventually sweeps you away with the its inexorable and increasingly vigorous
pulse, complementing music of the same description – “Pierced,” composed by David
Lang (sort of a contemporary “Bolero” without a melody, an elephant, or an ending).

But the best part of the piece was Mr. Millepied’s incorporation of the ‘concept’ into the
work as a whole. For example, images of one arm approaching another from opposite
sides of the screen, at first sort of ‘circling’ each other, tentatively, wary of actual contact
though infused with an emotional gloss (similar to the full body and close-up images of
Ms. Vance and Mr. Stiles that had been displayed on the screen earlier). Then, the hands
meet, and then seem to caress each other. And at some point in this visual presentation,
the audience realizes that the arms are not disembodied images, but the actual arms of
two dancers sitting deep in the stage right wing, being captured by the ubiquitous camera.
Eventually, these two dancers (who appear to have been Lillian Di Piazza and Andre
Vytoptov), join other dancers on stage – and the camera captures, and the audience sees,
all of it – including emotional undercurrents between people that take place in private, as
well as images that are always unseen – parts that usually, to the audience, are ‘parts in

Although all the PA Ballet dancers performed as if the piece had been mounted on them – which it was – in addition to those already identified, particular mention must be made of Arantxa Ochoa, Francis Veyette and Lauren Fadeley.

“This Part In Darkness” was sandwiched between two ballets created by George Balanchine: “Agon” and “Who Cares.”

“Agon,” one of Balanchine’s black-and-white signature works, didn’t quite come off that
way. Although the PA Ballet dancers performed credibly and generally mastered the
difficult choreography (noteworthy were Ms. Fadeley and James Ihde in the pas de deux,
and Holly Lynn Fusco, Evelyn Kocak, and Ian Hussey in the first pas de trios), there
were timing and spacing issues, and as a group the piece failed to exude the attack, the
cohesion, or the crispness that the piece requires.

On the other hand, the PA Ballet dancers not only did Balanchine’s “Who Cares”
justice, they were superb. A crowd-pleaser choreographed to sixteen Gershwin
songs, “Who Cares” is guaranteed to put a smile on your face as you leave the theater.
But when the dancing is better than just good, as it was at this performance, the grin
goes from ear to ear. Amy Aldrich was both compelling and exciting in “The Man
I Love” (with Mr. Veyette) and “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” Abigail Mentzer irresistibly
sweet in both “Embraceable You” (again, with Mr. Veyette) and “My One and Only,”
and Brooke Moore vivacious in “Who Cares” (with…Mr. Veyette) and particularly
in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” Laura Bowman and Mr. Stiles danced an
engaging “’S’Wonderful,” as did Ms. Kocak and Daniel Cooper in “Lady Be Good.”

It was a great way to end a very good PA Ballet evening. And if they perform “This Part
In Darkness” again, I’ll look forward to seeing it a second time.

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