Here's my review of "Carnival of the Animals"...a must-see!
Pennsylvania Ballet closed this season with “Carnival of the Animals,” a program including a set of world premieres – “Jupiter Symphony” by Peter Quanz, and resident choreographer Matthew Neenan’s “Penumbra” and “Pampeana No. 2” – along with Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carnival of the Animals.” The Saturday matinee I attended was part of the company’s “Family Matinee Series” in which the performances are designed to be appropriate for children, so unfortunately Neenan’s world premiere was not on the afternoon’s bill (the programming notes stated that the work “may not suitably engage young audiences”). However, the lighthearted “Jupiter Symphony” and the laugh-out-loud “Carnival of the Animals” were certainly enough to entertain the audience.
Set to Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony” or “Symphony in C, No. 41,” Quanz’s work takes place before a simple, narrow white backdrop, with the rest of the stage open and visible – lights, stage rigging, and all. Divided into four movements, the piece showcases a principal couple, Martha Chamberlain and Zachary Hench, with several soloists as well as the corps included in the ensemble movements. Balanchine’s influence is obvious in the choreography, a movement style that has always suited Pennsylvania Ballet dancers.
The first movement featured Alexander Iziliaev and Francis Veyette paired with Lauren Fadeley and Abigail Mentzer, along with a corps of nine women. Though the women sparkled in different shades of pink, the men shone the brightest with athletic leaps and smooth, easy partnering. In the second movement, Chamberlain danced gracefully and deliberately, displaying her exquisite balance opposite Hench, who partnered effortlessly. The pair was so captivating that one barely noticed the corps of four men after the initial ensemble entrance.
In the third movement, Fadeley and Mentzer returned, this time with high-flier Jermel Johnson. The long-limbed Johnson stretched into sinewy deep lunges, but unfortunately the short solo only hinted at his gravity-defying abilities. Fadeley danced a dainty solo, while Mentzer attacked her steps slightly more aggressively and confidently. The fourth movement, which included the entire company, was by far the most exciting, with fast-paced ensemble unison segments and multiple features for the main dancers. Hench’s double tours and circular jetes, Johnson’s airy beats, Chamberlain’s lightness of foot, and Veyette’s quick pirouettes were highlights.
After intermission, the much anticipated “Carnival of the Animals” began, set to Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Carnival of the Animals,” a musical suite in fourteen movements. Written by John Lithgow, the audience was treated to special guest Lithgow’s narration and performance on the first two days of the production. The “piece tells the story of Oliver Percy…who spends the night in New York’s Museum of Natural History” (production fact sheet). As the creatures around him come to life, they strangely resemble people he encounters in real life – the lion is his professor, the hyenas his classmates, the hens and cockerels the parents of his friends.
The laughter was nonstop as Oliver (Austin Butler) watched the animals come to life, and the audience eagerly awaited the clever narration describing the next creature and corresponding real-life counterpart. Highlights included Alyson Pray and Gabriella Yudenich as the geriatric Turtles doing the can-can, Riolama Lorenzo as the boxing Kangaroo librarian, Iziliaev as the Baboon piano teacher, and Lithgow himself as the waltzing Elephant. Though the steps were simple, the Elephant’s facial expressions as she was lifted by her four pink-and-white tuxedo-clad partners were priceless, and in this performance, Lithgow was brilliant.
The narration is truly ingenious and hilarious, with surprises around every corner. There are touching moments as well – as the Cuckoo/Oliver’s mother, Amy Aldridge with Sergio Torrado danced a sweet, despairing pas de deux as the anxious mother worried about her missing child. Once again, the most impressive dancing came in the finale, when all the characters returned for a rousing finish. The ballet enthralled both the young and the young at heart, and one hopes that Pennsylvania Ballet will continue to bring comedies, which seems to suit the dancers well, to the stage.