Pennsylvania Ballet presented the opening performance of the final program of the 2011-2012 season on Thursday evening, May 31, 2012. The triple offering included “Barber Violin Concerto” by Peter Martins, the world premiere of “Beside them, they dwell” by Matthew Neenan, and “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz” by Jerome Robbins – three works that collectively captured the company’s wonderful range of style and versatility.
The evening began with “Barber Violin Concerto,” set to Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14,” featuring violin soloist Luigi Mazzocchi. Danced by two couples, the work contrasts and blends classical ballet with modern dance in three movements. In the first movement, Amy Aldridge and James Ihde (the traditional ballet couple) showed classic grace and beauty in a seamless pas de deux. Opposite them, the modern couple, danced by Laura Bowman and Ian Hussey, were athletic, acrobatic, and intense in their pairing. The pair worked easily through creative lifts and intricate transitions; however, an audible crash as Hussey exited stage right with Bowman hoisted in a lift high above his head, was the biggest gasp-worthy moment for the audience.
Thankfully, all the dancers returned to the stage apparently uninjured in the next movement, when the dancers traded partners. Aldridge and Hussey began distant and detached, but slowly migrated toward each other for a tender yet remote pas de deux. When Aldridge literally let her hair loose, she also danced with more abandon, forming a deeper connection with her partner.
Bowman stole the show in the final movement, with her energetic, frenetic pace matching the tempo of the scherzo. Feisty and comical in contrast to Ihde’s serious stoicism, Bowman drew laughter from the audience as she playfully goaded her partner. Terrific lifts, catches, throws, and acrobatics drew thunderous applause for the pair during their bows, as did the well-deserved bow from violinist Mazzocchi.
The world premiere of “Beside them, they dwell” followed a short intermission, marking Matthew Neenan’s thirteenth commission for Pennsylvania Ballet as their Choreographer in Residence. According to the program notes, the work’s title is “inspired by a passage from Psalm 104: ‘They give drink to all the beasts of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst. On their banks dwell the birds of heaven; from the branches they sing their song’.” The work is set to Pierre Boulez’s “Anthemes II,” whose musical structure is inspired by “the composer’s childhood memories of Lent-time Catholic services” (also from program notes).
Unfortunately, the information offered in the program helped little in deciphering any theme from the abstract piece. Deliberate, slow-motion-like movements became sharp and choppy, then suddenly jarring and frenetic. Pairs and groups formed, shuffling themselves into shapes and tableaus. Unison movements between pairs and groups gave the senses a break from the dissonance of the music, and intensity continued to build throughout the piece.
Dancers Aldridge and Hussey, Lauren Fadeley and Jermel Johnson, Brooke Moore and Francis Veyette, and Daniel Cooper, Evelyn Kocak, and Alexander Peters all had their turns at standout moments, and one thing is for certain – Neenan excels at using the strengths of his performers. Undoubtedly, the dancers are talented and athletic, and the segments of unison are the most remarkable – and even more impressive considering they are performed to music with a barely identifiable structure or rhythm, and sometimes in silence.
As the curtain fell and the lights came up, I heard exclamations ranging from, “That was wonderful!” to “My brain hurts!” with my own reaction somewhere in between. The music and movement was so abstract that I found myself trying desperately to find something to draw me into the piece – to grasp at something I could relate to. Although I never found it, and perhaps that isn’t the intention of the work, I was still able to appreciate the remarkable abilities of the dancers.
The evening ended with Jerome Robbins’s “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz” set to music by Robert Prince. Known as the “ballet in sneakers,” it has the feel of “West Side Story,” with color, energy, and life – perfectly suited to the ensemble performing it. Dancers entered the stage with bright colored shirts – and matching sneakers, attitude, and style, almost challenging the audience to “watch this!” The full ensemble performed the “Entrance: Group Dance” with the lighthearted, joyful vigor of youth.
Evelyn Kocak was wonderfully flirty with always-acrobatic Jermel Johnson, Jong Suk Park, Alex Ratcliffe-Lee, Jonathan Stiles, and Amir Yogev in “Statics.” The “Improvisations” were light and fun, but seemed more like a dance-off than spontaneous and un-choreographed, as Robbins intended. For a change of pace, Lauren Fadeley and Francis Veyette were simmering in a seductive “Passage for Two.” The group closed the performance with “Theme, Variations, and Fugue,” now all dressed in white and adding the color and life with their own energy and enthusiasm.
With a fantastic finish to 2011-2012, Pennsylvania Ballet promises another strong upcoming season with “Giselle,” “Carnival of the Animals,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” plus works from Wheeldon, Forsythe, and Kylian in the 2012-2013 season.