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Phrenic New Ballet

'Ashen,' 'Die Menschheit,' 'Imbalance,' and 'Frequencies'

by Lewis Whittington

August 21-24, 2002 -- Mandell Theatre at Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA

Phrenic New Ballet's new program is an ambitious program of three taut premieres--Christine Cox's "Ashen," Matthew Neenan's "Die Menschheit," Jessica Lange's "Imbalance," and a mini-dance street documentary by Tobin Rothlein. Phrenic has set such a high standard artistically that is not surprising that there were some over-reaching moments. But for the most part, the choreographers knew that they were working with a technically versatile cast that was ready to deliver the goods.

Many in the cast are Pennsylvania Ballet colleagues of Phrenic's artistic directors Amanda Miller (who just quit PAB), Neenan, and Cox. All three works had brittle moments that could be chalked up to opening night, but there was no mistaking that this was a great modern dance program.

Earlier this summer, Christine Cox, who danced joyously all year with Pennsylvania Ballet and Phrenic, choreographed "Rasa" for "Shut Up and Dance" with doubts and didn't want to make a work for Phrenic if it was forced. As it turned out, the world atmospheric "Rasa" was one of the highlights of the benefit, and she proceeded with the difficult theme for the Phrenic work about the impact of 9/11. Rarely does docu-dance work on a grand scale, but Bill T. Jones did it with his AIDS drama, "Still/Here," and Cox does it here. Beginning with a movement dance-scape of pedestrians moving around to a patchwork score "re:Building" by New York composer Doug Maxwell (who was in attendance), Cox creates a group portrait of international urbania of accidental camaraderie and alienation.

As the music suddenly rushes into a concussive depiction of the planes crashing into the towers, Cox's nine dancers fracture into horrific clusters then bloom into entwined expressions of the human spirit. There are moving break out solos by many of the dancers, notably by Tara Keating, Miko Doi-Smith, Erik Wagner (late of San Francisco Ballet) and Anne White. But the whole cast gave themselves to this work by baring their souls through dance and creating an indelible statement.

Tobin Rothlein's comic film "Playground Dance" documented ballet dancers Matthew Neenan and Amanda Miller brushing up on the finer points of street dance by the talented students of the Morrison School. The image of the on-pointe 6'4" blue-tutued Miller had ten year-olds fleeing from the schoolyard. The hilarity continued as the kids tried to fit the fluid hip-hop moves onto the concrete positions of the ballet dancers.

Next was Matthew Neenan's "Die Menschheit," German for "humanity," scored to excerpts from several Wolgang Amadeus Mozart string quartets. The cast of eight attacked Neenan's overlapping duets, trios and quartets. Neenan tried to rhythmically phrase Mozart's droll airiness with that fine neoclassical line--his specialty, as well as the aesthetic purpose of Phrenic.

Amanda Miller possessed her three male partners--James Ilde, Neenan, and Wagner as they flung her around, and in one moment she was spread-eagle (on pointe) on the shoulders of Neenan and Wagner, then clamps them together with her legs. Neenan returned to ballet classicism sparingly, framing it with playful intimacies between the dancers. Even though this ballet allowed for some unusually hazy transitions, this work contained all of the unexpected strength we can expect from Neenan. Unfortunately, the finale that had the ensemble in razor-sharp jetes which were marred by a skipping audio disc, but the group flew thrillingly right through.

Jessica Lange's "Imbalance" is a ponderous narrative about the loss of childhood innocence and playfulness. The dance arena is a modular cubic seesaw attached to jungle-gym bars. The apparatus is positioned behind white drapery that has diary entries projected on it as well as claustrophobic film images and "pen and ink" animation. At times the seesaw is hidden behind these images so the dancers appear suspended above the stage; for instance, Miller stunningly seems to burst out of a blooming red flower.

There is a floating narrative about playground friends and the lovers' playground, underscored by Peter M. Wyer's score that segued from ambient rock to a luscious Spanish ballade. There is a lot of annoying running around in the front half, but when Lange starts to use suspension to move and pose the dancers to complete a visual story, it works. The ending moonlit segment had a delicious feel of a deco painting, and Rothlein's vision of infusing dancers "live" in film is very effective.

After Phrenic's stunning revival of "Frequencies" at the DanceBoom Festival in January, it is a measure of their vision that they were able to devise such a strong follow-up that suggests even richer work. Neenan's quirky and fantastical phrases are flowing interplays between modern and classical dance in a redemptive modern fable. "Frequencies'" three angels' statue-like poses punctuate an engrossing visual narrative of universal themes of myth, spirituality, and the joy of movement in all of us. Loosely based on "Jacob's Ladder," the angels' allusive gestures and combinations in the leading segments of "Frequencies" bring an earthy, ethereal quality to the piece in the same way that George Balanchine told the story of "Apollo" for all generations. It is apparent with this latest work from Neenan that he doesn't have to rely on the usual formations and back-up patterning from either classical or modern vocabulary.  His vision for Phrenic as a modern classical dance company is fully realized in "Frequencies."

Edited by Lori Ibay

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