Pennsylvania Ballet: Petit Mort and World Premieres

2018 November 16

     It was a delightful program with beautiful dance. The music was from recordings, not quite the usual excitement of a live orchestra, but quite good enough. The dancers were as extraordinary as a big-city professional ballet company ought to be and company dancer Russell Ducker who choreographed the last piece was imbued with enthusiasm and energy. Still, I felt something important was missing.

     I enjoy dance. I have seen Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Dave Parsons, and Momix multiple times. I have seen others including Limon Dance, Nrityagram, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Chitresh das Dance Company Sita Haran (Indian), Compagnie Kafig, Wendy Whelan, Rioult, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, and even Les Ballet Trockaderos. I loved them all. (Merce Cunningham was a different story, sad to say.) There is quite a variety of ways the human body can communicate a wide variety of passionate emotion.

     I also subscribe to two ballet companies, Arizona and Pennsylvania. There I see a similarly-wide variety of passionate emotion within the beautiful framework of ballet. There is what I call a "vocabulary" of ballet that makes it special, just as the other dance groups had their vocabularies, their own set of movements that communicate what they're trying to say, or at least what their choreographer is trying to say. This performance was wonderful dance, but I saw less than I liked in the way of ballet.

     By analogy, suppose I went to an opera-company performance and the singers showed up as an amplified rock-and-roll band. They likely would do a great job. The popular group Renaissance had classically-trained vocalists and they were amazing, but they never called their rock concerts "opera." No matter how skillful, emotional, and terrific they were, I would feel something was wrong if I went to an opera concert and heard four operatic tenors singing into microphones with drums, keyboards, electric guitar, and bass.

     I felt the same way about "Petit Mort." I enjoyed expressive, energetic, enthusiastic modern dance. It was something I would eagerly expect and passionately praise from Paul Taylor or Dave Parsons but it seemed out of place in a ballet program.

     The world premiere of "Evenings" was a little more ballet with some ballet-style leaps here and there. The story, I recall, was that the choreography was about emotional expression rather than directing dance. The dancers were to find their feelings in their movements. It reminds me of "method acting" from eighty years ago where actors identified emotionally with the parts they played. The word "angst" came to mind as I watched this piece. At this point in the evening I was already feeling the lack of ballet in the ballet program and looking for something to change my mind.

     Russell Ducker's "This Divide" had more ballet in it with spry leaps and turns that made me feel more at home. It centered around a moveable set of stairs with a door on top with much of the piece consisting of going up and down the stairs, going through the door, climbing and descending the ladder on the other side, and moving and turning the piece on the stage. (There was one point where it didn't move quite as they wanted and it took an extra push.) I've been to modern-dance companies that centered around set pieces, a cube, a moving square lattice, person-sized wheels, et cetera. It's cute for a while, but soon the device dominates and the dance diminishes. The dancers were climbing all over the stairs like children clambering on a playground slide. There were deft dancers doing ballet leaps and turns, but the stairs were front and center the main attraction.

     My reaction to the show isn't as negative as I portray here. I spent an evening watching great ballet dancers doing great dance. Still, I found myself wanting and expecting something different and something more.

     Is it so gosh-darned important that the ballet performance be faithful to ballet? I expect the retort that I should "think outside the box" and embrace new and different things. I embrace those things in modern-dance performances I attend, but I also believe the institution of ballet is important in and of itself and should be preserved and performed in its own forum in the Academy of Music and the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, or in Symphony Hall and the Orpheum theater here in Phoenix.

     A wonderful example of inspiring innovation staying within the ballet box is "New Work" by Nayon Iovino at Ballet Arizona where he is an experienced company dancer and a new choreographer, much like Russell Ducker. I expect expert artistic directors Angel Corella and Ib Anderson with their years of dance and choreography experience to choreograph in ballet style. While Nayon's dance also has the wandering novelty of a young mind, I find his dances more comfortingly faithful to ballet style than what I saw last weekend.

     I believe the dance event I attended was a success. Its authors wrote beautiful dance as they intended and presented that beauty beautifully to its audience. I feel a need to preserve ballet in ballet-dance innovation that may not be shared by others and I feel this performance wandered off that course. We can decide together, somehow, how important the ballet-preservation-in-ballet imperative should be.

     2019 March 15: I thoroughly enjoyed Giselle, the next performance of the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2019 March at the Academy of Music. I also remember show after show of extraordinary dance in the past few years. One of my friends repeatly waxes lyrical with me about just how amazingly wonderful "Jewels" was in 2018 May with green emerald, red ruby, and white diamond costumes. Angel Corella has done some wonderful things as the new Artistic Director. (I wish he would bring back "Carmina Burana.") This performance went "outside the box" in a way that I did not appreciate.




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