I will never forget the excitement when my relationship with the Pennsylvania Ballet moved to the next level. I’ve been pretty serious about Ballet X since their first Philly Fringe performance, and the Limón Dance Company’s Moor’s Pavane at the Prince was arguably the highlight of the past season. But I’ve been an avid fan of the Pennsylvania Ballet since the 1970s (I am still waiting for them to revive the full ballet of Under the Sun.)
For years I had tickets in the Academy of Music’s Family Circle, not quite the nosebleed seats, but close. I’m not knocking distance relationships; ours was good. Sometimes you just want to get closer. So, when Carl called that year, I asked his advice. Carl called longtime subscribers to remind them to renew. He helped us move to the mezzanine, and we even threw in a contribution. Over time, Carl got us better seats in the same price range.
Then, the 2015-16 season came around and two things happened that shook our ballet world. First, the price went up. Not, we-can-afford it-if-we-cut-the-contribution up, but where-can-I-sell-this-kidney up. We figured Carl could fix it.
That’s when the second thing happened, or rather, didn’t happen: Carl never called. We knew about Angel Corella, the ballet's new artistic director. In retrospect, we should have realized he was the reason for our breakup, but we were still counting on Carl.
When I didn’t hear from him, I called, and after a typical lover’s spat (we have been together so long, you are taking me for granted, you want somebody richer), some not-Carl rolled back the price as a favor, but said we shouldn’t expect lowered prices next year. There we were, in our same seats, closer to the same price, but looking at a different Pennsylvania Ballet.
We were starting to wonder if we were falling out of love.
Faux pas de deux
For example, the February program started with Nacho Duato’s Without Words. I will give them this: it looked difficult. But it was about as exciting as watching yoga. The movements were too static and the dancers seemed so intent on not doing themselves an injury they had no focus to spare for the audience.
I have never, in 40 years of ballet, seen anything quite that boring, but I had high hopes for Christopher Wheeldon’s For Four. I love Wheeldon’s choreography, and four guys onstage? What could go wrong?
The steps were all there, and the leaping. But when you put dancers together on a stage, at some point you need “together” to happen. Each dancer seemed to dance in his own head, as if the other dancers and the audience weren’t there. We felt alienated from the performance.
The Jerome Robbins piece, Opus Jazz, brought the whole company out for a sock hop in an imaginary gym. They seemed to be having fun at last, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
In March, 2016, Pennsylvania Ballet reached out with a conciliatory subscriber development call. Did we want to subscribe early? We were glad to hear Pennsylvania Ballet still cared, and their next production, Don Quixote, was marvelous. It was profligately pleasing. If I were to quibble, the divertissements in the village scenes could have been shortened, but its dream sequence worked, tulle skirts and all. The big pas de deux at the end was fine, though not as sharply performed as the teaser they’d given us the year before.
The straw that nearly broke a dancer's back
And then we saw the June performances. Ballet is difficult and sometimes painful, but it has to look effortless to work, and you have to express the piece. That’s the magic Don Quixote had, but the June program, not so much.
Trish Brown’s O Złozony/O Composite had everything it needed to be awesome: interesting music, set, and choreography. It was my favorite piece of the night, though we couldn’t help feel that it would have worked better on Ballet X. It was like a foreign dance language for which they hadn’t gotten the accent down.
By this time, we knew about the many dancers unceremoniously “retired” and young dancers moving up, which leads to another truth about ballet: When a company is changing dramatically, you need a lot of rehearsal. Clearly, they weren’t getting it. You could see dancers counting steps on the stage.
During The Four Temperaments, one of the soloists fell flat on her face. I will not call out the dancer because it was clear all season that, with the exception of Don Quixote, the company was not only badly rehearsed, it had also lost much of the institutional memory that might otherwise have inoculated performances against disaster. I had sympathy pains for days.
Certainly, the Pennsylvania Ballet needs to keep up with the times, and the dance community has both a financial and a social investment in seeing Angel Corella succeed. But he was available because his company in Spain failed. Corella’s opening moves here were to ride roughshod over his dancers and the company’s history, which produced an uneven season at best. At some point, we may wonder whether Spain failed Corella, or Corella failed Spain.
When a follow-up call did not come (from Carl or anyone else), I accepted that we’d been ghosted for more financially attractive patrons. That's fine. Ballet X is still awesome, and the Martha Graham Dance Company is coming to NextMove at the Prince. I won't be sitting by the phone!
To read Merilyn Jackson's review of the Pennsylvania Ballet's Balanchine and Beyond program, which includes O Złozony/O Composite and The Four Temperaments, click here.