Pennsylvania Ballet's "Program II'

Mathew Neenan takes (too many) liberties

Jonathan Bowman, Laura Stiles in 'Carmina': Happy peasants. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)
Jonathan Bowman, Laura Stiles in 'Carmina': Happy peasants. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)

During the recent Winter Olympics, a friend asked if I'd rather watch the figure skating in Vancouver or the Pennsylvania Ballet's forthcoming "Program II." Both display exquisite, inspiring choreography, paired with tremendous athleticism and artistry. But figure skating can only tell me something about the skaters (Joannie Rochette's fortitude, Evgeni Plushenko's arrogance). Ballet, by contrast, can teach me something about life.

After its three opening themes, Balanchine's The Four Temperaments progresses into an exploration of each pole in the Ancient Greek system of dividing personalities. From the start, the black-and-white costumes express the severity and isolating lack of middle ground between each extreme of humor, reflected more so in Hindemith's varying piano melodies.

Here, the movement in "Melancholic" more embodies the current sense of the word. One moment, Alexander Iziliaev casts his head upward in ascension, in the next it swings like a pendulum on his neck. He drops each arm like a sigh that inflates the music and the Academy's hall like a pair of lungs, with his body contorting from side to side as he releases the air from one and then the other. It was like watching a poem by the Symbolist Paul Verlaine come to life.

In "Sanguine," Arantxa Ochoa and Sergio Torrado exude confidence in their erect-postured poses. With their backs tight and flat throughout, even when twisted at the waist, both look imperious and impervious in their exacting precision. "Sanguine" suits both of their dancing temperaments, but the droopy movements and poses of "Phlegmatic" provide a well-met challenge to Jermel Johnson's customary explosiveness.

What Descartes got wrong

Amy Aldridge's "Choleric" burst in, all spurts of explosive activity cut hastily short into pauses that freeze her in place before she tears across the stage again.

Balanchine makes most recognizable the idea that every human emotion and thought accompanies a corresponding movement or posture. When proud, we stand erect; in despair, we double over and clutch the ground. And while we can stand perfectly still when something excites, the heart betrays us by racing.

His ballet suggests that Descartes got it wrong when he argued that we could strip away all the physical components of existence and reduce human essence to reason and inner mental life. As these four humors attest, experiencing the emotions that color our lives requires a body that moves us when we are moved.

Good old Dark Ages

Matthew Neenan's Carmina Burana poses a simple question: How much importance should a choreographer place on the music's text?

When I first saw Neenan's take on Orff's music in 2007, I hated it precisely because he abandoned many of my favorite elements in Orff's song cycle. Orff's Carmina conveyed a ritualistic, desperate tale of medieval peasants struggling to create moments of joy while living under punishing conditions. Neenan's inventive, inspired interpretation inverts this meaning, transforming their struggle into an ebullient, bold evocation of life's rich joyfulness.

Neenan's creatures— who are downright otherworldly in Oana Botez-Ban's shimmering, scale and feather-covered costumes— know only bliss and joy. Their only pain comes when they're expelled from this Garden of Eden, an opening and closing that constitutes a ritualistic passage into suffering.

Playful pagans

Throughout, these playful dancers capture the ebullience of Matisse's later work as they execute a series of lines flowing into circles in front of and around Mimi Lien's triangular structure— which at once represents a ship, a temple, or a cave. Here, Neenan's playful pagan people invert religious terror into joy-filled rituals, and fuse the solemnity and the proud exuberance of possessing one's own body into a reverence for existence.

Neenan's Carmina consists entirely of evocation, a series of discrete emotions expressed boldly and brilliantly to achieve an electrifying effect. Everything soars in this celebratory fairy tale existence, and under John Hoey's lighting, everything glows.

Lost in interpretation

And yet its luminosity fails to fully illuminate. We can still recognize ourselves in Orff's terrified, struggling peasants. But where he casts our eyes backward on our fearful past, Neenan's gorgeous stage painting opens them to a brilliant, though barely comprehensible future, and the one touchstone— a single kiss— can't open a portal wide enough for contemporary consciousness.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau— who wrote, "God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil"— would have enjoyed Neenan's choreography. As for me— I've grown to appreciate what Neenan's aesthetic creates, but I still believe that an artist should subordinate his voice a bit to avoid losing too much in his interpretation.

By failing to choreograph anything to Carmina's opening "O, Fortuna" measure, Neenan loses the fullness and the resonating roundness of the music and text. For Orff, life begins where it ends, whether in a single day, a calendar that repeats each year, or— as Beckett so elegantly put it— "astride of a grave and a difficult birth."

In Neenan's Carmina, we see no awakening, no birth, only finality. As with figure skating in the Olympics, we learn more about the performer than about life.

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