Pennsylvania Ballet's "Tango with Style" program not only filled up the Merriam, it made a statement about where Philadelphia's oldest and largest dance institution is right now artistically. Where is that? On top of its game, the troupe effortlessly mixes new and challenging ballet choreography with older more traditional work. It has a huge audience. Every seat was filled at the performance I attended, and the age range fell somewhere between eight and 80.
The tango program said everything that needs saying about why this dance company is doing so well. Yes, the Pennsylvania Ballet performs Nutcracker and Cinderella, but during the dance season it balances those old chestnuts by presenting some of the newest, most original re-thinking of ballet going on in the world. It was, after all, an ex-Pennsylvania Ballet dancer, Nick Stuccio who created the Fringe Festival. Experimentation isn't a new idea at the Pennsylvania.
Something old, something new
Artistic director Roy Kaiser is clever at assembling programs. If two new challenging works dominate the show (as in the case of this program), then Kaiser always offers something purely balletic for those who are more interested in where ballet has been than where it is going. For this tango program, that meant that Kaiser opened the evening with Octet for Strings, which was created by former Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss and first presented in 1985. Eight dancers wearing fluttery white costumes, performing to Mendelssohn, reassured the die-hards with this nod to Balanchine abstraction, which in its day was considered radical and now looks pretty.
Five Tangos, choreographed by Hans van Manen, currently resident choreographer at the Dutch National Ballet, is not a ballet take on a famously steamy ballroom dance. Instead it methodically deconstructs the tango, forcing the audience to rethink each sharp elbow, each tossed head and raised chin. It's no surprise that this radical deconstruction was undertaken by someone from the Netherlands. This northern nation has a centuries-old tradition of welcoming experimenters. Just last February, Netherlander Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa choreographed an entirely new work for Pennsylvania Ballet, Requiem for a Rose.
A subtler, richer tango
Anyone who expected to see the Pennsylvania Ballet performing tangos with roses in the ladies' mouths and men stomping on the floor got a surprise. What van Manen did was to dissect the dance. Every element of tango— from the erect upper body, the slashing arms, the stomping feet, to the haughty attitude— was present. It's just that the tango characteristics were offered to the audience bit by bit. This is so much more subtle, layered and rich than having people simply perform ballroom dance steps, even haughty angry ballroom steps.
Some amazing performances graced this beautifully staged, all black-and-red, cold-and-hot production. Riolama Lorenzo and Zachary Hench dominated the stage when they were on it. Lorenzo had an iconic moment, kneeling all in white like a figure from Classical Greece, while behind her the male dancers postured and, yes, stomped. Hench circled the stage in gigantic tours en l'air as the audience bravoed.
Cleverness and silliness
Matthew Neenan, choreographer in residence, offered his new work, Keep. Using string music by Alexander Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, Neenan made a complicated and visually interesting dance, using his signature moves of crisp ballet tweaked by sheer cleverness and occasional silliness. Awkward squats turned into quicksilver balances, and streamlined turns were punctuated with little jumps like startled ponies.
Not long ago, all Pennsylvania Ballet news was bad. Nowadays the news is all good. Lay most of the credit for this stability and growth at the feet of Roy Kaiser, who stepped into the artistic director's job 15 years ago, after performing with the company 15 years prior to that. Kaiser brings a dancer's instincts, institutional memory and personal commitment to the job. He believes he heads a great company and works every day to make his belief a fact.
The alumni stay on
The Pennsylvania has become something of our local dance university. Alums stay on to work with Kaiser as ballet masters, mistresses and assistants to the artistic director. Beloved former dancers like Jeff Gribler show up now and then in character roles. Some, like Neenan and Stuccio, leave to focus on their own experimental work. Former principal dancer Bill DeGregory delivers flower bouquets as dancers take their bows.
Kaiser knows this continuity is reassuring to dancers, as well as the audience. Is the ballet perfect? Of course not, but it does offer a model of how to involve performers and audience alike in a long-term theatrical experience that every dance organization would like to emulate. In a time of economic challenge, it's heartening to report that the Pennsylvania Ballet is $50,000 away from meeting a $500,000 challenge grant. This represents a huge commitment to the ballet on the part of the audience, a commitment they reciprocate. Ballet with style, indeed. â—†
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Jim Rutter, click here.
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