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Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Classical Innovations’BY: Jim Rutter 02.08.2011
Two pieces on Pennsylvania Ballet’s latest program offered beauty and sensory treats but no particular point. The company would do better to scrap both and stage the third by itself: Twyla Tharp’s awe-inspiring In the Upper Room.
Pennsylvania Ballet: “Classical Innovations.” William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude; Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia; Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. February 3-6, 2011 at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. (above Spruce). (215) 551-7000 or www.paballet.org.
A program in search of a pointJIM RUTTER
Diehard football fans are the folks who arrive at the Super Bowl an hour before the kickoff to study pass receivers as they run practice routes and linebackers practicing blitz formations. The dance counterparts to these gridiron aficionados would find similar enjoyment in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s staging of William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Here, five dancers— two men in leotards, three women in stiff tutus— executed variations on simple ballet movements to the last section of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9.
Their movements— dipping the hips forward in place to re-ascend with a flourish of an arm cast upward or turning with absolute precision across the stage— revealed the polish and poise of the five dancers. Brooke Moore displayed particular finesse, providing a glimpse of the proficiency she’ll need when/if the company promotes her to the rank of principal dancer.
But the thrill is a study in execution that’s all beauty with no object, clearly directed to the balletomanes in the audience, the sort of folks who would just as likely attend the company’s rehearsals.
Broad appeal, but what point?
Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia appealed to a broader group. It consists of ten movements, each displaying a different mood to match selected piano segments by Gyorgy Ligeti. The stiff opening segment of eight paired dancers resonated to the monochromatic chords, then transformed quickly into a tender pas de deux, in which James Ihde cradles Julie Diana across his waist as her legs swim through space.
The mood reminded me of embers burning after a fire, which then quickly reignites. Abigail Mentzer spun like a doll on a jewel box, her slow rotations and exquisite presence lending a sense of wonder and delicacy.
Incoherent sensory treat
At times, Polyphonia presents a delicious sensory treat; most often, Wheeldon’s work also offers insight into how he early and capably blended his own signatures into the vocabulary of classical ballet. To anyone already acquainted with Wheeldon’s later pieces, Polyphonia reads like the clever craft of a wordsmith, who composes a short paragraph in one style followed by another in a different genre. Each segment possesses its own internal structure, rhythm and meaning but lends no sense of coherence to the whole.
I’m not sure why Pennsylvania Ballet finally chose to premiere this piece, ten years after it was choreographed. If the company’s mission is to educate future generations of patrons in the evolving history of ballet’s traditions, Wheeldon’s work certainly deserves a place in the repertory. But if the company wants to elevate and entertain audiences with the most accessible and visually dazzling pieces, it need only restage Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room every three years— a piece so glorious and awe-inspiring that I consider it a sacrilege even to write about it in the same article, much less stage it on the same program.
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