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Petite Mort, big impact

Pennsylvania Ballet presents Petite Mort and World Premieres’

4 minute read
Mayara Pineiro tops the symbolic staircase in Ducker's 'This Divide.' (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)
Mayara Pineiro tops the symbolic staircase in Ducker's 'This Divide.' (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)

Pennsylvania Ballet’s dancers tore into this week’s short run of Petite Mort and World Premieres at the Merriam Theater Thursday evening as if it was a feast after a long fast. Alternating their attacks between delicate precision and near-savagery, they exposed the bones of the program’s three startling choreographies.

The music of the night took us through three centuries from Mozart to Arvo Pärt and finally to Glenn Branca, the late American composer who last performed in Philadelphia in 1987. This made for one of the strongest, most captivating and, at the finale, most jolting programs I can recall from the sterling company.

A timely reminder

The program’s gripping final work, This Divide — a world premiere by Russell Ducker — opened with a wheeled stairway (by Paul Hewitt and Patrick Kelly) evoking the now-iconic World Trade Center stairwell. That “Survivor’s Staircase” was actually lifted and moved to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in 2008.

The set piece offered Ducker endless opportunities for imaginative interpretations. These went beyond the 9/11 tragedy to the now-weekly slaughter of innocents in nightclubs, schools, and other venues where victims might be trapped. Company artistic director Ángel Corella and Ducker should be highly commended for making such a daringly affecting statement onstage.

Ducker used a work Branca conducted at the WTC 10 years before 9/11, so the eeriness of this almost prescient, darkly cataclysmic music was a matchless inspiration for the choreography. Branca was known for amplifying his music so much it often drove audiences toward the exits, hands over their ears. But after the opening bangs at the Merriam, which could have been gunshots or doors slamming, the score settled to a reasonable decibel.

Born in the UK, Ducker has been a corps de ballet member since 2014 and danced with Corella at his Barcelona Ballet. So, when Corella wanted a charged finale for this program, he knew Ducker could deliver.

So Jung Shin's much-needed vertical stillness and concentration in Andrea Miller's 'Evenings.' (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)
So Jung Shin's much-needed vertical stillness and concentration in Andrea Miller's 'Evenings.' (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)

Martha Chamberlain designed the costumes — half the dancers in black and half in white — as easily identifiable warring groups. Ashton Roxander, in white, flung open the white door at the top of the staircase, flying down the steps to engage in combat with Zecheng Liang. It seemed a momentary draw as they regrouped with the rest of the cast and enacted excruciating moments of what the victims must have endured.

Dancers wheeled the staircase about, some looping themselves over it, airplaning their arms or running up the steps only to pile up at a door that would not open, or jumping or falling off the stairs. They hid in its cubbies and waved arms through the openings between the steps, as if pleading for help or saying a last goodbye. Lillian DiPiazza, Sterling Baca, and Mayara Pineiro decelerated the panic-stricken speed of the choreography with bittersweet solos and duets.

Dancers exited, then returned in blood-red bathing-suit-like attire as the music built with terror. Designer Michael Korsch lit the white door at the stair landing in fiery crimson, forcing all to back away.

Wit and wonder

Andrea Miller’s Evenings was the other world premiere, accompanied by selections of Arvo Pärt’s music. Within two years of graduating from Juilliard, Miller founded her own New York company, Gallim Dance. She opened with Pärt’s six-minute “Cantus.”

Perhaps his most spiritually reverent work, the piece begins with pealing chimes and ends in a chromatic crescendo. Miller’s six black-clad dancers inexplicably ran around in circles, arms frantically flapping like crows trapped in a belfry. In dance this is called “birding,” but here it completely missed the music’s solemnity.

So Jung Shin's much-needed vertical stillness and concentration in Andrea Miller's 'Evenings.' (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)
So Jung Shin's much-needed vertical stillness and concentration in Andrea Miller's 'Evenings.' (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)

The rest of the work suffered no further longueurs, becoming lovelier and wittier as it developed. Jermel Johnson rotated Oksana Maslova around his legs by her elbows as if she were a falling leaf. So Jung Shin danced vertically in a shaft of light ,exquisitely providing the stillness and concentration I longed for in the “Cantus.” Ian Hussey rocked Kathryn Manger from side to side, her legs locked in a diamond shape. He rushed off stage only to return to catch her each time she began to fall.

The evening opened with Jiří Kylián’s 1991 Petite Mort, Mozart piano concertos providing the soundtrack. A costume dramedy, it’s a witty classic I’ve seen from several companies. The cast wore antique beige undergarments and five of the women hid behind black cardboard-cutout farthingale gowns on wheels.

They tipped the skirts on end and played with disappearing behind the garments. Baca partnered Maslova here, seeming to pull one of her legs into a split-second six-o’clock extension before squatting in turnout and dangling Maslova in front of him, swinging her leg like a pendulum.

This piece pokes fun at the foppery of another time and yet, even almost 30 years later, its coyly erotic choreography and original concept keep it au courant.

What, When, Where

Petite Mort and World Premieres. Petite Mort, choreographed by Jiří Kylián; Evenings, choreographed by Andrea Miller; This Divide, choreographed by Russell Ducker. Pennsylvania Ballet. November 8-11, 2018, at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or

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