Easter special

Pennsylvania Ballet's "Messiah' (1st review)

2 minute read
Widell (left), Hench: Jesus, with a little help from his friends. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)
Widell (left), Hench: Jesus, with a little help from his friends. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)
Messiah is a ballet created by Robert (Ricky) Weiss, the Pennsylvania Ballet's artistic director from 1982 to 1990 but long since gone to North Carolina, where in 1997 he formed a ballet company of his own, seeking a place where he could do his own work and follow his own visions— which wasn't always possible when he was in Philadelphia. His grandiose plans upset the Ballet's financial people, and his often multi-layered and confusing ballets won him few admirers in the audience.

But Weiss stayed in touch with the Pennsylvania Ballet, and when his Messiah went well in North Carolina, the Pennsylvanians found this a good occasion to re-connect with a former colleague, present a completely original and new ballet, as well as luxuriate in the music.

Audience connection

This Messiah— no fewer than 53 individual sections, one for each of the Handel oratorio's musical units— is accompanied not only by the Pennsylvania Ballet's orchestra but also by the Philadelphia Singers choir. The solo singers hold forth in box seats hovering at the edge of the stage, a placement that created intimacy between the audience and dancers as music wafted over the audience and the stage filled up with various angels, cloth being rippled on stage to create the effect of water.... a different vision for each of the 53 sections.

Weiss's Messiah stays close to the gospel story, although his vision of Christ shifts from section to section along with the Biblical reference: The savior is cast down in one moment, then soars in joy as he fulfills his destiny.

Zachary Hench, who danced the Christ role on opening night, set a powerful, triumphant and dynamic tone for the entire performance. Other dancers deserve high praise as well. Francis Veyette and Ian Hussey, performing with Hench, looked equally physically strong and dynamic. The blonde beauty Barrette Vance Widell, with gold wings attached, swooped joyfully around the stage.

Another Nutcracker?

Messiah may be a Bible-based ballet, but it offers the physical strength and highly charged interactions of real theater. Christ, for example, is carried away by friends to the cross. (A less successful illumination of Biblical text— "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?"— had warriors leaping across the stage while carrying banners and swords.)

There wasn't a bad performance in this production, nor anything to offend. Weiss must have returned to North Carolina feeling a sense of accomplishment. Messiah could turn into Pennsylvania Ballet's Easter special, just as The Nutcracker takes care of the Christmas season. Lucky us.♦

To read a response, click here.
To read another review by Tom Purdom, click here.

What, When, Where

Pennsylvania Ballet: Messiah. Choreography by Robert Weiss; music by George Frideric Handel. Through March 17, 2012 at Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. (215) 551-7000 or www.paballet.org.

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