Ángel Corella takes over the Pennsylvania Ballet

Press Play by the Pennsylvania Ballet

5 minute read
A less garish "Jeu de Cartes." (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)
A less garish "Jeu de Cartes." (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

Madrid-born Ángel Corella danced as a principal with American Ballet Theatre from 1995 to 2012, guesting internationally and performing before heads of state. While still with ABT, perhaps as a hedge against inevitable retirement, Corella also founded his own eponymous ballet company in Barcelona, which he ran from 2008 until this year.

The search committee for the Pennsylvania Ballet chose him as the new artistic director to replace Roy Kaiser, who helmed the ballet for 18 years. I thought it was a curious choice, with Corella being only 38 and still recently dancing with his own company. Months before this decision, I asked one of the committee members if they’d consider someone like a William Forsythe; he told me, “We would not appoint a choreographer. We don’t want to see the ballet turn into someone’s playpen.”

Balanchine’s long shadow

Indeed, the Pennsylvania Ballet, since its inception in 1963 under the formidable Barbara Weisberger, has been very much the playpen of George Balanchine, almost a monument to his memory. And of late, the rails of that playpen began to feel more like a ball-and-chain-link fence, keeping the energy of the company’s commendable dancers from reaching the audience. They wither under his more turgid works like The Prodigal Son.

Not all of Balanchine’s works deserve to be museum pieces.

Other poor choreographic choices, such as Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella and his Dracula (which I reviewed as being so slow they should have called it Dragula) are a real drag on PAB’s repertoire. They should be retired, as should Robert Weiss’s recent Grieg: Piano Concerto, in which the men danced in powder-blue satin puffy blouses and white tights. I’ve seen better fitting shirts on men in Western-themed gay bars in Phoenix. Who makes 19th-century ballets in the 21st century? Dancers these days can do so much more than the standard classical steps. I felt insulted for them, and they seemed painfully bored.

A fresh approach

Yet Corella, with only two months to inspire new breath into the company, has revived it admirably. Not much time to change the programming, but either he or some brilliant marketing person at least gave his opening volley a new name: Press Play. A clever twist on the term used to turn on a DVD, but also I took it to mean, cheekily, playing with the press. And we press have certainly been all over Corella (and the histrionics surrounding the mass firings that followed his hiring) like white on rice. I’ve decided I want to see where he’s going to take the company, who he’s going to work with, hire, or retire before I meet him.

With no seats open for me on opening night, I went to the Sunday matinee, when I saw an inspired reading of Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy to music of the same name by Arvo Pärt. I listen to Pärt frequently for its deeply human and tragic spirituality. If Corella brought that out of Elizabeth Wallace and James Ihde, who gave it a moving, unembellished rendition, then it was worth missing opening night.

Mature and sophisticated, they took their own sweet time with each other, filling every step with meaning and promise. With Ihde often hovering like her shadow, they V’d their legs apart in close formation, arms semaphoring. There were frequent, sensuous diagonal lunges that they pulled back, suggesting longing and self-denial, and intricate X’s of their limbs, suggesting the complexity of their relationship. Their closeness, staying mainly center or upstage, and the deep, shadowy lighting by Mark Stanley cloaked them in intimacy. Beatrice Jona Affron could have brought a little more color out of the orchestra, but Luigi Mazzocchi’s violin solo brightened the otherwise fairly solemn dance.

This was followed by the spaciousness and youthful spriteliness of Jerome Robbins’s Other Dances, with an effect like opening a window on a spring morning. Principal dancers Lauren Fadeley and Ian Hussey were young lovers playing toward possible intimacy, courting and teasing, flitting away and showing each other off with unabashed pleasure. This was a marvelous vehicle for Fadeley, perfectly fitting her sunny personality. She pranced prettily en pointe, lyrically and casually executing fouetté turns around the stage. Hussey played lost after a series of dizzying show-off turns. Martha Koeneman played the Chopin medley onstage for them as if they were a couple being feted at an engagement party.

Who’s next?

With all the great female dancers the ballet lost in recent and rapid succession — Riolama Lorenzo, Julie Diana, Arantxa Ochoa, Gabriella Yudenich, Caralin Curcio — you have to wonder whether the rumors of backstage abuse were true. Ballerinas can be fragile and succumb to stress.

Mayara Pineiro is a fine start to replace these stars. At 17, she became the first National Ballet School student to defect to the United States; at 21, she joined the corps of the Pennsylvania Ballet. At this performance, she sparkled as the lead ballerina in Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, the evening’s opening number. But in her partnering with Jermel Johnson, she was a tad too narcissistic, not connecting much with him, at least in eye contact. Her eyes, instead, focused on the audience, glittering with joy. And we responded with joy at her effortless, fireflylike performance. She lit up the stage wherever she was on it. The only mishap was when a corps dancer next to her got in her space and nearly knocked her over. But she just glittered more.

I hated Alexei Ratmansky’s Jeu de Cartes when it premiered here in 2011. I don’t know what Corella may have done to tone it down — maybe the lighting by Damir Ismagilov was more subdued this time — but it was far less garish than I first found it. Daniel Cooper, Alex Ratcliffe-Lee, and Alexander Peters were more seasoned this time and stood out in the games-playing and horsing around throughout. Peters’s perfect perpendicular torque in his tours were a thing to remember.

With Zachary Hench retiring to take Jeffrey Gribler’s place as ballet master after the rude bloodletting a couple of months ago, it leaves only Francis Veyette, Ihde, and Johnson as the male grownups of the company. Most of the other males are still too adorably boyish for classical leading man roles, however well they dance. So I’m hoping Corella will bring in a man the ladies can swoon over. Maybe he’ll even take his own turn at pressing play?

What, When, Where

Press Play. Jeu de Cartes, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky; Allegro Brillante, choreographed by George Balanchine; Liturgy, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon; Other Dances, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The Pennsylvania Ballet, Ángel Corella, artistic director. Through October 26 at the Academy of Music, 240 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. 215-893-1999 or www.paballet.org.

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