Not everything was beautiful at the ballet

The Pennsylvania Ballet: A 50th Finale

2 minute read
Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev)
Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev)

I expected to experience a real-life version of Marvin Hamlisch’s song “Everything Was Beautiful at the Ballet” when I went to the last weekend of the Pennsylvania Ballet's 50th anniversary season. I love everything about the ballet: the music, the costumes, the settings, and of course, the dancers. That night, though, the ballet didn't have everything I expected. Did that mean it was less beautiful as a work of art? I can’t decide.

The music was a mixture of works by classical composers Chopin and Schubert; Alberto Ginastera, a classical musician who uses folk melodies; and Thom Willems, whose music is ultramodern. I loved the contrasting elements of his piece, “In the middle, somewhat elevated,” especially because it was so different from the first three with their classical leanings.

It was also the only music used from a recording — and the live music for the first three pieces seemed particularly weak. The first dance was only a piano, the second one coupled the piano with a cello, and the third piece added the violin to the piano and cello. It felt more like a chamber group rather than music for a 50th celebratory ballet.

I loved the costumes, starting with the period costumes that matched the classical music in the earlier dances, and then the starker black tights with green tops for the last dance. The severity of the dancers’ costumes matched the severity of the music as well as the dance steps with their stretches, extensions, and aerobic elements.

Excessive minimalism

However, except for this last dance, which needed no settings, the first three dances felt incomplete because there were no settings. The softness and beauty of the costumes needed backdrops to complement them, the music, and the movement. For me, the lack of backdrops took away from the dancing, although the dancers were superb. They danced with confidence and enthusiasm, and, in the last dance, with abandon.

So in the end, is it just the dancing that makes a ballet a work of art, or do we need the other elements as well? Is a painting more beautiful because of the frame, or does it stand on its own without the frame?

My early years of watching classical ballet have shaped my desire for settings, costumes, and music to be integral parts. Perhaps my ideas are outdated, and I should be glad that the dancing was so superb. I still can’t decide!

What, When, Where

The Pennsylvania Ballet. A 50th Finale: The Ultimate Celebration. June 12 to 15, 2014 at the Merriam Theater, 250 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. 215-893-1999 or

The 50th anniversary celebration included the news that artistic director Roy Kaiser will be stepping down after 35 years with the ballet, as a dancer, ballet master, and artistic director. Executive director Michael Scolamiero is also stepping down.

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