Something old, something new at the Pennsylvania Ballet

4 minute read
Aaron Anker, Yuka Iseda and Zecheng Liang prepare for Garrett Smith’s 'Reverberance.' (Photo by Arian Molina Soca)
Aaron Anker, Yuka Iseda and Zecheng Liang prepare for Garrett Smith’s 'Reverberance.' (Photo by Arian Molina Soca)

The Pennsylvania Ballet opened a packed 2019-2020 season with one of my favorite ballets, the delightful and funny Don Quixote. With a triple-threat bill of world premiers opening at the Merriam on November 7, I went looking for the scoop on that busy schedule.

Three’s company

The studios were humming when I sat down with Artistic Director Angel Corella. “We have three choreographers in three different rooms,” he said, “All working at the same time.” In Traces of Inevitability, choreographer Yin Yue brings the influence of her Chinese heritage to a style she calls “FoCo,” a combination of Chinese folk and contemporary ballet. Brazilian choreographer Juliano Nunes is another hot new choreographer to watch. Corella said, “I got to see it live later on, but the first time I saw him was on Instagram. I thought, wow, he’s got a very interesting take on choreography and movement.” In Connections, he twines the dancers into a knot: “It feels like two people become one through the dancing.” Garrett Smith’s Reverberance is all about the cellos—the instruments themselves hang from the ceiling and partner the dancers. This clip from the studio stole my heart.

A merrier Christmas

The holiday season gets off to a sugar-plum start December 6 with the Nutcracker back at the Academy of Music with a refurbished Christmas tree. Corella promises brighter lights and a rebuilt mechanism that will actually produce the big reveal on cue. Anticipate some dancers stepping up into new roles, but it will remain the mainstay of children’s fantasies (and performances), as warming as a cup of cocoa.

Planting seeds for spring

In March the Pennsylvania Ballet will perform the classic La Bayadère, a story of the star-crossed love between a temple dancer and a warrior. (Similarities to the opera Aida are not a coincidence!) Full disclosure here: I love the dancing in La Bayadère. The ballet blanc, “In the Kingdom of the Shades,” is one of the more beautiful and difficult in the repertoire. For the audience, it’s right up there with Swan Lake and Giselle, but with added ramps as the shades wind their way down a rocky hill. The male solo, a golden statue come to life, is stunning. But it is one of those ballets: classical Western dance that draws its sparkle from its far-away fairy tale setting—India this time.

I am looking forward to seeing how the company weaves together these competing sensibilities for a 21st-century audience.

Artistic Director Angel Corella has great plans for this season. (Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet)
Artistic Director Angel Corella has great plans for this season. (Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet)

April at the Merriam brings another triple bill. First up is Stanton Welch’s Clear, originally created on our own Angel Corella and Julie Kent for the American Ballet Theater. (Kent is now the artistic director of the Washington Ballet.) Resident Choreographer Matthew Neenan will be creating the new piece for the evening. But my rock’n’roll heart can’t wait for Suspended in Time. Choreographer Corella, Kirill Radev, and Russell Drucker put their own spin on six songs by the Electric Light Orchestra. Corella promises the piece will take us to “Xanadu” with something a little wild and even a bit of romance.

Lovers of Balanchine need not despair—the Pennsylvania Ballet has saved the best for last, with three Balanchine grand finales, including two we haven’t seen here: Ballet Imperial and Symphony in C. One of my favorites, Who Cares, rounds out the evening. Corella says the three of them use the whole company: “a program of closers, because [each of] the three of them, they usually close an evening.” He wants to give the audience something to remember through the long summer and bring them back next year.

A peek ahead

Corella is already planning for next year. He hopes to do an evening of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s work, and talked about working more with the Houston Ballet. But his mind was on the Merriam. “I think we put the most interesting ballets in the Merriam Theater,” he said, “and we are finding out that our subscribers, and a lot of people, don’t like to go to the Merriam. And that is hurting our subscriptions, it is hurting the experience for our audiences.”

I hear complaints about the Merriam as well, from its lack of handrails to the cramped seating, to a general sense of shabbiness. Something has to give if the ballet is going to grow, and Corella has his eyes on the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center.

The smaller theater allows for a more intimate viewing experience, and the modern design complements the contemporary works that dominate the triple bills. The company would add performances to compensate for the reduced seating, and Corella imagines pre-show performances in the lobby. “It is, ultimately, an experience, the experience of going to the theater.”

Audiences have that special experience for the full-length story ballets—the Academy of Music is a Gilded Age jewel. The more cutting-edge works of the triple bills need a contemporary home that is safe and comfortable for old hands like your reviewer that also welcomes a younger audience.

For a full listing of this season’s performances, tickets, and more, visit the Pennsylvania Ballet online.

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