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With its February series, New Work for a New World, the Philadelphia Ballet brings its contemporary ballet performances to the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Cultural Campus. While the company’s big productions will remain at the Academy of Music, the sleek, modern Perelman is the perfect setting for the contemporaries and a welcome change from the dowdy Merriam. But we had come for the dancing, which on opening night highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of a program made up entirely of commissioned world premieres.
Celebrating with spectacle
The audience came to celebrate, and Andrew Winghart, who has choreographed for Cirque du Soleil, was the perfect person to bring the spectacle. His effervescent Prima Materia comes last but was well worth the wait. It opens with three rows of dancers, in yellow-orange pants and filmy shirts, stretched across the stage at arm’s length. They rise and fall like waves, then seem to drain away like water to return in a dazzling display of solo and paired dances. Ashton Roxander and Sterling Baca’s perfectly synchronized double tours en l’air are spectacular.
Against a background of alchemical symbols projected on the back curtain (lighting design by Nick Kolin), Yuka Iseda commands the stage with delicacy and strength in a diaphanous purple dress. The finale fills the stage with action. The men, in black shorts covered by a knee-length sarong that matched the women’s skirts, shoot across the stage in leaps so huge they seem to fly.
Kudos to costume designer Christine Darch. By putting the men in the sarongs, she maintains the hem line across both genders, giving the grand finale the same depth of the corps the company usually achieves with a much larger cast. It’s everything we needed to celebrate a new beginning in a new theatrical home.
A work in progress?
Choreographer Juliano Nuñes is a familiar presence with the Philadelphia Ballet. I loved his Connection, and artistic director Angel Corella just announced that Nuñes would be the new resident choreographer, so I was eager to see what he did next. But Alignment, which opens the evening, feels like a work in progress. Costume designer Mikaela Kelly sets the tone with long-sleeved silvery-white unitards crossed with a geometric red strip. The dancers echo those architectural costumes with grand plies in second and angled arms, promising a work that will highlight the company’s power. The audience came to attention when Arian Molina Soca rose with outstretched arms, held upright and aloft by the dancers around him.
Other moments seem out of alignment, however. Some dancers move with an elevated extension of body and arms, as if they are cutting through the space, while others approach the same movements with a curve to body and arms that seems to come from a different ballet. They’re not helped by the ambient Luke Howard music, which varies little in tempo and paints the piece with an overriding sadness often at odds with the movement. Nuñes said that he had only three weeks to create the piece, so it will be interesting to see it again once he has had time to give it a good polish.
Dalí and the metronome
For many of us, the clocks melting on a distant shore of Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory reflect our own surreal sense of time during the pandemic, so it seems an apt inspiration for Alba Castillo’s work of the same name. A metronome at the center front of the stage sets the tempo and the meaning, while dancers bring the melting clocks to life with deep back bends and hands in front of their faces, fingers spread like the face of a clock. At times they scuttle across the stage, enmeshed like the ants that crawl across the painting while reflecting their own entanglement, working together in tight-knit pods. A sequence of beautifully performed trios, linked by one or two dancers as they move from partner to partner, reflects the connection as a chain of relationship.
The piece feels surreal and solid at the same time, the emotions so clear that you can read them on the dancers’ bodies—anger, angst, and the need for connection. Darch’s costumes, pants and sleeveless shirts in blue and gray and gold and rust, hint at the colors of the painting without becoming too literal.
The music is again primarily ambient, with a bit more texture provided by weaving together a range of performances by Ólafur Arnalds, Enrico Coniglio, Matteo Uggeri, and others. But the overall program would have been better served with a more varied musical palette. And a bit more thought should go into the clichés one falls into when pressed for time. All three dances drop a male dancer to lie on his side in the exact same spot on the stage.
What, When, Where
New Works for a New World. Choreography by Juliano Nuñes, Alba Castillo, and Andrew Winghart. The Philadelphia Ballet; presented by the Kimmel Cultural Campus. $50-$199. Through February 12, 2022, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’s Perelman Theater, 260 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA. (215) 790-5855 or philadelphiaballet.org.
Masks and proof of Covid-19 vaccination are required at the Kimmel Cultural Campus. Patrons over 18 must show a photo ID. Food and drink are not permitted inside the theater. Children under 5 are required to show a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of showtime.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
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