Beauty, the third installment of Pennsylvania Ballet’s spring season, includes world premieres choreographed to the music of Jennifer Higdon, an award-winning composer and the Rock Chair in Composition at the Curtis Institute. Each of the full-length program’s three dances has a distinct look and feel. Refreshing as water ice on a hot day, Beauty is like three scoops in complementary flavors. As with most samplers, some delight more than others, but all are worth a taste.
Russell Ducker’s Dance Card draws inspiration from ballroom dance and white-tie galas. Dancers’ costumes capture the elegant theme, with men in tuxedolike coats with long tails and women in black gowns with bilevel skirts and sparkling hair ornaments. Lighting design creates the illusion of moonlight coming through a window into a large ballroom, and the piece includes elements of social dance. Couples waltz and whirl across the stage like music-box dancers.
One pair, Kathryn Manger and Ashton Roxander, perform a duet during a musical sequence with stirring cello notes. They circle one another without seeming to notice the other before physically colliding and connecting. At one point, they seem about to kiss, but then Manger finds another partner and leaves Roxander standing alone. Manger and Roxander seem lighter than air as they fluidly execute spinning lifts. But Dance Card under-develops the narrative of potential lovers crossing signals, and the suggestion of a story is folded into a largely plotless whole. Dance Card is beautifully performed, but it needs more soul to win viewers’ hearts.
The velocity of emotion
Juliano Nunes’s Encounters delivers more satisfying depth. Created via Zoom, the dance is about unexpected encounters: the choreographer’s notes describe the surprising ways paths cross and lives intertwine. Encounters combines movement with gesture to convey a range of human emotions, and Nunes fully realizes the piece’s theme in evocative partnered sequences. Several times dancers seem to guide the speed and direction of their partners’ movements, such as a push on the chest that sends them scurrying backward. This image pays tribute to the shifting velocity of emotion as well as the urge to control people and relationships.
Not all the gestures work. For instance, they distract in solo segments, which include hands on either side of the head to suggest anguish as well as finger movements near the face that suggest blinking. But Nunes’s movement vocabulary works well in pairs. Highlights include So Jung Shin and Oksana Maslova’s duet and especially Zecheng Liang and Arian Molina Soca’s duet, full of creative, seamless movements that convey connection, craving, and aversion. Innovative lighting design lends a sunlit effect to the opening scene. Later, the stage disappears into darkness, which creates the illusion of unreality with dancers appearing trapped inside the viewing screen.
Meredith Rainey’s Spillway concludes the program with a celebration of the beauty of synchrony. This piece presents the most harmonious pairing of dance with Jennifer Higdon’s music. Drawing from Concerto 4-3, the composer’s study of three rivers in Tennessee, Rainey extends the theme of a river flowing into a dance journey that captures movement through life. Joyful dancing marries exuberant strings to portray novelty and vitality in the first segment. Ever-changing combinations contribute youthful energy as well as visual appeal, from two male dancers lifting a third to a quartet of female dancers in sous-sus. The casual look of the costumes—white T-shirts and bi-colored shorts—contributes to the image of blooming exuberance.
When the music becomes slower and more poignant, Lillian DiPiazza and Sterling Baca match it with a duet more measured and dignified than the first movement. Lighting and costuming changes underpin the effect: DiPiazza wears a long dress with striking white and navy panels to match Baca’s white and navy shorts worn with a long-sleeved button down, and the backdrop becomes a cool blue. Other dancers join them to create a tableau that fills the stage with people, all moving at different ways and at different speeds, much as we journey through life. Spillway’s final movement reflects the reckoning of youth with maturity as DiPiazza and Baca face off with Yuka Iseda and Jermel Johnson, the featured couple from the first section. Spillway finishes with a flourish as a camera cut captures two male dancers frozen in midair.
A satisfying finale
This dramatic finale demonstrates some of the advantages of experiencing dance through high-quality recordings. Viewers can see more of the dancers’ faces and witness the action from different angles. Other welcome features include the ability to pause and rewind, dancers’ names appearing on the screen as they take their bows, and unlimited viewing for ticket holders throughout Beauty’s run. This performance from PA Ballet offers different and delicious flavors in a high-quality package, satisfying enough to tide you over until you’re able to return to the theater.
Correction: A previous version of this review misidentified dancer Kathryn Manger. We regret the error.
Image description: a scene from Spillway, featuring seven dancers against a blue-lit background. One lifts another over his head, and the rest make a graceful sculpture with their arms and legs.
Image description: a scene from Dance Card. Dancer Kathryn Manger, a white woman, and Ashton Roxander, a white man, strike a graceful ballroom pose with arms outstretched.
What, When, Where
Beauty. Choreography by Russel Ducker, Meredith Rainey, and Juliano Nunes. The Pennsylvania Ballet, streaming May 27 through June 2, 2021. $25. (215) 893-1999 or paballet.org.