(all images linked from Pennsylvania Ballet’s website, copyright of Paul Kolnick)
My work week was a bit rough, so I’m trying to catch up on my blogging this weekend. Sorry for the delay!
Wednesday night, Apollinaire invited me to see Pennsylvania Ballet at City Center. According to the reviews, this company used to perform in NY frequently, but as of late has not. So, this was my first time seeing them. Unfortunately, I was only able to view one program — which included Balanchine’s “Serenade” and a contemporary ballet “Carmina Burana” by young choreographer-in-residence there, Matthew Neenan. This company strikes me as being very courageous in taking on Balanchine’s masterpieces (in addition to “Serenade,” they performed “Concerto Barocco” in another program), and in presenting inventive new works. And, two of the most important words I have to say about this company are: Jermel Johnson (pictured above)! Fabulous fabulous extremely versatile dancer, whom I’ll get to in a minute!
So, as I said, first on the program was “Serenade.” This was only my second time seeing it — first was watching Kyra Nichols’s final performance with the New York City Ballet last spring in the huge State Theater, from all the way up in the Fourth Ring. Funny but sitting in orchestra so close to the stage this time took a little of the magic away. This is a ballet you need some distance from the stage really to see properly, to take in the beauty and majesty of it all. It’s a glorious ballet, though, regardless.
It begins with an ensemble of ballerinas, all dressed in cloud-blue long tulle, making various almost ritualistic movements, such as looking up to the skies and holding their palms up, then swooping the same arm back over the head and looking the other direction — that to me evoke attempts to shield themselves from fate, from the wrath of the gods. Eventually a man enters the stage and a lead ballerina dances a series of increasingly romantic waltzy pas de deux with him, he sweeping her off her feet, her falling head over heels for him. At the end of the first part, the man walks offstage, the ballerinas all rush after him, and the ballerina who had waltzed with him collapses to the floor, nearly getting trampled.
To me, this is where it gets going, the collapsing is such an upsetting event. Another man enters from the opposite wing, slowly walks toward the fallen woman, but there is another ballerina behind him, and she’s holding her hand over his eyes, blinding him. Perhaps he is fate, justice, which is blind, or blinded perhaps by an angel of death. The “angel” allows the man to interact with the fallen ballerina, bringing her to life, the three do a beatific pas de trois together, the angel at one point lifting her arms behind the man who is behind the fallen ballerina as if they’re wings, as if the three can fly away together into another realm.
The corps of ballerinas return, several of whom partner off with various young boy dancers, and eventually the man portraying the kind of spirit of fate and the ‘angel of death’ disappear, and four men pick up the fallen ballerina, raise her sky high, and carry her off, through the corps, toward a light, she arching back as if leaving her body behind her, her soul being taken into the spirit world. It’s an abstract, but emotionally evocative ballet: “For all its emotional specificity, Serenade is ultimately as abstract as a symphony, rooted in recognizable human interaction yet inexplicable save on its own terms” says Terry Teachout in his book, “All In the Dances.” It’s so sadly beautiful; you almost want to cry at the end.
The second ballet of the evening was “Carmina Burana,” set to dramatic choral music by Carl Orff and performed by the New York Choral Society. You’ve heard parts of this music before if you’ve seen “Mission Impossible” or that kind of big-action Hollywood blockbuster; it’s often used during those huge climactic scenes where everything is getting blown to bits. Anyway, I saw a post on Ariel’s blog today and nearly cracked up at a picture she took of a production of a ballet by the same name by Mobile Ballet. Clearly, it was not Matthew Neenan’s version.
Hehe, if ever “So You Think You Can Dance” showcased a longish ballet, I think it may look something like this. In this production, the set consisted of a kind of futuristic, diaphonous tent, through which dancers sometimes entered and exited the stage. The ballet began with a group of dancers emerging from the tent dressed in nude-colored unitards but with a long, thick snake-skin-looking stripe winding diagonally down the back. They moved in very reptilian-looking ways: flexed hands and feet, splayed limbs, arched backs at times bent over, at times hands to the floor. They looked like iguanas, lizards, snakes — definitely creatures from either another species or another planet.
After they left, a group of women emerged wearing new-age-style, very sexy strapless white wedding-looking gowns, with ruffles cascading down to the floor in back, but slit wide open in front all the way up to the crotch. Underneath the gowns they wore clear unitards with an almost porcelain sheen bearing splotches of intricate black patterns throughout. Apollinaire thought they resembled tattoos; I thought lace. To be honest, I don’t remember their movement all that well because my attention was so focused on the costumes.
Coexistent with this group of “erotic brides” were several male / female couples performing duets. These dancers wore beige unitards that had long pieces of material emanating from the back that at times resembled wings, and could also be used for the dancers to wend themselves to each other (as in photo above). Some time later, two men dressed in black silk costumes that to me resembled Asian emperor-esque uniforms, with high collared-shirts that billowed at the shoulders, and wide-thighed pants, performed a breathtaking pas de deux, climbing atop, thrashing against, and bouncing off each other in a competition that was nevertheless underscored by respect. Their dance to me was slightly reminiscent of Mia Michaels’s ‘Princes’ pas de deux for Danny and Neil on So You Think You Can Dance. This, and the end, were my favorite parts.
That was followed by the emergence of several female dancers donning twisty beehive hairdoes and dressed in tight, red, corset-style tops with black skirts, the butt of which bore a bustle underneath, so that their back sides stuck up and out. They looked like cute little bees, or perhaps lady bugs waddling about stage. Actually, now that I think of it, I guess they kind of resembled characters from the cartoon The Jetsons as well, particularly if that white tent-looking thing could double for a space ship. I also recall a pair of dancing girls in red fringe, doing a theater-style can can-esque number at one point.
Finally, dancers wearing only nude-colored unitards with no reptilian patches emerged from the tent / cocoon / spaceship and performed the closest thing to traditional ballet I saw in that piece, involving beautiful balletic partnering sequences, the men performing virtuostic leaps and corkscrew jumps. As the music crescendos to a climax at the end, so does the dance, ending with a series of glorious group lifts.
Definitely very weird, and visually striking. The costumes and the odd, awkward movements, that varied depending on which garb the dancers donned, kept you wondering what was going on, which group of creatures / characters were being portrayed now, who they were and what would happen to them, which new group would emerge, and what was their relation to each other? It was here that Mr. Johnson blew me away. That man is a miracle: he could dance everything — he did the reptilian creature to a tee, with gangly limbs, loose hips and pelvis, and a hyper-flexible, near vertebra-less back that could curve into a concave hump then easily and immediately flex back into an African pose with shoulders and hips pointing to the ceiling, back arched like a cat ready to pounce. Then, when he performed the “emperor” scenes, his partnered lifts looked effortless — both his lifting the other man and his being lifted himself. And in the last scene, with the “human creatures” his classical ballet technique was as flawless as I could see — his grand jetes, his pirouettes, everything. He was amazing. Very very odd for someone to be able to dance starkly different styles so well.
Unfortunately, the company is only here in NY through tomorrow, Sunday. If you’re in the area, go here for tickets. Definitely worth seeing, here or wherever else they may tour, for Johnson alone.