A Beautiful Balanchine, A Fashionista Ballet, and the Astounding Jermel Johnson!

(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.

11 Comments

  1. Tonya,

    Great review. As I read your reviews I want to see the performance, but usually it’s too late. I need to go out east and deal with the boat, but that PNB sounds like something not to miss.

    How was it received by the audience?

  2. Great review!

    Your description of Serenade reminds me of when I had to watch a video of a performance of “The Green Table” at a workshop. ONe of the characters is supposed to death or fate or something. If you dance a pas de duex with him, you die. For some reason, at the time, it was funny…

    Selly

  3. Thanks SanderO! I know, when I get so busy at work, I can’t get my reviews up quick enough. In general though, I really wish dance performances would have longer runs — it seems like most companies are here and gone within a matter of days. That’s a big problem for the newspapers and magazines and is why they don’t want to run many reviews — people generally don’t read them because by the time they do so, the run has nearly ended… The audience seemed really into it — there was a near unanimous standing ovation at the end of Carmina Burana. People were “woo”ing like crazy!

    Selly, yes I know that ballet — ABT performed it here last year during their City Center season! David Hallberg, one of my favorites, danced the part of Death. That’s considered to be the part that launched his career. Here’s his Winger post on getting made up for that performance:

    http://www.phontographer.com/winger/archives/american_ballet_theater/

    Why doesn’t he ever post on the Winger anymore?….. David is a bad person :(

  4. Tonya,

    The companies that fly through and disappear are the problem and only those devoted dance people know what on the horizon. I get the ABT and NYCB scheds and can select way in advance what I will be seeing. I don’t live close enough to pop into any theaters and the few times I decided to see a performance on impulse… a opera or two I was stuck in traffic and missed the curtain so I turned around.

    I did catch Death In Venice because I believe I read about it on the Winger and had time to purchase tix and that was great.

    I have some March performances marked off at BAM because they too send me a sched, but it’s hit or miss because I don’t know a thing about the companies or what they are doing, just that the promos look interesting.

    I guess that means I have to take a shot in the dark, so to speak and why I love to read your reviews because they really paint a gorgeous picture of the performances you have seen.

    Having said all the above, I am liking more tradtional ballet of late because it is simply easier for me to understand. I suppose it is the formalism and the fact that there is a fairly limited repertoire which allows me (dumb as I am) to focus in more detail on what is there… the performance, the staging, lighting, costumes and so on since I may seen it several times before. This is so different than seeing a new piece which is hard for me to “evaluate” because I have hardly a basis of comparison. While this may not matter for others, my understanding of dance is so limited that a lot of “modern” is more “impression” than understanding… if that makes sense.

  5. I’m glad that Pennsylvania Ballet is getting a lot of good buzz. I grew up dancing with Francis Veyette, who is one of their dancers (albeit it was many many years ago!)

    Serenade – one of my favorites of all time, and definitely the piece that made me a Balanchine fan. How funny, I believe that the first man who danced the man who is blinded, was actually very near sighted. Balanchine said that he can’t see anyways. Not sure where I picked this up, but probably from someone’s first person account of rehearsals.

  6. The creation behind Serenade is filled with stories. I haven’t heard the story Jolene mentioned above, but it would fit into how Balanchine worked. Definately the most sublime moment for me is in the opening, when the women turn into dancer once they open into first position. It’s quite a statement when you look at the history of the ballet and see pictures of the original dancers. There is a wonderful outdoor picture with Balanchine working with these very average shaped women compared to what we believe to be the standard of a dancers body today. In this simple movement, of feet pointing forward to a turnout of the hips (feet at first position), he is introducing these women to the audience as more than just women; they are dancers.

    Another Balanchine tidbit. Pennsylvania Ballet has a very strong tradition in staging Balanchine, as its founder was a Balanchine dancer. I personally place it among the top 3 troupes who perform the Balanchine repertoire with the proper technique, including Miami City Ballet & Pacific Northwest Ballet. Tonya, it is a shame you were not able to see Concerto Barocco – which IMO is an even better ballet then Serenade. The second movement is truly heaven on earth.

  7. Griffin — I did see Concerto Barocco once, when NYCB performed it last season. I loved it! I can’t wait to see it again — I am really hoping they put it on again this winter.

  8. ah, I knew I had already blogged about this. I found the reference to the story that I previously mentioned.

    “Ruthanna Boris, an original member of the cast of Serenade, in the book I Remember Balanchine relates that “when Heidi Vosseler fell down in that first rehearsal Mr. Balanchine said ‘Stay.’ Then he put Kathryn Mullowny behind Charles Laskey, who was near sighted, to guide him to the fallen Heidi, with her hand over his eyes. ‘He can’t see anyway’ Balanchine said. From these beginnings the adagio grew.”

    http://www.balletmet.org/Notes/SERENADE.HTM

  9. Tonya,
    For someone who has only seen Serenade twice, you captured it beautifully. I have seen it dozens of times and still experience something new and breathtaking in it every time I see it again. It is one of those ballets that you can see every week and never tire of. And remember all the discussion you generated regarding “abstract” v. “story” ballets? Is not Serenade the perfect fusion of the core elements of both?

  10. Thanks Bob! Yeah, I’m still thinking about what exactly “abstract” means (still trying to clarify it in my head, then I’ll blog about it later!) In Serenade there’s enough “going on” — for it to sustain my interest, for me to latch on to something and for me to have something to think about. For example, for me, I wouldn’t have liked it as much if the whole ballet was all like the first part — the ballerinas holding their hands to the sky, or if the whole thing was just the three dancers in the pas de trois. Instead, there was a movement to the whole — first there were the ballerinas in ensemble, then a man came out and performed a lovely waltz with a woman that was first romantic then ended up being more fraught with tension, then a woman fainted and was left onstage alone, then another man came out followed by a woman who mysteriously covered his eyes, then the pas de trois, etc. etc. — it wasn’t just one thing, it seemed to GO somewhere, and the ending was really compelling and dramatic and beautiful — but it was an ending, it wasn’t just kind of stuck in there. And there were human emotions involved with the waltzing and the woman collapsing and the blinded man and her interactions with him. I don’t know what the story is but I feel that there’s one there and Balanchine’s letting you come to your own conclusions; it isn’t just “stuff” you know?

    Jolene, that is really interesting! I never would have thought that if you didn’t tell me — very funny! So, he got an idea from an accident that happened during rehearsal and one of the parts I ended up really loving came out that! Hmmmm.

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