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Pennsylvania Ballet in Grace Action by Nicolo Fonte

Pennsylvania Ballet in Grace Action by Nicolo Fonte
Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

“I have always believed that the audience must be blown away by what’s on stage…” This from Angel Corella, in his program note for Pennsylvania Ballet’s recent appearance at The Joyce (March 29-April 3). As a performer, Corella reliably achieved this effect, and he is clearly striving to build a company that will, in time, do the same.

For this appearance, the relatively new artistic director — Corella was appointed to the position in July 2014 — made the potentially risky decision to use only one set of dancers for all seven performances of the same bill, which featured three athletic works created on the troupe within the past half-dozen years. Both the repertory chosen and the casting were superb, showcasing the dancers’ strong classical foundations and adventurous contemporary capabilities while turning discernible style differences — likely a result of the transition in leadership — into assets.

Amy Aldridge and Francis Veyette in Keep by Matthew Neenan

Amy Aldridge and Francis Veyette in Keep by Matthew Neenan
Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

First up was Keep, a playful yet affecting trilogy by former Pennsylvania Ballet member and current choreographer in residence, Matthew Neenan. The score is a seamless intertwining of selections from string quartets by Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This, coupled with vibrant, varied costumes and colorful lighting design, hinted at a plot. Without the benefit of any written material on the work, however, my imagination was left to its own devices. I’ll spare you the details of my mentally penned Tolstoyan novella and say that the underlying theme was one of romance in all its tumultuous, blissful, agonizing glory.

In the opening movement, two scarlet-clad couples, rarely appearing simultaneously or acknowledging the presence of the other pair, alternated stage time. Amy Aldridge was breathtaking, propelling herself into endless gravity-defying lifts with complete confidence in partner Francis Veyette. Their performance bore a marked gravitas, whereas their counterparts, Lauren Fadeley and Ian Hussey, exuded a fizzier, more youthful energy. The combined effect was so engaging that the second segment, for another group of four dancers, was somewhat of a letdown. There were simply too many clashing steps crowding the up-tempo score, the curious result being that the choreography actually distracted from itself and hindered the performers.

Relief came on the sweeping waves of the third movement, during which Lillian DiPiazza’s serene, long-limbed elegance mingled enchantingly with Arian Molina Soca’s dashing demeanor. When a costume malfunction of the hazardous variety occurred midway through the dance, DiPiazza handled it admirably, remaining unruffled and even braving a turn à la seconde and chainés — both executed without a hitch — as part of her diaphanous butter yellow gown dangled around her feet. Her reward: a belly-first spin atop a rotating soda-shop stool as the lights dimmed and the music trailed off — an unusual finale, to be sure, but a fitting one for this quirky creation.

Oksana Maslova and James Ihde in The Accidental by Trey McIntyre

Oksana Maslova and James Ihde in The Accidental by Trey McIntyre
Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Next up was Trey McIntyre’s The Accidental, an atmospheric piece that, possibly due to the pop-rock soundtrack borrowed from indie musician Patrick Watson, resonated with what could have been either angst or a mysterious urgency. The effect was not disagreeable, though having watched WHYY’s illuminating mini-documentary/creative film project on the making of The Accidental, I don’t believe it was the choreographer’s objective.

The brightest star in this dreamy sketch for six dancers was Craig Wasserman, who captivated in the opening section with the spritely Evelyn Kocak and was downright brilliant in his closing solo. While the other two couples also delivered pleasant performances, the circuitous choreography blurred the line between their duets and made the work as a whole feel a touch too long.

In contrast, Nicolo Fonte’s Grace Action left me satisfied but wanting more — a good indicator that it was just the right length. A brief artistic statement from Fonte, the only such message in the playbill, revealed that the work was “primarily inspired by the music of Philip Glass.” The choreographer described Glass’ compositions as “both grand and intimate at the same time, eliciting a response that made [Fonte] want to create a dance about answering absence with presence.” Esoteric as this concept sounds, it correlates to what I saw on stage. Indeed, a sense of longing coursed through the score and radiated into the dancers’ movements, though their facial expressions remained calm and distant. The clever, cinematic lighting scheme further established this eerie tone: Six or seven suspended spotlights, arranged in a triangle at the back of the stage, cast a ghostly glow over the performers and took on a choreographed life of their own.

Arian Molina Soca and Lilian DiPiazza in Grace Action by Nicolo Fonte

Arian Molina Soca and Lilian DiPiazza in Grace Action by Nicolo Fonte
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

The piece was riddled with high notes, none of them resembling any other, yet all aesthetically cohesive. Lines were extended to their max then pulled off-center; quick, clean pirouettes unfolded into smooth, luxurious lifts (Mayara Pineiro — wow); and a repeated port de bras motif in which one arm moved from fifth to first position served as a stark indication of the absence or incompleteness Fonte intended to convey. A standout episode near the beginning of the work placed DiPiazza in the hands of five men, who repeatedly and dramatically scooped her overhead, never allowing her more than a brief phrase on the ground. Complementary in its opposition was an almost hands-off pas de deux that paired Hussey with a woman I believe to have been Fadeley, each seemingly searching for the other with gestures that corresponded but rarely led to physical contact.

The end of Grace Action came out of nowhere and was so powerful in its simplicity that it echoed for several silent moments before the applause began. Two couples, moving rapidly and in tandem, suddenly turned en face. Within the space of only a few beats, each dancer brought one arm from fifth to first, forming a complete position by mirroring the partner standing close at his or her side. The stage went dark.

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Written by Leah Gerstenlauer

Leah began her dance training at the age of four in her hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, with her wonderful older brother (who is, incontestably, the best in the business of brothering) by her side. She continued her studies in Michigan and California — earning her B.A. in English at Chapman University along the way — before landing in New York City, where she currently freelances as a dancer and writer. She reads voraciously, drops into art museums regularly, and enjoys the fact that after nearly a decade stuck behind a steering wheel, her daily commute now requires only a good pair of sneakers and a MetroCard.