BWW Dance Review: Pennsylvania Ballet's 'Program of Firsts'

First things first. I'm not going to talk about the Pennsylvania Ballet and the company's negative press that's been besieging the dance world for the past few weeks. Any questions write or call Angel Corella, the Artistic Director. Let it come from him, not me.

The Company's featured afternoon schedule on May 15, 2006, was aptly named "Program of Firsts"-"Serenade," Balanchine's first American ballet premiere; Liam Scarlett's "Asphodel Meadows," his first choreographic assignment for the Royal Ballet; and Matthew Neenan's "Archiva," a world premiere. I'm glad I'm not writing the press releases. It didn't prove anything, or was it supposed to? Yes, I get the juxtaposition, but what else? Their next program,"Balanchine and Beyond," comprises works of van Manen, Brown, Frohlich and Balanchine. "Beyond" could mean thousands of other choreographers. Why these? What's after that? "Balanchine and Beyond and Towards the New Zeitgeist?"

Not surprisingly, the most beautiful and beguiling ballet was Balanchine's "Serenade," first choreographed for the students at the School of American Ballet in 1934. The ballet has never failed to amaze me, and I've been watching it for almost 50 years now, beginning as a child. How can one choreographer create so many swirling images, so numerous deft and fleet foot movements, and such dramatic insight into character without resorting once to a storyline? It's left entirely up to the spectator. Depending on your mood it could be about love lost, love regained, death, re-birth, or just the sheer physicality of movement. My favorite sequence comes at the end of the ballet when the "Dark Angel,", as the ballerina is called, enters with her hand clasped around a man's eyes, his arm pointing forward. Is this destiny, a harbinger of some bad things to come, or just a beautiful moment that lodges itself in your mind and refuses to budge? And what about the three ballerinas that cradle themselves in his arms? That's your decision.

I hate to sound overly poetic, but as the curtain falls on "Serenade," I always find myself close to tears. What is it about the ballet that strikes such a deep chord within so many of us? Even after it's been analyzed to death, we'll never know. And why should we? That's what makes it such a supreme achievement.

I have seen better performances of "Serenade." The orchestra sounded a little ragged at times, and the dancing was not as crisp and flowing as I've seen in other performances. But taken all together, it was an admirable realization, especially since Kyra Nichols, former New York City Ballet principal dancer, is now on board as ballet mistress.

Liam Scarlett's "Asphodel Meadows, "set to the music of Francis Poulenc, seems like an exercise in uselessness. Scarlett knows his classical vocabulary and how to stage interesting pas de deux and group movements, but the ballet is utterly devoid of character. We see two couples in black, one in, I presume rust, and they are all presented with theatrical flair. But that's all there is. When the ballet was finished I couldn't help but think that here was a talent in need of direction. The other Scarlett ballets I have seen have all left me with the same impression. What happens when you possess the skills but not the vision? Can that be taught?

The afternoon concluded with Matthew Neenan's "Archiva," set to an original score by Troy Herion. The story of a ballerina looking over her past career, conjuring the partners and ballets that made her famous, could have been touching, but needed a strong story, something that left many in the audience confused. One called it weird, not the word I would have used, but this was the general impression.

In fact, my mind began wandering during the performance until I came to the realization that perhaps I was watching "The Concert" of Jerome Robbins, but in reverse. There was something comical about watching the ballet, which is not to slight Matthew Neenan, a very gifted choreographer and the possessor, I believe, of a classic sense of humor. I kept thinking, what if the ballerina goofed during her career, what if those ghosts were the menacing corps de ballet, what if her male partner had a boyfriend on the side. You get the picture.

It's really hard to dislike such an earnest ballet, but sometimes the importance of being earnest leads to avenues of levity. So when are we going to see Mr. Neenan's comic masterpiece? I'm waiting for it.

Photo: Alexander Iziliaev: Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Francis Veyette and Soloist Oksana Maslova in the premiere of Matthew Neenan's Archiva.

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From This Author Barnett Serchuk

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