BWW Review: PENNSYLVANIA BALLET Closes the Season with a Ballerina's Farewell Performance
Pennsylvania Ballet's final performance of the season on March 14, 2017 at 2 pm marked ballerina Amy Aldridge's farewell to the company, having danced with them for 23 years. Aldridge has always displayed impeccable technique and musicality, especially in her Balanchine roles, so it was a bittersweet moment when the curtain fell after a prolonged standing ovation. For her countless exceptional performances and devotion to the company, a most heartfelt farewell. I hope to see her again, perhaps in some teaching capacity, in the near future.
The afternoon also featured a world premiere by resident choreographer Matthew Neenan, "Somnolence", and a company premiere "Rush", by Christopher Wheeldon. While both had merits, I believe that the company will need to do more work on both before an audience can accept each work. Both are highly erratic and suffer from a lack of focus in overall concept, something that I found puzzling, making it hard to take the ballets on their own merits. Although the Wheeldon work will never be altered, there is still much room for improvement in Neenan's, as it only premiered a few days before I reviewed it.
Neenan, a highly talented if widely variable choreographer, can be somewhat maddening, and I don't know if it's me or the ballet's structure and musicality. I would like to see the ballet again because, as with many of Neenan's works, it's going to need some pruning and reshaping.
The curtain rises on what looks like a giant bed sheet, dissected by a pyramid of pillows, where several dancers are found sleeping. Slowly, pillows drop and the dancers drop down. The corps, surrounding them, also begins to dance with their pillows, and soon the dance starts to bubble over with a sort of innocent bedtime humor evoking dreams that are mysterious and unclear.
But "Somnolence" suffers from a greater problem, the music by Vivaldi, which becomes the work's strongest enemy. I think a different choice of music could have been made. While it is soft and soothing, it can also be lulling, and this is the last thing any ballet needs, whatever the title. The music seems to capture the dancers, but won't release them. The ballet wants to push ahead, but remains steadfast in sluggishness. Whatever the ballet is trying to evoke, it refuses to materialize.
Only at the work's final moment, when a dancer drops a porcelain dish made to look like a pillow, did I laugh out loud and perk up. I can't fault the dancers, Dayesi Torrent, Sterling Baca, Jemel Johnson, Oksana Maslova, Alexander Peters, Ian Hussey, Amy Aldridge or James Hide. But that crucial element-insightful choreographic thinking-was missing. And Neenan definitely has that in spades.
"Rush", originally choreographed by Wheeldon for the San Francisco Ballet in 2003 to music by Bohuslav Martinu, bears resemblance to many of Wheeldon's earlier works. Dancers rush about the stage in a frenzy, there's a pause for some pas de deux, and then we're back to the rush-literally. The result should be exhilarating, but as danced by the company on the day I saw it, the work seemed to be reining in energy, rather than releasing it. And that does not help the work in the least. It needs a real charge, not a demonstration.
The program closed with five pas de deux to showcase the company's virtuosity, but having so many following in rapid succession only demonstrated that even in the best circumstances, too many showpieces only point up a lack of thinking or concept on the part of artistic management. And that should not be the point!
The first two pas de deux, "Black Swan" and "Sleeping Beauty," although well executed and, I imagine, included to display ballet's evolution from Petipa/Tchaikovsky to Balanchine/Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky/Gottschalk were extraneous. I wonder if that was the intention, to point out how Tchaikovsky, always paired with the name of Petipa, showed a direct line to the neoclassical Balanchine, whose ballets to Tchaikovsky and collaboration with Stravinsky, himself devoted to the music of Tchaikovsky, continued the choreographic path that changed the face of dance.
The highpoint was the final three: Balanchine pas de deux, "Tarantella, " danced engagingly by Craig Wasserman and Amy Aldridge, hitting the tambourines on the exact musical beats so that they didn't jingle throughout the performance; "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," danced haltingly by Lillian Dipiazza and Ian Hussey, especially when the ballerina had to perform her fish dives; and finally the "Rubies Pas de Deux" from "Jewels," danced by Alexander Peter and Amy Aldridge. Although Ms. Aldridge may have lost the limberness the part demands over the years, this being her final performance, there was no reason to find fault. Just sit back and enjoy and wonder, with the retiring and decamping dancers, what the future holds.
It should be interesting.
Photo: Alexander Iziliaev