In Philadelphia, Ballet Neighbors Divided by Style
Posted March 9, 2018 6:11 p.m. EST
PHILADELPHIA — This city has two main ballet companies, the larger and older Pennsylvania Ballet and the smaller BalletX. They perform on either side of Broad Street (BalletX at the Wilma Theater, Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music) and place ads in each other’s programs.
Matthew Neenan, a founder of BalletX and a continuing choreographic contributor to it, has for several years been the resident choreographer for Pennsylvania Ballet. Both companies tour extensively, often appearing in New York at the Joyce Theater. (BalletX is due back at the end of June.)
These common factors notwithstanding, the companies have begun to look like polar opposites. This week brought new productions at both: two premieres to popular American music for BalletX, and “Swan Lake” at Pennsylvania Ballet. But the main difference between the troupes goes deeper than current repertory — it’s style. Even in trite creations, the dancers of BalletX are full-bodied — they seize the moment, prove wonderfully engaged and textured — while even in classic choreography, the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers appear trite: lively but glossy.
On Wednesday night, hours after a blizzard had swept over the city, BalletX opened its Spring Series, a triple bill of two world premieres and a Neenan revival. “Vivir,” a premiere set to a selection of Latin and Afro-Caribbean music by Darrell Grand Moultrie, is the kind of emphatically anti-musical dance-fest that would seriously irk me with lesser dancers — where the music has a legato flow, the choreography is punchily staccato, and vice versa. There’s little sophistication of structure. But its nine dancers feast on its every opportunity: They show the beauty of both balance and falling, jumps and floorwork, turns and stillness. Each performer becomes an individual you know.
Trey McIntyre, choreographer of the other premiere and a recurrent creator for BalletX (and, less frequently, Pennsylvania Ballet), has long been one of America’s most touching dance dramatists: He loves to oppose the social and anti-social, loneliness and conviviality. His new piece, “The Boogeyman,” is set to a selection of 1970s numbers (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Gilbert O’Sullivan). It shows one young man (Roderick Phifer) having a solitary party in his bedroom with the music played on his headset, with six other young people coming and going as if in a club elsewhere.
The ballet also shows a similarly isolated young woman (Andrea Yorita), unanswered calls from a pay phone and failures of communication, until finally the two lead characters find each other. By McIntyre’s standards, this narrative is bordering on the twee. And yet the vulnerability and ardor he releases in these characters makes it endearing.
Neenan’s “Increasing,” set to the first movement of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major (played live onstage), has only grown since its 2016 world premiere. Usually Neenan is more successful using various kinds of American popular music, but this is his finest response to classical music of the several I’ve seen, even if there are moments when he makes questionable movement choices. It’s wonderfully multilayered dance in terms of changing geometries, arithmetics and groups.
I wish I could be more grateful for Pennsylvania Ballet’s new production of the complete “Swan Lake,” staged by the company’s artistic director Angel Corella “after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov,” which had its premiere Thursday. When he was a dancer, Corella was a noted hero in American Ballet Theater’s production of this ballet classic.
This new production has the merit of replacing Christopher Wheeldon’s (2004), probably the worst and most unmusical of the more than 20 versions of “Swan Lake” I have seen. Other virtues here include an avoidance of the usual slow tempos that bog down most “Swan Lakes” (with one intermission, this production runs at two hours and a quarter) and a moderately pretty evocation of the medieval Age of Chivalry that the ballet’s makers had in mind (scenery and costumes by Benjamin Tyrrell).
But so what? This is “Swan Lake” as rote work. The famous Act 2 lakeside dances for the swan-maidens can either express their relief at returning to human form for the night or — something very different — their stress at their slave-like lack of freedom. On Thursday, they did neither: they were merely efficient and bland.
The lead couple, Dayesi Torriente and Arian Molina Soca, presented Odette-Odile and Siegfried as the least enamored, least musical, least interesting and most self-absorbed characters in the ballet. Although the conductor, Beatrice Jona Affron, maintained generally bright tempos, some sudden decelerations during Odette’s solo variation seemed bizarre, and there was some poor playing by the brass and lower strings.
Tchaikovsky composed his original “Swan Lake” in 1877. After Tchaikovsky’s death (in 1893), Petipa and Ivanov and their musical arranger, Riccardo Drigo, extensively revised score and story, possibly following plans the composer had begun to make: Their version has been the framework for most subsequent productions.
America now has no good “Swan Lake.” Pennsylvania Ballet’s initial news release proposed a return to Petipa’s version; this gave cause for hope. But, especially in Acts 3 and 4, Corella’s staging is an uneasy hodgepodge of 1877 and 1895 texts. Act 3 is prolonged by gratuitous solos for Siegfried’s pal Benno and Odette’s nemesis, the sorcerer, Rothbart; Act 4 is rushed, with no opportunity for Odette and Siegfried to release emotion before they decide to defy the sorcerer Rothbart and take their lives.
The production would look twice as good with better lighting than Michael Korsch’s. (Siegfried’s first greeting to his courtiers was obscured by shadow until a follow-spot made its way to him.) And some of the Act 1 scenery already looked creased. The company has been well drilled; the dancers do not lack technique. Four other casts of the lead two characters follow this week and next. It is to be hoped they at least raise its tepid dramatic temperature.