Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pennsylvania Ballet - Contemporary Ballet Done Right

Adrian Molina Soca and Lillain di Piazza in Grace Action
It was almost on a whim that I decided to check out Pennsylvania Ballet's program of contemporary pieces at the Joyce Theatre. PA Ballet has received a lot of buzz since the appointment of beloved ABT principal Angel Corella as Artistic Director. Corella immediately put his stamp on the company -- he fired longtime staff and has shuffled the roster. The Joyce Theatre brochure had a "letter" from Corella in which he tellingly talks about how the company just finished performing "my new Don Quixote." This is HIS company now.

The program he brought to NYC are all recent pieces -- the oldest (Matthew Neenan's Keep) premiered in 2009. And they're all what I would call pop ballet. They're not masterpieces, nor do they intend to be. And I must say, they chose three pop ballets that, unlike a lot of contemporary ballet pieces, were refreshingly watchable and fun. There was no screeching dissonant music, no agonizing ennui and angst, and best of all, the pieces were SHORT! The whole program was like eating a bag of potato chips and ice cream -- empty calories to be sure, but enjoyable.


Lillian diPiazza
First of all, the dancers of PA Ballet are gorgeous. Not just generically good-looking dancers, but strikingly drop dead gorgeous. The most beautiful of them all was the couple of Lillian diPiazza and Arian Molina Soca. These two dark-haired stunners were the centerpiece of both Matthew Neenan's Keep and Nicole Fonte's Grace Action. Not only are they facially beautiful, but they dance with this authority and style that set them apart from the rest of the company. Even when diPiazza is spinning face down on a stool (why???) in Keep she moves like a prima ballerina.

The weakest piece of the evening was the opener. Matthew Neenan's Keep is one of those ballets that has a severe disconnect between the music, the choreography, the costumes, and the mood. None of the elements were bad but it never came together. The music was to string quartets by Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov but the costumes looked like flamenco and the choreography was a mix of uh ... contortionist contemporary ballet and Alvin Ailey? I really couldn't keep track. Three couples were in flouncy dresses, with Lillian diPiazza at first looking like that iconic Revelations woman with the flouncing skirt on the stool. But her choreography was mostly of the "woman lifts leg, wraps around man's neck" sort. It was watchable, but there wasn't any cohesion.

Revelations stools

Trey McIntyre's The Accidental was much more enjoyable. It was more modern dance than ballet -- actually, you could picture Paul Taylor using this music. It was set to a charming, plaintive set of songs from Patrick Watson's Adventures in Your Own Backyard, and the choreography didn't say much either but sometimes it doesn't need to. In a 20 minute ballet, choreography that is energetic and sets a nice mood for the music is enough. The ballet opens with a sweetly sexy duet between Evelyn Kocak and Craig Wasserman, had a few more duets (Oksana Maslova was lovely in the second duet) and ended with a melancholy solo by Craig Wasserman. I urge people to give this album a listen too. It's very catchy and Watson's melodies are soulful and sweet.

Evelyn Kocak and Craig Wasserman in The Accidental, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The best piece of the night was Nicolo Fonte's Grace Action. It was set to a variety of pieces by Philip Glass. First of all, when you use Philip Glass music you already win -- the music is always compulsively listenable and its insistent rhythms and repeating melodies lend themselves well to dance. The ballet on the surface is a Twyla Tharp imitation -- feet kicking, heads thrown back, dancers screaming ENERGY at all moments. Dark blue lighting and sleek navy blue leotards completed the look of wholesome athleticism. If this had just been danced by average dancers, I might not have enjoyed it much. But, as I said, this is where Lillian diPiazza and Arian Molina Soca proved their star quality. The heart of the ballet is the long section set to Movement II of the Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. There are numerous pairings and groupings, but diPiazza and Molina Soca stood apart. Among the sea of strobe lights and and athletic leotarded girls they somehow made their duets pulsate with romantic urgency.

In his opening letter Angel Corella said "I know that New York audiences are very smart and know good work and good dancing when they see it, which is why I know you are going to love this program." And I think that's why this run at the Joyce has been a success -- he played it smart. He didn't overshoot and program an all-Balanchine bill that would have invited unflattering comparisons to New York City Ballet. (A few months ago, I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet in a Balanchine triple bill. They tried hard but except for James Moore's wonderful Prodigal Son the dancers weren't really memorable and they came across as a regional company that was too ambitious.) He didn't program a gala of "classics" that wouldn't have fit the tiny intimate Joyce Theatre. He programmed three highly digestible but relatively unknown ballets. PABallet is in good hands with Corella.

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