Pennsylvania Ballet’s mid-winter bill is carry over programming by former director Roy Kaiser, but new artistic director Angel Corella was able to take full advantage of works by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and a premiere from resident choreographer Matthew Neenan, to start to show his retooling of the company.
The marquee draw of the program Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, Corella himself danced with distinction at American Ballet Theater in 2009 and he worked privately with his three rotating leads- Alexander Peters, Jermel Johnson, both PB principals and Etienne Diaz. Diaz is one of the new dancers brought in by Corella since he took over as director, also introducing Russian ballerina Oksana Maslova in this program.
On opening night Corella gave brief remarks before the performance to an all but sold out Merriam Theater, introducing himself as director and almost modestly anxious to show the work. The first piece, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, created in 2001 for New York City Ballet, is Wheeldon’s chamber ballet for four male – female couples scored to piano transcriptions of György Ligeti. Legeti’s gorgeous Etudes contrasted with jarringly dense piano lines and Wheeldon choreographs the ten sections reflexive to the music, with some sections more inventive than others. Wheeldon is Balanchine derivative at points and the best sections move past his lightening bolts of elite classical technique as the palpable chemistry of the couples builds quieter motifs. The opening vignette of automaton dancers is brittle and tightly unwound on these dancers and subsequent duets carving different moods.
Brooke Moore and Amir Yogev’s project unfussy élan in the ‘tempo di Valse…’ with Wheeldon getting out of his own way and letting it just flow without more decoration. Amy Aldridge and Andrew Daly’s firing casual quicksilver petit jumps and turns in the ‘Allegro con spirito…’ segment. Daly and Yogev also had an equally jaunty duet on ‘Vivace energico…‘ featuring razor sharp unison. Ian Hussey and Oksana Maslova hypnotic ‘Mesto, rigid, e cerimoniale…‘ adagio. Their bodies interlocked and moving in pitched sculptural positions and lift patterns. Lorin Mathis and Lillian DiPiazza sumptuous in the ‘Wedding Dances’ dialing back Wheeldon‘s flashy style, accenting lyricism to great effect.
The other couple onstage is Ligeti’s dynamic piano transcriptions in the best possible musical hands of PB pianist Martha Koeneman.
Equally masterful playing by PB orchestra violinist Luigi Mazzocchi performing Mozart in Neenan’s premiere Shift to Minor. With a cast of 15, it has the lightness and the baroque noir of Mozart’s music, inspiring Neenan choreography at its most witty and whimsical. Neenan’s use of stage composition with ideas that keep evolving on large ensemble is in top form here.
The dancers are grouped by costume in different colored organza shrugs and booty shorts, by costumers Reid Barthelme and Harriet Jung, designing to show for Neenan’s perfect balletic lines that devolve on the dancers into hunched torso or spastic buffoonery. A cluster of dancers seem to conspire and sulk in a corner, just as intriguing as a lead couple are trying to pas de dazzle. But, they intrude on the shadowy scenes de action, but even as spirited as Alexander Peters and Myara Pinero dance it, they are less compelling than the configurations in the background. Mostly though this is dynamic large piece that could become a company signature and Neenan classic. In contrast, Neenan’s central trio with Jermel Johnson, Lauren Fadeley and Lorin Mathis is like a choreographic sunburst to all of the mayhem, it keeps flowing in its own golden zone.
Sergei Prokofiev had trouble composing the score for the Prodigal Son, further aggravated by his often acrimonious relationship with Serge Diaghilev who commissioned the work for his Ballets Russes in 1928 with very specific ideas in mind. The striking set and costume design by expressionist George Rouault is still part of its indelible modernist classicism. Prokofiev wrote in his diary reactions to Balanchine’s choreography as being “completely at odds with my music.” Whatever bumpy road Prodigal Son had in its creation, it was a pivotal ballet for both Prokofiev and Balanchine and proved a for the new image of danseurs, coveted by such superstars as Edward Villella and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
One of the main elements along with those iconic aerials is the opportunity of actor-dancer technique requiring detail and explosive projection. Alexander Peters cast the expressiveness of a silent film actor and balanced the acting with the pyrotechnics well. His jumps could have had a bit more hang time, but the crucial turn variations (with added difficulty of arms held over the torso) are steel centered and thrillingly paced. Lauren Fadeley is a most convincing Siren, stony and voluptuous by turns, those seductive piques en pointe, marking her territory of deceit as she commands those chartreuse skin, hollow-eyed minions who scamper around interlocked like a venal chorus line, get the Prodigal drunk, steal his stuff and hand him over to the venomous Siren. Fine detailing by conductor Nathan Fifield, but needed spikier projection by ballet orchestra, which my have tightened the bacchanalia ensemble scene. [Merriam Theater, 250 S Broad Street] February 5-8, 2015; paballet.org.