DIRECTOR’S CHOICE (PA Ballet): Julie Diana’s luminous pas d’adieu

Published by the Dance Journal. Reprinted with kind permission.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancers Julie Diana and Zachary Hench in After the Rain | Photo: Alexander Iziliaev
Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancers Julie Diana and Zachary Hench in After the Rain | Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

During the curtain call on the Academy of Music stage in Pennsylvania Ballet 2005 run of John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, Zachary Hench got down on his knee and presented his co-star Julie Diana with an engagement ring. Diana dazed for a moment, remembered she was in front of an audience and flashed the ring to an ecstatic crowd. The couple was headed for a happier ending than the roles they just danced. The following year they got married in Hawaii and since have been raising their two children, not to mention continuing as principal dancers at the company. Earlier this spring Diana announced her retirement and at the May 11 Mother’s Day performance, they danced the arrestingly intimate pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet After The Rain.

This was the sublimely bittersweet ending highlight of Roy Kaiser’s ‘Director’s Choice program which proved to be one of the most artistically rich mixed bills PB has done and during their 50th anniversary season. Kaiser also, presented two strong premieres that both have the mark, in different styles, of becoming signature company pieces

Robert Weiss’s Greig: Piano Concerto (in its PB debut) uses classical idiom that refreshingly doesn’t look like George Balanchine. Weiss distilling styles different classical dance eras without looking entirely decorous, aside from the satiny rumba shirts on the men. Weiss inventive variations of classical lines that breathe through these dancers. Meanwhile, the corps de ballet sections, have shifting tempos, slow and fast canon lines, to keep it in forward motion. The men near nail the double-tour passes and the women are uniformly lithe in ensemble flow.

Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Lillian Di Piazza and principal dancer Zachary Hench in Robert Weiss' "Grieg: Piano Concerto." (ALEXANDER IZILIAEV)
Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Lillian Di Piazza and principal dancer Zachary Hench in Robert Weiss’ “Grieg: Piano Concerto.” (ALEXANDER IZILIAEV)

At the center are three lead couples conveying different classical – Francis Veyette and Amy Aldridge have incredible chemistry, technical clarity in the lifts, turn and jump sequences. Lorin Mathis- Elizabeth Meeter and Ian Hussey – Marria Cosentino, also execute duets with flair and precision. Weiss’ directly evokes the cultural DNA of the music economically in some of the passages. Inestimably credit goes to Pianist Martha Koeneman and violinist Luigi Mazzocchi, the lead soloists in the pit, who give the concerto its vitally intense romantic drive.

Trey McIntyre premiered The Accidental for PB in his fourth work with the company. It is scored to a song cycle by dark poetic balladeer Patrick Watson. The music inspires McIntyre to create moody new lines for classical dancers. The dancers are dressed in short muted-color second skins. The three duets that is sensual and hypnotic in narrative flow of dynamic pairs Rachel Maher-James Ihde, Evelyn Kocak-Alexander Peters, Alexandra Hughes- Ian Hussey. Peters virtuosic solo end piece showcasing his fluid athleticism and expressiveness.

Then Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, made in 2005, was chosen for Diana’s final performance. Many departing dancers pick their best loved roles that are more on the technically easy side, to say farewell, but this part might look simple has to be danced with transcendent presence and indelible partner trust for it to work. Last month she told attendees at the ’Conversations with the Ballet’ series at the City Institute Library that the piece has been emotional for her in rehearsal, in no small part because it is one of Wheeldon’s most intimate duets, past its sexual evocations, the movement has such a soul bearing naturalness. In the performance, if Diana was experiences any nerves, they were not apparent, this was a prima ballerina saying farewell in top form.

Diana and Hench are one of three couples during the first half. They are in front of Lauren Fadeley-Ihde and Kocak-Hussey in a small template of moves by Wheeldon, the women supported by the men as they glide on pointe, or are static angled postures during the lifts, circling back to over their partners’ shoulder, in full penche arabesque.

The tempo accelerates in the back half Arvo Pärt’s dirgey atmospherics of Tabula Rasa and the pieces fit thrillingly together. Then, the finale duet, as Hench, in powder blue satin bottoms and Diana in a brief pinkish one-piece, appear along with the rainy sound effects of Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. Wheeldon’s naturalized movement builds a quietness and visceral reality. They lay together and she pulls herself over him and repositions his body. She holds him around the neck and his arms flutter down like falling leaves. He kisses her forehead, he lifts her as her body arches back and she stands on his thigh, her black curls tumbled over her shoulders and she looks like a goddess figure from mythology. They express protection of each other in different ways. The template again is not expansive, but everything has a mysteriously visceral coherence.

At the end, the applause thundered in when Zach and Julie came back onstage, roses rained down in front of her. Kaiser entered and embraced Diana, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers. Hench moved forward bringing their two children the Academy stage and Julie Diana’s eyes seem to take it all in, kneeling to grab them, then rising and smiling broadly as the curtain came down.

[Academy of Music, 240 South Broad Street] May 8-11, 2014,

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