A Program of Firsts: Serenade, Archiva, Asphodel Meadows
Academy of Music – Philadelphia, PA
May 14, 2016 at 8pm

Lori Ibay

Although the evening was titled “A Program of Firsts,” for many in the audience, this would be the final opportunity to see some long-time favorite dancers perform with Pennsylvania Ballet. Fans (and dancers alike, apparently) were stunned when news broke less than three weeks ago (http://articles.philly.com/2016-04-27/news/72622293_1_ballet-dancers-preprofessional-company-royal-ballet) that nearly forty percent of the company, seventeen of forty-three dancers, would not return for the 2016-2017 season, and email advertisements for the program confirmed that these would be the final performances for principals Lauren Fadeley and Francis Veyette, and corps member Amir Yogev.

The evening began with an established favorite – Balanchine’s Serenade, a staple in PAB’s repertoire since the company premiered it nearly fifty years ago in 1969. Seeing Serenade on the Academy stage is like a happy reunion with an old acquaintance – it’s invitingly familiar and always lovely, sometimes with a little something new, but consistent to its core. This evening, the lead roles were performed by Lillian Di Piazza, Mayara Pineiro, and Oksana Maslova – interestingly, the three soloists recently promoted to principals for the upcoming season. Aaron Anker, an apprentice moving up to the corps, and principal Arian Molina Soca danced the leading male roles. Maybe this was a subconscious changing of the guard of sorts – proof that the new squad can dominate a company favorite – and dominate they did.

DiPiazza danced with lightness and buoyancy, but with a slight anticipation of the beat, as if the wave she floated on carried her just a bit ahead of the orchestra’s music. Maslova’s incredible flexibility and beautiful extension were on display, and she was spectacularly steady as she was rotated from below in a perfect arabesque. Pineiro exuded passionate emotion as well as quick sharp feet, seemingly fueled by an internal fire. Both Anker and Molina Soca partnered with strength and steadiness.

The women’s corps danced with graceful and stunning synchrony – every movement, every gesture, and seemingly every breath drawn exactly at the same moment. Although the four men are not front and center in this piece (after all, there were no men in Balanchine’s first class in America – the class this ballet was created from), Andrew Daly, Russell Ducker, Harrison Monaco, and Yogev provided the solid, unwavering support required to create the spectacular images burned into the audience’s memory, like the breathtaking final procession.
The centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of resident choreographer Matthew Neenan’s Archiva, with music by Troy Herion. Described in the program notes as “a work about memory and nostalgia,” the piece “is a reflection of what a dancer’s memory might be like,” according to Neenan.

At this evening’s performance, Amy Aldridge is the dancer whose memory is on display. The curtain rises on a completely bare stage, sparingly lit, with Aldridge front and center, hair loose, costume unzipped – it’s as if she’s just finished a performance and she’s contemplating her career. At first her thoughts are abstract – she gestures and smiles to someone who isn’t there – but then memories start to take physical shape as she is joined by a male dancer (Veyette) – clearly a former dance partner. They dance together, she is smiling and radiant, and they toast their success. He is soon replaced by another male dancer (Ian Hussey) – this time the partnership is a struggle; he treats her as if she is a puppet on strings, and the conflict ends with Hussey on the ground and Aldridge standing over him before walking away.

New characters join the memory – a third partner (James Ihde), and two ballerinas in warm-up clothes and tiaras – perhaps a new class of divas, danced by Fadeley and Ana Calderon. All of the characters interact with each other, as Aldridge retreats into the shadows, remembering – the men dance together, the women are held in extravagant lifts, and though they perform beautifully together, the divas are clearly in competition – when the dancing is over, it’s a not-so-subtle catfight.

At some point, Aldridge has completely changed out of her costume and is wearing just a robe when a new star appears (Maslova), paired with Veyette. Here she is obviously confronted with being replaced (Maslova’s acrobatics, extension, balance, and control on full display), but after the “new pair” finish their performance, Veyette returns to Aldridge with a friendly and sympathetic hug, a kiss on the cheek – a true supportive partner to this dancer, in performance and in life – mirroring Veyette’s own career with PAB – always a reliable and steady performer and partner.

A flock of new, young dancers flood the stage – all in full costume, full of color and frenetic energy. Pineiro, Laura Bowman, Holly Lynn Fusco, Sarah Gabrielle Ryan, Evelyn Kocak (also leaving the company at the end of the season), and Rachel Jambois were partnered by Jermel Johnson and a men’s corps of five (Daniel Cooper, Daly, Monaco, and Yogev). The ensemble in the dancer’s memory performs combinations from stage left to stage right – then walk across the shadowy upstage area to return downstage left before they perform again. It’s a continuous loop of performances, like a floor exercise in a ballet class – a symbol that classes continue, performances continue, with a new cast of characters, and the main dancer all but forgotten in the shadows.

But before she completely disappears, Aldridge returns in full costume, halting the ensemble in their tracks, and again assumes center stage. The ensemble performs together, and eventually they all depart, leaving the main dancer looking after them as they dissolve into the shadows.

In Archiva, Neenan has created a poignant memoir of a dancer – coincidentally, premiering at a time when many dancers may be looking back at their own careers as the tides at Pennsylvania Ballet take a turn. Throughout the memory he weaves, Neenan blends styles not just in different sections of the piece, but also within individual movement phrases. A segment that begins with a classical ballet step can end with a snap of the fingers or a swing of the hips, keeping the audience in suspense of what will happen next. Despite the stripped down Academy stage, the senses seem overwhelmed – and the audience roared with appreciation for several minutes after Saturday evening’s performance.

After a brief intermission (hardly enough time to fully digest the previous piece), the evening closed with the company premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows, created in 2010 for the Royal Ballet. Set to Francis Poulenc’s “Concerto for Two Pianos in D Minor,” the program describes that the piece mirrors the “dialogue between the two pianos” (played by Martha Koeneman and Alexander Timofeev) in the series of pas de deux performed by the three principal couples.

Fadeley and Ihde danced elegantly, simultaneously sharp and smooth, and the pair partnered so effortlessly together, it’s easy to overlook that he was supporting her full weight, twisting his shoulders, and moving, while she floats above him in the air. Aldridge and Hussey (ironically a conflicted pair in the previous piece) danced an emotional pas de deux, full of lifts and catches, so mesmerizing that it’s almost a surprise when you notice there are three other couples on stage with them. Pineiro and Yogev infused energy with a playful pas de deux danced at a blistering pace that reflected the trills of the pianos.

Pennsylvania Ballet closes the 2015-2016 season with “Balanchine and Beyond,” a program featuring Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and three other works by Hans Van Manen, Trisha Brown, and Pierre Frohlich (June 9-12 at the Merriam Theater), but for many audience members, this program feels like the end of an era with the departure of Fadeley, Veyette, and Yogev, as well as principal Brooke Moore, who is recovering from ankle surgery, and unfortunately will not have a final performance. I am sure I echo the sentiments of many other Pennsylvania Ballet audience members in thanking these dancers for sharing their artistry with us. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.