Pennsylvania Ballet: On Edge
November 12, 2017 at 2:00pm
Sigrid Payne DaVeiga
On Edge was a dynamic and exceptional production from start to finish. All of the pieces performed were either world premieres or a company premiere, and the novel energy of this production was masterfully delivered in every movement. Each inspiring piece surprised the audience, and every section was rich and transfixing in every detail. Walking to the theater, I hoped for a good show giving me some new food for thought, but I had no idea that everything that I knew about ballet would be challenged in such an awesomely charged way.
The first selection was the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s TILT. The curtain opened on relative darkness with a light shining on two large stacked boulders leaning against a wall atop a slightly elevated floor covering half of the stage (designed by Emma Kingsbury). The image physically created the sense of precariously balanced architecture. Kingsbury’s costumes were also very beautiful; the four featured female artists each wore a different color dress of flowing fabric.
Oksana Maslova and Yuka Iseda enter onto the elevated floor in beautiful flowing costumes of green and red. Their sinewy movements invite the audience into the mystery on stage as they move around the balancing stones and open an apparent trap door at the front of this elevated floor. In a trick to the eye, bodies roll out from under the floor onto the stage. There was a gasp from the audience at this surprise. The overall lighting was quite dark, and a mysterious red light shone against the side of the wall on stage, illuminating figures dancing both behind and in front of the wall.
Alexandra Hughes was a true standout in this piece, and her dusty pink flowing costume suited her perfectly. There is something so deceivingly fragile about her, though her strength is apparent. She is like a seemingly delicate dragonfly with glistening wings, capable of so much authenticity in what she creates. Her legs and feet are perfect, her stage presence is beguiling, and she is such an interesting dancer to watch. Mayara Pineiro, another dance force, in a dark blue gown, and Hughes danced together in certain moments; this was a strategic pairing as they are such different dancers and delightful to see side-by-side.
TILT was enrapturing in the constancy of its movement. Although one dancer or pair of dancers was featured, there was movement behind the wall as well and sometimes even behind the elevated floor, so that the eye could never decide where to rest. There was no need to pick a specific detail to rest on because everything on stage was impeccable.
Maslova danced a beautiful pas de deux in one portion of this piece with Arian Molina Soca, and they were both technically perfect. She is an impressive acrobat and Soca is a pleasure to watch on stage. He is smooth and strong in his partnering, and in his solo work, all attention can be drawn to his exquisite feet and graceful lines. This duet in particular presented the idea of the balance of power between humans. At moments Maslova and Soca are intertwined and she uses him for balance or a lift in extension, and at times they move apart. Their departure from the stage was searing as she pulled away from him and he ran to lift her up in an embrace where she seems to surrender to him as they are engulfed by the movement of many other dancers erupting onto the stage around them. There was an agonizing aspect to this presentation of beauty in apparent pain in the negotiation of human relationship, which really resonated in this piece.
Other highlights of the piece included a moment when Maslova, Iseda, Pineiro, and Hughes stood side-by-side along the edge of one side of the platform and were lifted one by one into the air in high extension by Soca, Jermel Johnson, Sterling Baca, and Zecheng Liang with their dresses flying up with them and flowing down, giving the impression of a beautiful waterfall which evolved into more dissonant movement of the four couples all over the stage. While some of the dancers moved in large leaps and turns in the spotlighted area of stage, the four featured female artists created these architectural forms like statues aside the balancing stones. This piece was so exciting for moments like this precisely because the audience was invited into a conspiracy of trying to find the hidden charm. The piece was a constant flux of organized grace and then eruption into a controlled chaos. In its premiere, TILT was innovative and exciting and set perfectly on this group of artists.
The second piece was the world premiere of Matthew Neenan’s It goes that way. This is the 18th world premiere by Pennsylvania Ballet’s Choreographer in Residence, and it is truly a masterpiece, rich in every detail. The masterful artwork of this piece was sometimes beyond words to describe it, such that I find myself at a loss to write highly enough about it. Neenan set this piece to music by Laurie Anderson. There was a simultaneously witty but haunting interplay of dance with the words of the music throughout the piece, and the message was hard-hitting.
The piece opened on a bleak and dark stage with Ana Calderon and Alexandra Hughes under a spotlight at the front of the stage, and Ian Hussey standing alone separated from them at the rear of the stage. When the curtain opened, the song, O Superman, reverberated through the theater and the movement started immediately without a second to spare. The rhythmic and constant beat of Anderson’s music enveloped the audience right away and provided a lifelike and resonant pulse to the piece.
Hughes and Calderon were a fantastic duo. Their unison in movement was perfect, at times smooth and at times awkwardly appropriate suiting the words of the song. Their costumes were form-fitting multicolored unitards so that every muscle was clear from the audience. Calderon’s pregnant belly was apparent, and it was refreshing to see a pregnant dancer featured like this; also, intriguing that at times her pregnancy played into the piece in the most clever way. Hussey danced with Calderon and Hughes, and they created constant rhythmic movement with periodic halts to create an intriguing image or extension.
Neenan’s choreography was utterly brilliant and resonated so boldly at a time in American history when a brave voice like this is so necessary. At one point, Calderon and Hughes are standing with arms outstretched and moving them back and forth reminiscent of children playing airplanes, and the voice in the music says, “Here come the planes, they’re American planes, made in America.” Neenan interspersed infinitely clever moments of playing out the words of the music; it was magnificent because the spectacular dancing continued even with these brief departures to act out the words of the song.
Jermel Johnson and Yuka Iseda danced the second portion of It goes that way. The movements between them were completely intoxicating and the rhythm of the music continued with clever lyrics, like “When justice is gone, there is force, and when force is gone, there’s always mom. Hi, mom!” At this moment, Iseda looked up and waved as if someone were watching over her from above the stage. Meanwhile, their dancing together was beautiful and there was a poignant moment when the music says, “Hold me now, “ and Johnson’s long, strong arms shroud her.
The music makes persistent and haunting references to guns and electronics and repeats in juxtaposition this request of, “hold me now in your long arms.” Iseda and Johnson perform this inebriating piece of dancing together and perfectly interpret this image of two humans holding each other in the storm of the music’s description of technological innovations. Later in the piece, Johnson and Iseda return to dance to a song that repeatedly says, “He says, ‘Isn’t it just like a woman?’,” and, “She says, ‘It takes one to know one’.” The music is decidedly cheerful compared to the prior songs, and the two of them look happy and cheerful while their movements are in perfect synchrony side-by-side.
Dayesi Torriente and Sterling Baca danced an incredible pas de deux in It goes that way. Their pieces were the only ones set to music without words, though the segment spoke just as loudly without the running narrative. Their partnering was seamless and the choreography by Neenan here broke some amazing boundaries in terms of maintaining so much classical ballet but adding an innovative currency of contemporary movement. Torriente and Baca delivered an intriguing switch from the rhythmic movement in the piece to some luxurious, fluid movements where they almost appear to intertwine.
Albert Gordon is featured in an amazing solo where the music opens with the statement, “I walk accompanied by ghosts.” The solo is quiet and still; at times only his fingertips are moving, and ultimately his movement resounds in leaps and turns around the entire stage. His extensions are really incredible. The song makes repeated mention of “the heart of a child” and at times sounds like the words of a mother. The voice states, “If only I had the time to teach you how to climb out of the darkness.” Gordon ends the piece sitting at the front of the stage, resting and seemingly imploring as five of the other dancers walk slowly towards him, ending the piece standing in a line behind him, leaning or holding one another. Calderon stands at the end of this group, with one hand resting gently on her belly. The last statement that closes on this image is, “I walk accompanied by ghosts.”
The piece closes in an exceedingly powerful way. All seven dancers are onstage and in moments Gordon or Johnson are featured at the front in brief and frenetic solos. The dancers stand in a tight grouping to dance together or in linear diagonal fashion like passengers on a plane. The song tells a haunting story here interspersed with a few jokes, “This is your captain speaking. We are about to attempt a crash landing.” “We are all going down together.” “Put your hands over your eyes. Jump out of the plane. There is no pilot. You are all alone. Stand by.”
The dancers move constantly in an assault of the senses. One cannot look away. In closing they move together and then break out into various parts. In short, this was incredibly moving; it is rare to feel a rush like this in watching a dance performance. In the current social climate, this piece is so important in its artistic force and the voice we maintain as humans; Neenan’s voice through this piece hits right to the heart. This is art that needs to be created and the hunger for this need was palpable today when the audience could not stop applauding thunderously at the close of It goes that way. This is a piece that should be performed over and over again and one can only dream that Neenan’s next world premiere matches this one in brilliance, because it is not often that a piece of art is this compelling.
Episode 31 was the final piece in today’s production. The piece opened on a screen where the audience watched a video of the artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing and talking about their feelings about the piece. One dancer makes mention of the struggle of learning to speak and shout while dancing for this piece because as a dancer, one rarely “has a voice” and only communicates through movement. The footage moves to follow the dancers as they go through the city of Philadelphia, rehearsing in various famous parts of the city, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, City Hall, and Logan Square.
The footage is endearing, to watch the dancers having fun and interacting with pedestrians around the city. The last voice is one of the dancers saying that the piece is, “fun, celebratory, and exciting,” and it set the tone perfectly as the curtain closed and the audience prepared to watch the actual dance. For a moment, the theater was shrouded in utter darkness, and all of a sudden James Ihde entered the stage in front of the curtain and flipped on a standing lamp. He is dressed in a business suit and very slowly walks across the front of the stage. The dance begins with excitement, as the curtain opens and closes repeatedly to find the dancers in various formations and movements.
Episode 31 switches from interesting pulsating movement to writhing on the floor to all the dancers standing in parallel diagonal lines dancing together. It is really intoxicating, and more excitement comes in interspersed moments, like when Ian Hussey is standing on a “soapbox” at the front of the stage and dances, stomping his feet side to side and counting loudly. He then stops to scream at the top of his lungs, “Stop it!”
Luke Simcock designed the cool costumes for Episode 31 – a mixture of black and white tuxedo pants, skirts, shorts, jackets with tails, and vests. They were gender-neutral, so from a distance and in moments of rapid movement one could not tell which dancer was which at any given moment. Also all of the dancers wore a moustache. The stage lighting designed by Nicole Pearce and recreated by Kate Ashton was reminiscent of a 1920s soundstage with long black lights hanging down, which changed dramatically to fluorescent lighting right at a moment when the music changed to a woman reading poetry and said, “Now for something quite different.”
During this poetry reading, two of the male dancers, Etienne Diaz and Zecheng Liang, aptly dance a cheeky duet where they slide in perfect control along the rolled-out marley on the floor and amongst the scattered discarded shoes of the dancers. The piece closes with Ihde having made one full revolution of the stage at this point, since he walked around the entire piece, and returns to the corner where he started and shut out the light; everything returns to silence and darkness. It was truly masterful.
Individually, each work presented today was compelling and incredible. As a collection, they were utterly elevated and electric with It goes that way stealing the show. The voice expressed today by Pennsylvania Ballet, under the artistic direction of Angel Corella, is one that we all need to continue to hear. Today’s production was inspiring, bold, powerful, and unapologetic for its genius. This is the art and the voice we need to hear in the world of dance and everywhere today.