Pennsylvania Ballet's Ian Hussey and Oksana Maslova in Christopher Wheeldon’s 'Polyphonia'.  Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Pennsylvania Ballet’s Ian Hussey and Oksana Maslova in ‘Polyphonia’.
Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Merriam Theater, Philadelphia, PA; February 7, 2015

Sigrid Payne DaVeiga

In front of a crowded and fully engaged audience, the evening opened with Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia”, set to the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. It is a ballet for eight dancers in ten eclectic parts, some full cast and some as duets and solos. Wheeldon is quoted as saying that the piece was intended to be “like a sketchbook” set to the various selections of the score, performed immaculately by Martha Koeneman on piano.

“Polyphonia” opens on the full cast. Their costumes, designed by Holly Hynes, consist of very basic purple leotards for the women and unitards for the men, so placing the focus entirely on the dancers’ and their movements. The lighting creates a nice effect with a play on the dancers’ shadows on the back of the stage.

Ligeti’s music for the first selection has a cacophonous sound to it. Overall, the dance and the corps work were very smooth. When the dancers were in synchrony with each other, the choreography works well against the music, but if there is a momentary lapse when even one is off for a brief moment, the scene becomes overall too chaotic.

The evening highlighted the talents of Pennsylvania Ballet’s newest soloist, Oksana Maslova. A native of Nikopol, Ukraine, her dance development began with rhythmic gymnastics. She was a previous principal dancer with Grand Rapids Ballet and the Connecticut Ballet Company. Maslova is a stunning addition to the company, clearly a mature and strong dancer, and her presence on stage, especially in her duets with Ian Hussey, provided the most eye-catching moments of the performance, although she also melded well with the other dancers in the ensemble sections.

The first of Maslova’s duets with Hussey featured an impressive and fluid series of extensions, lifts and turns. The choreography is so well assigned to her and her body, which actually appeared to unwind and intertwine with his in a way that seemed inhuman at times. At one point, Hussey lifted her into an intricate series of lifts where she was in a double arabesque which appeared a great feat of strength on both their parts, but the couple shifted the audience’s focus solely to the grace of their movement.

Brooke Moore and Amir Yogev performed a nice duet with some sharp movements and moments that were intimately beautiful in their relationship to the music, when the dance and the music would feel on the verge of ceasing before magically beginning again.

Lillian DiPiazza performed a lovely, flowing and beautiful solo after her duet with Lorin Mathis. DiPiazza was a serious dancer this evening, exhibiting a maturity level that vastly surpassed her performances during Pennsylvania Ballet’s 2013-2014 season. There was no frivolity in her interpretation and the piece suits her well, highlighting the dancer she has become. Her movements were fluid and pretty with an exquisite port de bras and length in her legs and feet.

In part VII of “Polyphonia”, when Maslova, Hussey, Moore and Yogev danced together, the eye was again drawn to Maslova, whose extreme yet controlled flexibility and pristine movements are the embodiment of the art of dance, reminiscent of delicate morning dew and matched perfectly to the twinkling of the piano music. There was one awkward moment, when Maslova’s extension in second was noticeably more elevated that Moore’s, but when the movement was repeated, the two were perfectly matched in height.

Amy Aldridge and Andrew Daly performed the most light-hearted of the ballet’s duet selections. Their movements matched the harsher tones in this Ligeti selection, but while the section is more fun than the others, it felt out of sequence with the rest of the choreography. The duet ends in complete darkness. When the light comes on again, there is another pair of dancers in precisely the same location center stage, so it is not clear who was there at first. It is the most striking moment of the piece. As the spotlight rises and Maslova and Hussey arise from their intertwined shape to perform another series of acrobatic lifts and extensions that were so graceful and fleeting in their delivery one did not want the movement to end, but simultaneously could not wait to see what the next movement would bring. Maslova’s background in rhythmic gymnastics serves her well in this piece and her performance was an exciting indicator good things to come in the future for her in Philadelphia.

Lauren Fadeley, Lorin Mathis and Jermel Johnson in 'Shift to Minor' by Matthew Neenan.  Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Lauren Fadeley, Lorin Mathis and Jermel Johnson in ‘Shift to Minor’ by Matthew Neenan.
Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

“Shift to Minor”, choreographed by Matthew Neenan, is danced to a Mozart violin concerto. Violist Luigi Mazzocchi delivered an exceptional array of sounds, filling the Merriam Theater with the composer’s genius. Reid Barthelme and Harriet Jung’s costumes are the same for the women and men, a leotard bottom in four colors, red, blue, orange or gold, with a buoyant shirt top ending just below the chest lending itself a gender-neutral quality. The dancers were barelegged so that their musculature was apparent throughout

“Shift to Minor” is a very unusual piece of choreography and difficult to follow. It shifts through various movements, first with a group of five dancers in red, then with a second large group in blue that included some new faces, and a smaller group of three in orange.

In red, Alexander Peters, currently one of the most consistently exciting dancers on the Pennsylvania Ballet roster, and new addition Mayara Piniero, would intersperse periodically among the others in duets and various solos. Peters is known for his precision and strength, but the choreography did not seem to adequately highlight this or his capacity for artistry. Piniero danced well alongside him. She has a clear athleticism in her movement and a strong stage presence. While she danced well, the choreography was difficult to appreciate.

Neenan has a long list of choreographic successes, but “Shift to Minor” fell short of expectations. At times, the dance felt comical and uncomfortable, for the cast as well as the audience. for example, there are repeats throughout when the dancers’ elbows are held at their sides, forearms bent, hands held out with shaking fists, all with a waddle reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin with shoulders hunched over and making motions with their arms as if drinking a cup of tea. Such moments felt like the Neenan was poking fun at some conceptualization of dance and while they made the audience giggle, it is never clear what the inside joke is.

Alexander Peters in George Balanchine’s 'Prodigal Son'. Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Alexander Peters in George Balanchine’s ‘Prodigal Son’.
Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

The evening closed with a wonderfully classic production of George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” to Prokofiev, with designs by Georges Rouault, and featuring two of Pennsylvania Ballet’s shining stars: Alexander Peters as The Prodigal Son and Lauren Fadeley as The Siren.

“Prodigal Son” is a ballet that can come across as overplayed and too abstract at times, but the whole cast did an exceptional job of making the story vivid and clear to the audience. Technically they were flawless and a pleasure to watch, and when dancing is so apparently effortless, they and us can spend more time on the characters, which is important.

Peters brought the role of the Prodigal Son to life. His persona embodied the character well and he was captivating throughout. His shapes, jumps and forms were flawless and his shifts in the transition of the story were compelling. The audience was convinced of his enthusiasm and ardor on his plans to go on an adventure with his friends.

In the second scene, Peters was again totally believable as a young man entranced by the novelty of the celebration with his new Drinking Companions. Lauren Fadeley was utterly beguiling as the Siren. Her semblance and interplay with Peters was enrapturing as she led him clearly into an enticed self-destruction.

When Peters’ Prodigal Son is left penniless and traumatized, his sorrow was accordingly intense. On his return home to his father (performed well by Francis Veyette), his struggle was painful to watch. One really felt as if Peters’ Prodigal Son really had traveled many miles to a sordid underworld and returned home, acknowledging his mistakes. This was truly a successful interpretation of a classic ballet.

All told, an evening that had some highs and lows. The highs, though, definitely whetted the viewers’ appetite with a taste of things to come in the remainder of the season.