Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s 'Allegro Brillante'.  Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s ‘Allegro Brillante’.
Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Allegro Brillante, Liturgy, Other Dances, Jeu de Cartes

Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA; October 25, 2014

Lori Ibay

Pennsylvania Ballet celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and after the close of the season last spring, the company got a half-century face-lift of sorts. They welcomed Angel Corella as the company’s new Artistic Director, and the first performance of their 51stt season, “Press Play: The Directorial Debut of Angel Corella”, was tweaked to reflect his influence.

The audience was buzzing about the changes as the Academy of Music filled on Saturday afternoon. “It’s time for new blood,” commented the season ticket holders seated behind me. Soon there were more immediate changes to consider – as the lights dimmed, the dreaded ‘casting change’ announcement came. At this afternoon’s performance, four principal dancers (Amy Aldridge, Lauren Fadeley, Jermel Johnson, and Francis Veyette) would be replaced by Marria Cosentino, Holly Lynn Fusco, Alexander Peters, and Harrison Monaco in the final piece, “Jeu de Cartes”. Clucking tongues and exasperated sighs expressed the audience’s disappointment and skepticism, but Pennsylvania Ballet’s radiant performance would prove that despite the recent major changes, the company remains strongly rooted to its classical core, while continuing to expand its talent and artistry.

The program began with Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante,” to music by Peter Illych Tchaikovsky featuring Amy Aldridge and Alexander Peters, with Evelyn Kocak and Amir Yogev, Holly Lynn Fusco and Etienne Diaz, Mayara Pineiro and Harrison Monaco, and Marria Cosentino and Andrew Daly. The curtain rose to the four supporting couples already in motion, dressed in neutral tones. Their lively movements instantly added color to the stage, and their bright energy nearly masked the slight problems with timing early in the piece.

Aldridge provided breaths of fresh air amid the relentless pace of the music. In her solos, she was the picture of grace and serenity even against the frantic tempo of the piano. Peters was a steady partner, and although Aldridge seemed to tower over him en pointe, the pair partnered effortlessly, making the height difference seemingly a non-issue. Peters was consistent in his solos, showing airy ballon in his leaps and excellent control in his pirouettes.

Elizabeth Mateer and Lorin Mathis in Christopher Wheeldon’s 'Liturgy'.  Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Elizabeth Mateer and Lorin Mathis in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Liturgy’.
Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

The ensemble impressively maintained the blistering tempo without appearing rushed or frantic, and showed no signs of fatigue as they reached the home stretch. The women’s corps showed remarkable crispness, and the men danced in near-perfect unison despite the speed of the music. By the end, it felt as if we had seen a full-length ballet in the space of sixteen minutes, and the audience showed its appreciation with its rousing applause. Pianist Martha Koeneman took a well deserved bow with the ensemble.

After a brief pause, corps members Elizabeth Mateer and Lorin Mathis performed the sleeper-hit of the program – “Liturgy”, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to music by Arvo Part. Dim lights revealed Mateer and Mathis separated on the stage, performing repeated unison movements to Part’s haunting violin music – arms swimming through the air, accelerating as the dancers moved closer together, and reaching a peak once they finally met in the center of the stage.

Dancing together, Mateer and Mathis were pure magic, their deliberate motions and interweaving two distinct parts of one ethereal being. Mateer demonstrated astounding control and extension in supported poses, with Mathis as an unwavering foundation. The pair seemed to glide through space, feet barely touching the ground and hardly making a sound, not bound by gravity or any other limitations of this world. At times they seemed to move in slow motion, then suddenly came to a complete stop, all with a seamlessness rooted in a deep spiritual connection.

The spellbound audience roared with applause as violin soloist Luigi Mazzocchi took a  dancers. As the lights rose in the theater, whispers of “Who is she?” “Who is he?” continued to fill the air, ensuring that Mateer and Mathis and their stunning performance will not be soon forgotten.

A second duet followed, though much different from the previous, as Lauren Fadeley and Ian Hussey took the stage alongside pianist Koeneman for “Other Dances” by Jerome Robbins to music by Frederic Chopin. Created for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in in 1976, “Other Dances” is performed by only a select number of dancers throughout the world, and Fadeley and Hussey performed together superbly.

Dressed in light baby blue costumes by Santo Loquasto, with Fadeley in a light flowing dress with ribbons that seemed to dance around her, the pair was graceful and romantic in their pas de deux. Hussey’s athleticism was on display in his solo, filled with a lengthy series of leaps followed by quick sequences of rapid chainé turns. Fadeley breezed through the quick footwork in her solo with airy lightness and a radiant smile that penetrated the theater. Both dancers were wonderfully expressive, emotions flowing from long arms and legs. The piece ended with a rousing mazurka, danced with a buoyancy that made it seem as though they had just gone for a light stroll in the park, despite the demanding solos just performed.

Pennsylvania Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s 'Jeu de Cartes'.  Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Pennsylvania Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘Jeu de Cartes’.
Photo © Alexander Iziliaev

The program closed with “Jeu de Cartes” choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky set to music by Igor Stravinksy and featuring seven women (Marria Cosentino, Holly Lynn Fusco, Evelyn Kocak, Rachel Maher, Elizabeth Mateer, Brooke Moore, and Mayara Pineiro) and eight men (Daniel Cooper, Ian Hussey, James Ihde, Alexander Peters, Lorin Mathis, Alex Ratcliffe-Lee, Harrison Monaco, and Amir Yogev). It gave the company an opportunity to show off its comedic side, but despite the lighter mood, the dancers had no break from the physical demands of the piece. In addition to the frenetic pace which was unrelenting from start to finish, the choreography demanded athletic feats from every member of the ensemble. The ensemble rose to the challenge.

Women danced solos in turn, men performed acrobatics, costumes changed, and the audience tried not to blink. There were moments when there was so much activity on stage, it was difficult to know where to look or how to take it all in. By the time the ensemble formed a line across the stage and collapsed in turn, like a row of cards, it felt as if the dancers had started out sprinting, but ended up running a marathon, though never slowing down. Chests were heaving, costumes were soaked with perspiration, and there was nothing left to do but applaud the effort.

Major changes often bring uncertainty, but the company has erased any doubt and hesitancy with its triumphant first program of its 51st season. The selections included in “Press Play” showed Pennsylvania Ballet’s versatility, artistry, talent, and athleticism. With its usual vibrancy, but now with seemingly fresh energy – and with new Artistic Director Angel Corella at the helm – the company appears eager to venture boldly into a new era.