Dance Ornaments Sparkle in Pennslyvania Ballet's Nutcracker


by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal
Some of the nastiest Philly weather so far accompanied last weekend’s evening performance of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music. But, the wintry mix did not dampen the mood in what looked like a full house of many families, certainly not the excitement of little girls in sparkling theater dresses and lads in smart suits. Or, for that matter their parents, who were excited for them, even those who braced themselves at sitting through a lot of fluff to get to any real dancing.
Pennsylvania Ballet is only one of just a few companies licensed to do Balanchine’s 1954 classic.  Balanchine, nostalgic over Imperial Ballet imagery, concocts a jewel box ballet that can look privileged and musty by now. Where are the the Russian ‘Trepak’ dance (knee hopping, barrel rolling Cossacks), for instance, that turn up in more folkloric versions. But, Balanchine’s ballet provides a good strength test, especially for a mid-sized company, with rotating casts to cover all the parts for a month of performances.  It taps the technical skills of precision and pacing in the strong ensemble sections, for instance and decisively in the finale with the Sugar Plum- Cavalier grand pas de deux.
The other marker is the esprit the company puts into the character dancing that have to keep the kids in the audience enchanted when they are used to hi-def and high tech entertainments.  So much of old world, Imperial Ballet Balanchine is set in, however fleetingly, and the dance challenges in many of the scenes are in the refinement, not the dazzle. By now, Pennsylvania Ballet stylizes to keep this less under glass to contemporary audiences in subtle, effective ways. Pennsylvania Ballet’s fuels the gestural acting with smart character touches that enliven all of the pantomime that goes on, for instance.
The tempo of the score for one. Philadelphians who remember how much slower Eugene Ormandy set it for his famous recording, should marvel at how fleet conductor Beatrice Jona Affron‘s pacing that moves a potentially wheezy first act, with Balanchine lingering on pristine those images of Christmas past.  An adult crowd pleaser is a chance to hear Luigi Mazzocchi’s masterful violin solo after the party scene, his rich tone just bathing the Academy.
Abbie Rorke plays Marie, with confident acting skill and ballerina deportment. Just as charming is young actor Tino Tino Karakousis, age 7, playing the little brother Fritz at his brattiest, shoving people and scampering around was not only delightful, it is artful dance-dodgery. Aidan Duffy gallantly plays the young man who loves Marie and saves her from the Mouse King. The students from Pennsylvania Ballet school dancing the parlor promenade and the Polichinelles pirate dance with equal aplomb and skill.
Rachel Maher and Edward Barnes and were flawless in their pantomime acting as the holiday party givers. The mysterious Herr Drosselmeier was very magically animated by Lorin Mathis. Alex Peters was not only military sharp in the clockwork movements of the Toy Soldier; he had a tragedy in his eyes that gave it soul. Finally, the full dance scene of The Snowflakes, which never disappoints with only drifty spots in the opening chasses, jetes and group swirls, by the time these ladies had their snow wands and the Philadelphia Boys Choir were serenading, they were in crystalline drill.
The real dancing starts in the second act, overseen by those hydra-foiling little angels. Lillian di Piazza commandeered as The Sugar Plum Fairy.  Di Piazza’s studied phrasing didn’t float the adagio work to full lightness, but that is a minor distraction, from her overall magical presence.
On came the divertissements troops, the Chocolates, always too short a dance, with flamenco touches thrown in, danced with flair by lead couple Evelyn Kocak and Amir Yogev. Caralin Curcio just smoked as Coffee, a harem seduction, in her variations of storybook Arabian exoticism. Curcio was more than slinky and sexy, her every detail was polished, capped off with a slow pointe slide to a split, then a supple back bend that just mesmerizes.
The Marzipan Sheperdesses were a bit scrambled in this performance behind lead Sheperdess Rachel Jambois, but all of the musical charm was in place. Later Brooke Moore commandeered The Dewdrops with more precision canon lines that bloom with Balanchine’s showgirl pageantry.  Moore moves around and through the ensemble with crisp, air-slicing jetes and solid pointe work. Slight vamping on the piques signal that she was having a ball. Yogev was back as the lead Candy Cane, always a crowd pleaser by virtue of its repetition hoop jumps and Yogev and the back up Canes, nailed it.
The pas de deux of The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, in this performance danced by Di Piazza and Jong Suk Park, is by design alternately flowing and jarring, with a lot of pointe freezes and Balanchine limb tangles. They struggled somewhat on the slow turns with Di Piazza en pointe, making slight adjustments and the deep penche arabesque didn‘t tilt enough, but these were momentary snags.  Park has an unfussy attack for the jump circles around the stage and Di Piazza has a diamond hard arabesque that just keeps giving.  They held a tight gaze on each other, paced the big moments with thrilling results- the jump of Sugar Plum on the Cavalier’s shoulder, then repeated, was first rate and they locked into that iconic Poisson finale pose, to rapturous applause.

Artifact: 1. that which is made from/out of art, 2. evidence of what came before.


By Kirsten Kaschock
In Pennsylvania Ballet’s premiere performance of William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite—a redux of his 1984 full-length ode to ballet Artifact—dramatic elements (a woman in a historical dress, a man with a megaphone, text) have been excised. What remains is dance. Costumed in the neo-classical style (simple leotards, tights), the dancers exhibit extraordinary command of a movement vocabulary at times expanded, pushed off the vertical, but never departing far from 20th century ballet convention.
The curtain rises on two pas de deux vying for foreground and background. The competition is illusion. It’s simply the “problem” caused by Forsythe’s refusal to pare down the movement on stage to a single focal point. Three walls of dancers initially box in the duets. A conductor-figure (called Other Person in the program notes) stands center stage facing back. Her semaphore-like direction of the corps de ballet eventually ventures from simple geometric forms, becoming more gestural, individual, and impossible to imitate with exactitude—although the attempt by thirty-plus dancers at the end of a physically demanding work is thrilling.
That is: it was thrilling for me, and for a few others who jumped to their feet at the close of the work. The rest of the audience was more tempered in their response, and a handful of people left midway through.
Notions of ballet are highly individual. And everyone is right.
William Forsythe*
During the first section of the suite, as the dancers move to “Chaconne” from J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 BVW 1004 in D-Minor, the curtain drops heavily at least six times. At first the audience titters, worried about technical difficulties. The second time, I hear some laughter. With each subsequent thud, I discern only grumbling—as if we are missing something other than dancers running frantically to their next tableau. Twenty-nine years after the first version of this piece premiered, the interruption of the traditional proscenium-framed formula still has the power to shock a ballet audience.
After the first section, performed in gold, the dancers return in aqua. The duets recede and larger group sections build one upon the next in waves. The music has also changed colors. The violin is gone, and highly formalized improvisations based on the Bach partita and created by Forsythe’s rehearsal pianist, the late Eva Crossman-Hecht, now provide rhythmic and contrapuntal motivation for an ocean of dancers. Percussive walking and clapping periodically punctuate rushing port-de-bras and tidally recurring footwork patterns. In these moments, I feel strongly the inheritance of Balanchine: how the dancers seem almost visual representations of music, as in Concerto BaroccoBut Forsythe takes on more fields of action and interaction. Hands together, hands landing on thighs, heavy walking: suddenly, the idea of a visual score confronts the weighted, physical reality of these dancers. They don’t just represent music—their bodies can make it.
There is a simple and undeniable power in people moving as one. In contact improv class, a huddle of bodies may synchronize breath to achieve this sensation among its members. On stage in an abstract ballet, adherence to a choreographer’s vision—its several lines of action, its intensities, tempos, and nuances of phrasing—can realize the same affective result from the outside in. Each dancer reaching for this larger ideal promotes a sense of unified purpose, of symphonic effort. Pennsylvania Ballet, led by fearless partners Julie Diana and Ian Hussey, Lauren Fadeley and Francis Veyette, achieves just such a driving, driven place.
There is this highly Platonic moment—because there is no “arabesque”
…but we all contribute to the idea of arabesque.
William Forsythe
This joint striving is one of the strange pleasures Artifact Suite provides. Strange because—potent and kinesthetic as the experience can be—it is also impossible for me to watch a troupe of dancers led through evenly-spaced angular unison (divided into separate regiments of action) without thinking of military training, or group calisthenics on a grand scale. My feelings about the hierarchies necessary to accomplish such coordinated cohesion are ambivalent to say the least. Forsythe’s suite is bittersweet, functioning as both an homage to the sovereign nation of ballet and as a farewell to its decadences. Perhaps this embarrassment of riches (three dozen virtuosic dancers moving simultaneously and fiercely, impossible to attend to as individuals) is, well, a bit embarrassing.
When Caralin Curcio (the Other Person) walks finally forward, lower body quieted, her hands furiously articulating something too complex to be coherently amplified by the human microphone of the corps de ballet, I am relieved. In the narrative I cannot help but create for myself, she represents the choreographic mind, and the other dancers are the seamless transition of that mind to the stage. I am reassured when her vocabulary surpasses their ability to replicate it, when they ever so slightly break ranks at the climactic moment of the work. Dancers are people. And in the work of this living master, continually pushing at the edges of form—that means that they are, that they must be, more than perfect embodiments of something else.
I belong to the class of people to whom ideas give pleasure.
William Forsythe
What he said.
Forsythe & Kylián, Pennsylvania Ballet, Academy of Music, June 13-16.  
(Also on the program were the Pennsylvania Ballet premiere of Jiri Kylián’s Forgotten Land, and World Premiere of At Various Points by Matthew Neenan.)  
*From the symposium Fold, Collapse, and Shift: Ballet and Beyond in the Choreography of William Forsythe held May 30, 2013 at the Arts Bank.  See Anna Drozdowski's article on this event.


Rising to the Occasion


By: Jonathan M. Stein
William Forsythe, the American choreographer who re-invented ballet in the period after George Balanchine, is a brilliant Janus-faced artist who can both look back at the history of dance while charting its future. Artifact Suite, his 2004 "a ballet about a ballet" (as he calls it), is a shortened version of his original Artifact, created in 1984 when he first became director of the Frankfurt Ballet. Three decades later, as adapted by the Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music last week, it still projects a radical edge and dazzling power"” maybe a bit too much for some opening night front row audience members, who left early. Dance innovators like Merce Cunningham suffered similar reactions. Forsythe uses 38 dancers for this piece, often employing them across the breadth and along the perimeter of the large Academy stage as if we'd be experiencing the expanse of a 100-plus orchestra playing a major Mahler symphony.Although the original, longer Artifact contained more historical references to the origins of ballet in the Baroque courts of Europe as well as dialogue inspired by Michel Foucault, this abbreviated Suite employs as its animating structure a ballet class setting, with the corps replicating and mirroring the hand and arm signals of a roving instructor in leotards (the "Other Person,"danced by Caralin Curcio). They execute in unison but then with an array of variations, and with positioning along the sides"” in a V formation, or lying on the floor"” the basic geometries of ballet language, which Forsythe then feels free to bend, distort, over-extend or reduce. We see, as an example, a port de bras performed with one arm.En masse, this reductive source and process, and its rich variation, becomes a force of energy that transcends its ballet components and technique.Into this ordered maelstrom, and to the vigorous sonorities of the chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D-minor for violin, Forsythe tosses two pas de deux (danced with élan by Julie Diana and Ian Hussey, and Lauren Fadeley and Francis Veyette), whose swirling and dynamic partnering amidst the corps whips the energy fields into a dizzying rapture.The overall effect is a feast for the mind and senses alike. At regular intervals, the safety curtain drops with a loud thud, ending one scene and beginning another when it's lifted, a device Forsythe has called both a "musical caesura" and, more recently, "like cinema, a cut in a film."Yes, but its high theatricality and percussive power sent the Academy audience buzzing in differing ways"” from those questioning or even aghast at the unexpected unconventionality of the device, to others who smilingly accepted this assertive pause in anticipation of something new. Forsythe also plays with dimmed lighting and backlighting to create movement within shadows, which offer their own mysteries and questions about perception.Another of the evening's gifts was the company's first performance of Forgotten Land (1981) by the Czech-born choreographer JiÅ™í Kylián, now in his 60s, who left his mark on modern ballet during his long tenure at the helm of the Nederlands Dans Theater.Forgotten Land"” inspired by an Edvard Munch woodcut image of a woman looking out to sea from the water's edge, and set to Benjamin Britten's stormy Sinfonia da requiem"” opens with the most striking scene of the dance, and one whose visual power is never quite met in later scenes. The 12 men and women, with their backs to the audience and facing the water's dark backdrop, step gently forward and back in tidal paths swept also by occasional side currents, and accompanied by rolls of the head and neck and crooked arms bent at the elbows, suggesting incipient flight.Kylián then switches gears to offer more conventional vehicles in the form of multiple duets to establish the personal dramas of attachment and dissolution. These duets, danced with feeling and virtuosic flair in Munch-era garments of white, grey, red and black, exhibited flawless and breathtaking partnering. Yet the varying emotional states of the couples that Kylián might have intended were blurred by their shared high-speed execution. The partners separated in almost violent ruptures, and a small group of women again faced the sea, without the elegiac power of the opening scene and closer to the more stoical stance of the columnal woman in the Munch woodcut.Perhaps it was unfair to sandwich Matthew Neenan's new work for four dancers between these two masters of contemporary ballet. At Various Points felt tentative and incomplete. It was laced with repetitious index finger pointing and hand-to-temple postures by dancers costumed in black motley that revealed asymmetric areas of skin. Presumably these vernacular hand gestures were meant to communicate the dancers' uncertainties and anxieties, but this viewer, at least, was left unmoved.The Forsythe and Kylián work revealed the strengths of an outstanding company of dancers who should be offered more such challenging choreography, as well as an audience equally willing to be challenged.

'Nutcracker' at 25, still jumping for joy

Nutcracker, 12-13, Reviews

Inquirer, December 12, 2012
When Pennsylvania Ballet opened its 25th season of performing George Balanchine's full-lengthNutcracker Saturday at the Academy of Music, there undoubtedly were people in the audience who were seeing it for the 25th year in a row.
So what's to return for after all this time? Like a favorite holiday movie, repeat viewings only add to the comfort and joy. Even when you know what's coming, you're likely to get chills when it begins to snow onstage. And unlike, say, White Christmas orLove Actually, you'll see different things each time as the casting changes.
Saturday night's performance featured Julie Diana as Sugarplum and Ian Hussey - a replacement for Zachary Hench - as her Cavalier. Diana is a lovely, delicate dancer (though her arms shook uncertainly in the pas de deux), and Hussey, who rose quickly through the ranks and was promoted to principal dancer this fall, was a handsome, confident partner.
Caralin Curcio was a slithery, sultry Coffee, while Jermel Johnson awed with his signature explosive jumps in Tea. Amy Aldridge often performs Dewdrop, and she was perfect for the role, flitting in, out, and among the Flowers.
In the children's roles, Mary Lee Deddens danced and acted nicely as the multilayered Marie, with Juan Rafael Castellanos as her exasperating brother, Fritz. Christian Lavallie had the combined role of Drosselmeier's nephew and the Nutcracker Prince. He was valiant battling the Mouse King and recapping it later in pantomime to Sugarplum.
If you attend year after year, you'll spot rising stars in the program, as young dancers grow into bigger roles. Stephanie Bandura, who is Marie on the Comcast wall, dances the role of a mouse, and Lucas Tischler, an especially impish Fritz a few years ago, now is the Prince in some performances. Many of the Flowers and Snowflakes are company apprentices, Pennsylvania Ballet II dancers, or advanced students at the newly reopened School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
A repeat viewing is also a fine time to take in the low-tech effects, which astonish nonetheless. A few were wonky on opening night, breaking the spell a little: The Nutcracker transferred into the Prince costume a little too slowly. Mother Ginger's immense skirt revealed all the Polichinelles still inside each time one stepped out. And the Angels' costumes are a bit too short, allowing the audience to see their tiny steps rather than letting them appear to float across the stage.
But the magic is still there when the tree - and Marie's whole world - grows before our eyes, when the toy soldiers come to life, when the Philadelphia Boys Choir sings as snow wafts onto the stage when Sugarplum glides across the floor on one pointe, and when Marie and the Prince sail off in a flying walnut boat - even if we can see the wires holding them up. Also charming is the single bunny among the soldiers, perhaps replacing a long-lost piece.
All these small enchantments, supported by Tchaikovsky's gorgeous score, help make Nutcracker one of the rare ballets to appear on many must-see lists year after year. It's easy to see why.
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Review: Pennsylvania Ballet opens season with 'Giselle'

Giselle, 12-13, Reviews

Pennsylvania Ballet opened its 49th season with Giselle Thursday night at the Academy of Music and made it clear why the work has such staying power.

One of the world's most frequently performed ballets (with Nutcracker and Swan Lake), Gisellewas choreographed in 1841 by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and reworked several times by Marius Petipa. It is breathtakingly beautiful, from the courtyard scene to the romantic pas de deux to the lush corps de ballet in long puffs of white tulle to the memorable Adolphe Adam score.

This run of Giselle is notable as the last dance for beloved principal Arantxa Ochoa before she retires from the stage. (She has already begun the next phase of her career, as principal instructor at the newly reopened School of Pennsylvania Ballet.) Ochoa was to perform Friday night, as well as in a final performance at the Oct. 28 matinee.

But Julie Diana, who danced the title role Thursday, was wonderful as well. Her strong dancing and acting and delicate features made her believable as a young girl, and later a ghost defending her feckless lover, Count Albrecht, from the vengeful female spirits called Wilis. Albrecht was played by her real-life husband, the reliable Zachary Hench, the flirt who breaks Giselle's heart.

Gabriella Yudenich, who was promoted to soloist shortly after her breakout debut as Myrta, queen of the Wilis, in 2007, reprised the role and was just as mesmerizing, her fluid arms and quick bourees as light and ghostly as the part demands.

That entire second-act scene at the graveyard was stunning. The corps dancers do not get much difficult dancing as the Wilis, ghosts of jilted brides, but their precision and lines are what make some fall in love with ballet. They were led by Barette Vance Widell and Abigail Mentzer; the two made a lovely trio with Yudenich.

There were a few missteps, and one was amusing: Jong Suk Park as Albrecht's friend Wilfred regally promenaded across the stage with two fluffy hunting dogs, one of which got to center stage, lost interest, and had to be coaxed the rest of the way.

The other lapse involved what should have been a light-hearted peasant pas de deux. Evelyn Kocak - whose charming performance as Wendy in last spring's Peter Pan led up to her recent promotion to soloist - danced proficiently but appeared stiff, nervous, and uninvested in the part. Her partner, newly minted principal dancer Jermel Johnson, usually an explosive jumper, nearly fell several times.

Giselle makes for a crowd-pleasing season opener at a transitional time for many of the company's dancers. Along with Ochoa's departure and Kocak's and Johnson's new roles, Lauren Fadeley, Brooke Moore, and Ian Hussey will be performing for the first time as principal dancers. So the entire run is sure to feature interesting performances.

October 21, 2012
by Ellen Dunkel
Philadelphia Inquirer

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When ballet dancers fly: Neverland on Broad Street

Reviews, 11-12

May 8, 2012
Roll over, Nutcracker, and make way for that feral boy with the aerial chops. Peter Pan has found his Neverland at the Academy of Music, where Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker has for so long reigned as the prime ballet offering for both adults and children.
Thanks to the spirited Pennsylvania Ballet premiere of this 2002 work by Trey McIntyre, Philadelphians now have the makings of a new children’s classic that can become a recurring treat in the repertory.
In his first full ballet, McIntyre eschews the Disneyfied approaches to Peter Pan by returning to the haunting and darker story of the original J.M. Barrie story. More recent theater productions of Peter Pan, such as the 2010 version by the National Theater of Scotland, also re-discover the disturbing story of an eternally youthful boy relating to fantastical and real worlds.
You won’t see much innovative choreographic invention in this work, but you will see totally committed dancers embodying a compelling story. McIntyre has mined the original tale to illustrate how the Lost Boys gather in Neverland. Early in the first act we see three outsized nannies walking three similarly outsized perambulators; when one overactive “child” rolls out of one, he’s swept with a broom offstage and, as the story goes, when unclaimed is sent away to Neverland.
Sniffing the bedclothes
Peter was well portrayed by Amir Yogev at a Sunday matinee performance, exhibiting his feral side as he first sniffed all the bed clothing in Wendy’s bedroom after his arrival flight. Yogev’s physical dynamism and control of the space manifests the Pan character’s youthful energy, but the choreographer may have missed some of the poignancies in the boy’s outsider status and in his relations with those who, like Wendy, expect him to grow up.
Wendy, danced by Lauren Fadeley, perfectly realized the child and woman aspects of this role. Her concluding solo as Peter flew away was memorably wistful.
Zachary Hench made a lasting impression on my four-year-old date, Amelia, who, like her grandfather, admired his ability to combine comical menace within the character. Of the ensemble dances, the animated dance of the Red Skins (a name well worth changing for these times) stood out for its visceral earthiness, appropriate to a dance for a Rite of Spring.
Flying debut
Peter Pan also appeared to be a flying debut for the Pennsylvania Ballet, which employed aerial dance as an integral element to this story. Yogev seemed as comfortable in the air as on the ground, and when he crossed his arms across his chest with his legs in a diamond shape, his revolving upward ascent had the effect of a lunar rocket blastoff.
The first aerial ascent of Wendy and her siblings was magically commenced as Peter gave a light lift to Wendy’s extended foot. I wished for more extended and choreographed aerial dance, but there was enough here to elicit Amelia’s response: “I wish I could fly.” (Someday I’ll tell her about the Amelia who did fly.)
Slithering crocodile
Thomas Boyd’s scenic design ably created the illusionist spaces of Neverland’s flowered and forested landscape, the intimidating pirate ship interior, and the Darling bedroom full of watchful nannies and visiting fairies. Jeanne Button met the challenge of widely divergent, yet singular, costume designs for an extraordinary cast of characters. The Elgar music, collaged from various works by arranger Niel DePonte, sufficed to provide the range of sound to accompany this work.
A 15-foot-long crocodile made two slithering solos, albeit without a cowering Captain Hook or the sound of a ticking clock. Perhaps a future production can offer up some ominous ticks from the beast. But even without them, this Peter Pan has the makings of a classic that will enthrall and delight those of all ages.
Perhaps this success might provide a catalyst for the gleaning of other mythic children’s stories from the rich literature out there, giving theNutcracker some competition while also giving the public new access into all those children’s stories whose appeal transcends age boundaries.
By Jonathan M. Stein
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Pennsylvania Ballet: Peter Pan With a Twist Through May 13th

Reviews, 11-12

by Susan Lewis
May 7, 2012

A fantasy born over a hundred years ago continues to resonate today. As Pennsylvania Ballet stages Peter Pan, set to the music of Sir Edward Elgar, WRTI's Susan Lewis considers the boy who wouldn't grow up and his relevance to our lives today.

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An impressive 'Messiah' from Pennsylvania Ballet

11-12, Reviews

by Ellen Dunkel
The Inquirer
March 10, 2012
Art and religion are frequent companions, and Pennsylvania Ballet's Messiah, which opened Thursday night at the Academy of Music, is, not surprisingly, steeped in Christianity.
During this Lenten season, many audience members may appreciate a balletic look at Jesus' life, death, and impact. But while Handel's Messiah is magnificent no matter what one's leanings, the 21/4-hour-long ballet (including an intermission and a significant pause), set to the complete Handel oratorio, may seem a bit of a haul for others.
Choreographed in 1998 by Robert Weiss, who was Pennsylvania Ballet's artistic director from 1982 to 1990, Messiah is a grand undertaking, featuring the side-stage Philadelphia Singers with four soloists, two dozen dancers, and the ballet orchestra.
Thursday's dancers, occasionally overshadowed by the intensity of the chorus, might have made their movements larger, but they performed very well. Especially notable were the men, including Ian Hussey and Francis Veyette, and Zachary Hench as Jesus.
In one beautiful section, Veyette partnered two women, Barette Vance Widell and Arantxa Ochoa, dressed in white. At times, he had both promenading or turning, requiring great strength from all three. In another section, pairs of dancers stretched out yards of fabric that rippled over the floor like water, as Hench walked atop it.
At a particularly quick and breathtaking point, several men threw Hench nearly onto the backs of three dancers; three men caught him at the last minute. The "Hallelujah Chorus," with the full cast of dancers, closed out the first part of the ballet with a bang.
At another point, the cast, all in white, lined up at the lip of the stage, leaning and supporting one another. Hench was weighted down by a great cross, which looked even more poignant in shadow against the backdrop. Finally, attached to a cable, he spun and rose toward heaven.
But one section ("Why do the nations so furiously rage together") baffled, and almost made the entire ballet jump the shark. In it, the dancers waved flags of various countries and causes, including that of the Confederacy. Some performed hand-to-hand combat with sticks, others goose-stepped like Nazis, a group vibrated as though firing machine guns. And then Hench, as Jesus, leaped back on stage and restored calm.
No question, Messiah looks good on Pennsylvania Ballet, and clearly some will love it. But it may not be for everyone.
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Sweet sorrow for a dancer bowing out

11-12, Reviews

By Ellen Dunkel
The Inquirer
February 11, 2012
Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Riolama Lorenzo's final performance before retiring is Sunday, but it was already a lovefest Thursday night, when the company opened its Pushing Boundaries series at the Merriam Theater.
The theater was buzzing with talk of Lorenzo, both before the show and during the two intermissions. And she didn't disappoint, dancing two Matthew Neenan ballets: 11:11, set to six songs by Rufus Wainwright, andKeep, in a gorgeous, mature pas de deux with Zachary Hench.
Created in 2009, Keep is a beautiful ballet, featuring a suite of, mostly, duets about relationships, set to string quartets by Alexander Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. But it also could be interpreted as Lorenzo's bittersweet bourrée into the next phase of her life, as fresh-faced dancers in pink eagerly fill the gap. Lorenzo, in a yellow gown, stands in the shadows during a long section, then kneels to lean over a fallen colleague and, with bits of chiffon floating around her, melts into her partner in pirouettes and dramatic ports de bras.
The piece ends with Lorenzo alone on stage, spinning on a stool as the curtain comes down.
Neenan's 11:11 from 2005 is one of his classic works, a well-paced suite of dances featuring a large cast pulsating as the seconds tick off in the music, and rotating in a Bolero-like circle to Wainwright's "Oh What a World," which includes a nod to the Ravel composition. A man picks up a woman and rotates her clockwise, her legs like hands of the clock.
The evening opened with The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, by William Forsythe, a 1996 ballet of great speed and - ideally - precision, set to the last movement of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C major.
It felt like an audition for future Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancers, and perhaps it was. All the company's principals danced Thursday night, but Vertiginous Thrill featured three female soloists (Lauren Fadeley, Brooke Moore, and Barette Vance Widell) and two men from the corps de ballet (Andrew Daly and Tyler Savoie).
All were up to the task, but few got the exactitude. My audition callback goes to Fadeley, who had the most precise footwork while projecting an air of fun and ease.
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Polished and pretty, a ‘Nutcracker’ to celebrate

Reviews, 11-12, Nutcracker

By Ellen Dunkel
The Inquirer
December 12, 2011
Fresh off a seven-performance tour of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker to Ottawa, Pennsylvania Ballet opened at home Saturday night with a polished performance at the Academy of Music.
The principal children - Mary Lee Deddens as Marie, Juan Rafael Castellanos as her brother Fritz, and Christian Lavallie as the Prince - are adorable and all danced well, but they also drew the audience in with a believable sense of wonder.
Pennsylvania Ballet is a small company, so most dancers perform more than one role, which only adds to the transformative feel of the story. Lauren Carfolite and Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan are Maids serving drinks in Act 1 and turn into Tea in Act 2. Most of the Snowflakes blossom into Flowers. Holly Lynn Fusco was the Harlequin doll in Act 1, a Snowflake at the beginning of Act 2, and then the lead Marzipan Shepherdess later in the show, performing all flawlessly.
Amy Aldridge is an ideal Sugar Plum, smiling and beautiful. She upped the role on Saturday, with great reactions as the Prince mimed his battle with the Mouse King. She also added extra turns to her pirouettes, twice doing four rotations. Only her partnering with Zachary Hench as her Cavalier now and then seemed forced.
Barette Vance Widell danced Dewdrop, a gorgeous fairy who jetés and flits on and off stage among the flowers. Her solo featured a set of fouettés that she finished with a fast double turn.
Other notables include Brooke Moore as the female lead in Hot Chocolate, who performs in a group of 10 dancers but is magnetic in the role. Alexander Peters, an apprentice, was a sharp, precise Soldier doll, something the part demands but doesn't always get.
Riolama Lorenzo has been off the stage for several months, and it was wonderful to see her back as the sultry Coffee, performing with a bare midriff and sixpack abs that made it hard to believe she had a baby girl in July. There won't be many more opportunities to see her, though; she is retiring from the company in February.
Jermel Johnson excels in roles that require high jumps and extreme flexibility, and he brought both to Tea, with Carfolite and Ryan. This is the one divertissement that, while entertaining, also seems extremely dated, with non-Asian dancers representing Chinese people and performing stereotypical movements. Yet somehow, with an African-American man and two white women in the roles, the politically incorrect aspect was played down.
One section that needs work is the Angel dance. The children in beautiful costumes are a joy to watch, but they do not float as they do in New York City Ballet, which dances the same Balanchine choreography. Either the children's steps need to be smaller and faster or the dresses longer, to hide their feet.
With low-tech magic and a top-notch cast, Nutcracker is a holiday favorite for good reason. Catch it if you can. If you can't, stop by the Comcast Center, where Pennsylvania Ballet is part of the new holiday show on the wall.
Through Dec. 31 at the Academy of Music. $20-$140. 215-893-1999 or


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