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Strength & Longing — Pennsylvania Ballet at the Merriam

ballet -- strongth -- interiorThe title of Pennsylvania Ballet’s current program speaks volumes.

Three of the dances deal with romance. Longing is often emphasized while strength is elegantly exhibited in the seemingly effortless but difficult to achieve lifts, stretches, poses, and quick, supple movement of Ballet’s magnificent dancers.

A late move here, a broken line there, and few random but rare glitches cannot negate the skill, talent, and loveliness of the Ballet corps. Their artistry is consummate. Muscle control and gymnastic prowess mix felicitously with beauty and discipline. This is a troupe that is as dramatically and theatrically sound as it technically adept. The dances performed suggest themes more than they tell stories, but within each dance, especially those three that articulate longing, has vignettes within it that ask the dancers for more than technical excellence and give the dancers the chance to show the emotions they can evoke and the intensity they can muster in addition to dazzling with their physical dexterity and grace.

While the final dance on the program, Jerome Robbins’s “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz” is a lively. uptempo number that will recall moves and sequences from Robbins’s “West Side Story,” choreographed around the same time as that musical, 1958, the three pieces that proceed it are lush, two set to sonorous music by Franz Schubert, and filled with moments that allow the dancers to be funny and sexy while charting the course of love and courtship.

Those three dances are Nacho Duato’s “Without Words” (1998), which puts four pairs of dancers into four different situations of relationship, ranging from the playful of the complicated; Justin Peck’s “Chutes and Ladders” (2013), a pas de deux that shows the uneven course of a relationship; and Christopher Wheeldon’s “For Four” (2000), in which four male dancers go through an elaborate array of physical permutations, sometimes with breathtaking symmetry, even when Wheeldon creates a comic mood, and, sometime with individual turns that are just as impressive.

“Without Words,” set to Schubert’s gorgeous and evocative piece of the same time, played to glorious perfection by cellist Jennie Lorenzo and the consistently extraordinary pianist, Martha Koeneman, begins with three dancers who seem like children at play. The play can be a little rough in the way that happens between friends. Two boys often look as if they’re dragging their female buddy or taunting her to her delight. She is, after, with her friends.

Matters take a different turn as you see two of the trio, danced by Harrison Monaco and Mayara Pineiro, developing more than a friendship. They come to like each other in a romantic way, and instead of turning his narrative awkward, their attraction is easy, and throughout “Without Words,” their relationship retains the comfort of starting out as friends.

That leaves the third dancer, Ian Hussey, alone, showing no rancor at being the odd person out but looking as if he doesn’t quite know how to bide his time without his companions, who have danced on to their own lives. No matter. As you see a contemplative Hussey on a stage left screen that show the attitude of essential characters in marvelous photographs by Alexander Iziliaev, Duato has Amy Aldridge dance out from beneath the photo, to accompany Hussey on stage and be his partner in a vignette that seems to show young people sweetly finding each other and growing in affection for one another.

Two other couples, Lorin Mathis and Lauren Fadeley and Jermel Johnson and Lillian DiPiazza, appear, Fadeley by rolling out from under the photo to join Mathis in their romantic gambit. Duato shows two more moods in which love flourishes, or wavers only to flourish eventually. Johnson is especially effective in the last segment of Duato’s dance.

Duato is like a dramatist in the way he peppers his dance with humor and pathos, and the way he creates distinct characters for the dancers in each pair. Subtle muscular moves combine with classic ballet to create an interesting, satisfying piece that gives all eight dancers the chance to show their training while having fun with their characters.

The pairs combine well in group sequences that add variety to Duato’s piece and take it from suggesting a story to pure dance that paints lovely pictures to music and allows the dancers to display their versatility.

Justin Peck’s “Chutes and Ladders,” set to music by Benjamin Britten and performed by string quartet that is visibly situated in what looks like a boxing ring upstage left, seems to continue Duato’s themes in a starker, less angular way.

Schubert’s music denotes love, and the finding of it, in solemn, sentimental tones. It’s deep and portentous while also being warm and absorbing. Britten’s strains and shriller, to the point of crying out for attention. It insists the pas de deux danced by Lauren Fadeley and Craig Wasserman be more temperamental and more intense. Peck obliges with a dance that seems to alternate attraction and repulsion while Fadeley and Wasserman demonstrate their individual strength as they assume and hold difficult poses that show both their dexterity and endurance.

“Chutes and Ladders” is not a long piece, but it calls for much precision as limbs are stretched to their limits, and both dancers display an impressive combination of a gymnast’s discipline and a dancer’s bravura with their muscular but graceful lifts, splits, dives, and defiant acts of balance.

Color enters the program, as does a more vibrant Schubert, with Christopher Wheeldon’s “For Four,” in which a brightly clad quartet of dancers — Arian Molina Soca, Ian Hussey, Amir Yogev, and Jermel Johnson — excite with their meticulous symmetry, even when given complicated steps and gestures, and earn individual praise for their solo turns within the piece.

Energy and spirit are the keys to this dance which has its corps doing moves as basic as a variation on the sailor’s dance to complex exercises, and witty images, such as a daisy chain formed by each dancer extending his hand between his legs. Wheeldon combines recognizable ballet steps with Pilobolus-type effects, sans props, to create an expansive array of moves that entertain with their verve and provide fun with their creativity. Ian Hussey is particularly enjoyable to watch as he goes through Wheeldon’s paces.

The program’s closer, Robbins’s “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz.” provides a 180-degree change in mood and content.

This tribute to the dances done by ’50s teens, only to a jazz score by Robert Prince rather to rock ‘n’ roll a la Presley, Berry, or Holly, is a lively, varied concoction that reminds me not only of numbers from Robbins’s “West Side Story” but the scene of Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson sparking life in the “empathicalists” Audrey Hepburn takes up with in “Funny Face.” You see a lot of tip-toe steps with hands curved, fingers down, in a paw position as a legion of Ballet performers head to the center and then break joyfully free from a concentric circle or pass each other, snapping those fingers, in one of Robbins’s sprightly variations.

Jazz dominates musically, and the brass section of the Ballet’s orchestra are terrific as they bring out in fun in Prince’s tunes. After an evening that begins somewhat cerebrally, the zestfully nostalgic look and entertainment-for-entertainment tone of Robbins’s dance is enthusiastically welcome. They create a high that carries you out into the street and makes you want to jive through the night. There are some set pieces amid the exuberance provided by a the large corps. Busy Lauren Fadeley and Francis Veyette do a great job in a sequence called “Passage for Two.”

“Strength & Longing,” in general, shows the great shape the Pennsylvania Ballet is in. Artistic director Angel Corrella has added gloss to fine corps while maintaining the meticulousness of the Roy Kaiser period. The program promises more excitement from the Ballet that rates attention from Philadelphia theatergoers.

“Strength & Longing,” a program of the Pennsylvania Ballet, runs through Sunday, February 7, at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street, in Philadelphia. Sunday’s show time is 2 p.m. Tickets range from $125 to $29 and can be obtained by visiting www.paballet.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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