Programming an evening of mixed repertory dance is no easy task. Ideally, each selection on the program has the potential to complement the others, almost like dishes in a balanced, full course meal. Otherwise, audiences can feel that they’ve sampled too much of this, not enough of that, or worse, leave the theatre feeling entirely over-stuffed.
Thursday evening, the Pennsylvania Ballet presented a perfectly balanced evening of dance. The program contained classic works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, a company revival by Michael Kamen, and a company premier by Jiří Kylián. The resulting menu was wonderfully curated.
The first course presented Balanchine’s Serenade, choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s well-loved Serenade for Strings in C, Opus 48. Balanchine’s Serenade offers a close reading of Tchaikovsky’s score. Different musical themes are assigned different choreographic themes, which return and are developed throughout this thirty-minute work.
Though Balanchine tried, increasingly, to break away from the trappings of plot-driven grand ballet and focus on dancing, Serenade does not escape a loose narrative structure: boy meets girl(s); boy must choose among girls; boy chooses one girl over others; girl languishes since she cannot possibly survive without a man. Choreographers today would hardly consider such an arcane, heteronormative plot construction.
Still, we can focus on the beauty of Balanchine’s masterful style. The Pennsylvania Ballet’s fresh-faced dancers offered several moments throughout their performance in which they rose above simply counting steps in a series of seemingly endless geometric formations.
Principal dancer Brooke Moore, who stood in for her colleague Amy Aldridge on Thursday night, performed admirably well, particularly considering the last-minute change. But the most graceful soloist in Serenade, by far, was a member of the corps de ballet, Caralin Curcio.
The second course on the evening’s program was Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun, originally performed in 1953. The original Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, with choreography by Nijinsky, is one of the most beloved works of modern dance.
Many have tried to reconstruct the original choreography using the written accounts, photographs issued as souvenirs, and even Nijinsky’s own notes. Ultimately, however, the original choreography is lost. The strength of Robbins’s choreography is in his departure from Nijinsky’s original staging. Rather than present a faun who encounters a group of nymphs, one of whom he pursues, Robbins’s staging contains only two dancers; the faun and a single nymph.
The action is transposed from ancient Arcadia to a dance studio. The faun, performed by Jermel Johnson, is a dancer warming up alone. Soon, the nymph, performed by Julie Diana, enters the same dance studio, and of course, a seductive chase follows.
However, unlike in the original scenario, in which the faun is clearly pursuing the nymph, Robbins’s scenario seems to transform the nymph into the seducer, rather than the seduced. She entices the faun, only to abandon him, helpless on the floor of the studio. Then, the faun extends his leg high into the air as a subtle nod to the infamous act of autoeroticism depicted by Nijinsky as the original faun.
Robbins did preserve, or at least translate, the curious two-dimensional aspect of Nijinsky’s choreography, designed to imitate figures on a Greek vase. Robbins had his two dancers preform as if they are at the barre on a mirrored wall, creating a similar two dimensional feel.
While dancers often perform en face, Diana and Johnson were exceptional in their ability to perform as if they were actually staring into a mirror, unaware that they are being observed by anyone but themselves. Because the dancers created such intense but intimate portraits of their characters, the Faun was the most rewarding piece on the entire program.
After a short intermission to cleanse the palette, the company served a small, third course: Under the Sun, choreographed by Margo Sappington (music by Michael Kamen). The work was created for the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1976 in order to honor the artist Alexander Calder, whose mobiles inspired both the costumes and the choreography. I certainly hope I have the opportunity to see this very curious work performed again.
The final course in the evening’s satisfying meal of dance was the company premier of Kylián’s Petite Mort. Like a dessert that is both sweet and salty, Petite Mort combines epic drama and wry humor to excellent effect.
In each of the pas de deux, the performers are in as little physical contact as possible. Or, when the dancers do touch, they engage in jaw-dropping balancing acts – for example, a female dancer resting only on the calf of a male dancer, as she hovers mere inches above the ground.
As for the bits of humor, well, there’s no sense in spoiling those. But, needless to say, the final moment in Petite Mort was the perfect ending to a well-curated evening of dance.
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