The Pennsylvania Ballet promised both Grace and Grandeur for the penultimate offering of their season, with works by Marius Petipa, Christopher Wheeldon and George Balanchine.

For me, the highlight was Wheeldon’s For Four. Already the twelfth year since its première, it has seasoned well. Created originally for four leading men of ballet (one of whom, Angel Corella, is now the artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet), this is a quite lovely exploration of the various forms of artistry of the male dancer. Fluidity and flow are its chief hallmarks, anchored in the opening silhouette of the four against dawn-like colours, and in the still tableau at the end, against night-black: a simple narrative arc.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s <i>For Four</i> © Rosalie O'Connor
Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s For Four
© Rosalie O'Connor
The initial flow of movement starts with one of the silhouettes, who is joined by the second, and as the first stills, the third joins the second, and so on. It is only then that the lights show up the colours of individuals – red, green, brown and blue. By virtue of the costuming (loose Latin/rhythm trousers), the attention is drawn away from the musculature of the leg, and onto the effect of movement.

Hence the feeling of seamless flow, a feeling further enhanced by the scoring to the second movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. The play with numbers, notable from the start, continues as each dancer gets their ‘solo’ (with their own background colour) but not an absolute solo – they are joined by fleeting encounters with the others.

Each dancer was startlingly light and fleet. Peter Weil in brown drew the eye; Jeremel Johnson in blue had sinuous lines. Joined by Sterling Baca in red, and Zecheng Liang in green, they all appeared as supernatural characters, androgynous spirits of the dance. There were typically quirky Wheeldon details too – an invocation of puppetry, as if they were sometimes not agents of their own movements – which cheekily cut across the flow of movement. The importance of not being earnest, at least not always.

The staging of both Paquita and Theme and Variations, which framed the program, was alike in being opulent in the details, but suitably simple in the backdrop. Against a simple blue backdrop, say, the gorgeousness of chandeliers and candelabras is going to stand out. Anything more would be entirely unnecessary in these shorter pieces. And frankly, there is so much going on, especially in the Balanchine that an elegant schema settles the eye.

Mayara Pineiro in Marius Petipa’s <i>Paquita</i> © Rosalie O'Connor
Mayara Pineiro in Marius Petipa’s Paquita
© Rosalie O'Connor

Mayara Pineiro was a dynamic lead in the Paquita, with a clear sense of style, ‘gypsy’ flair, and the extroversion required for the role. Her épaulement was decisive and centring. She achieved the series of turns towards the end with ease and panache. Arian Molina Soca also looked and acted the part. His movement sometimes seemed a little clipped in the interest of speed, but there was a vitality and propulsion which were attractive to watch.

Watching Balanchine’s Theme and Variations again, I am reminded of how much of a vehicle for pure exhibition it is. You could say that it is a kind of twentieth-century American version of the world of Versailles. Shorter skirts of course, but just as much bling (albeit fake crystals rather than the real deal). Flaunting and flirting the order of the day (all peasants banished). Across the stage revolve the high speed, high energy aristocrats of ballet, as if their bodies said work hard, play hard, crowd it all in.

Perhaps, in truth, Louis XVI would have looked down his snooty nose at anything so lacking in nonchalance (working at playing? the idea), but it is a fine cultural example of the transformation (and assimilation) of a form. It was fun tonight as it always is, danced with visible gusto; a pity about the small collision towards the end between two male dancers. But quickly recovered from, why should we amateurs hurl stones at the jeunesse dorée within?  

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