What could be a more interesting contrast to the Sleeping Beauty than the Pennsylvania Ballet’s second show of the season, enticingly entitled ‘On Edge’. Featuring two world premières and one company première, the three works were well matched. Although they differed in many ways, there was a shared idiom throughout. Surely the most abiding image from opening night was the sense of flow. Of course, all ballet is movement, but the kind of perpetuum mobile was a common feature of each: dancers came and went with dazzling speed, their presence was transient, they multiplied and divided into a plurality of forms. This feature gave the whole a particular unity.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in Alexander Ekman’s <i>Episode 31</i> © Erin Baiano
Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in Alexander Ekman’s Episode 31
© Erin Baiano

Throwing this flow into relief was the character witness in the last piece, Alexander Eckman’s Episode 31 (a company première). Dressed in a conventional suit, his switching on of a lamp was the catalyst for the whole wild thing to commence; this enigmatic figure proceeded to make a processional walk around the perimeter of the stage, aloof from the movement around him (unseeing and unsighted). Intuitively, we knew that he was not going to join in (Ekman, seasoned choreographer that he is, is a master of restraint when restraint is what’s called for); intuitively, we also felt that once he had done the full tour, and switched off the lamp, the show would be over. And so it was. There was somehow great reassurance of knowing this in advance.

In Helen Pickett’s Tilt, the world première which started the program, his equivalent was a changing selection of dancers, brought to occasional stillness on the cut-out of the earth, on which were mounted the two precarious rocks supporting a slanted back wall. What were the rocks and why the stillness amidst all the whirling movement? For Pickett, initially inspired by paintings in the Tate Modern, the work is best understood as an abstraction; still, humans that we are, there were invitations, delivered by the dancers themselves moving around and in the space, to consider the rocks and cut-out now as shelter, now tomb, now altar, now stage – and maybe just plain old prop.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s <i>TILT</i> © Erin Baiano
Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s TILT
© Erin Baiano

In any case, this was a neat choreographic choice, for whatever the restlessness of the movement, it happened around a center of stillness, just as Ekman’s center was restless while the edge was framed in quietude. Philip Glass’ music for Tilt was wondrously shimmering; however, hearing piped music at the ballet always reminds one of how much better the real thing is. Pickett wanted to bring across the precarious tilt of human nature, and emblematically, the female dancers flipping backwards, off the dais, into their partners’ arms seemed to be the most recurrent form of that tilt; unsurprisingly, this was the last sight before black out.

Matthew Neenan’s It goes that way, also a world première, was a work so diverse in its range that I rather wished for a second viewing to watch it ‘knowingly’. It began humorously, tapping into an adolescent sense of awkward body consciousness. The embarrassed self-conscious self-grooming and shielding, the deliberately awkward gait, backed by the voice of a mother leaving a message on an answering machine ‘Is anyone at home?’ The synthpop music was Laurie Anderson’s and it fitted well with the robotic funkiness of the movements. The emotional core was the striking male soliloquy to ‘The Lake’ with its haunting line ‘I walk accompanied by ghosts’. Albert Gordon was a curiously preternatural gamin, both deft and endangered, and his was a beautiful performance.

Alexandra Hughes, Ian Hussey, and Ana Calderon in Matthew Neenan’s <i>It Goes That Way</i> © Erin Baiano
Alexandra Hughes, Ian Hussey, and Ana Calderon in Matthew Neenan’s It Goes That Way
© Erin Baiano

This darker energy informed the ending, to the voice-overs of ‘From the Air’, the announcement of a pilot to his passengers that they were about to go down. The dancers’ chaos of disintegration was powerful and disturbing, but in the end, there was a sort of resolution. ‘You are not alone’ the captain’s voice said. The final image before the swift black out showed each dancer connected to another in a line of tenuous but real solidarity.

Ekman’s Episode 31 was a thought-provoking piece, a sort of exploration of tribalism, which started with the costumes, black and white, with knee-high socks. There was a rambunctious sports match feel, clapping, utterances, slapping, tapping of feet, and then the ceremonious drop of all the shoes on the stage. Timing is crucial here, as a way of emphasizing the collective tribe rather than individuals, and I was impressed by the level of precision and synchronicity. It was exciting and fey, and the sign-bearer holding ‘Beautiful’ in large letters towards the end was somehow just another part of this quirky world of Ekman’s.