PAB's Balanchine Tribute
Della Regina,” “Agon,” “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”
by Dale Brauner
George Balanchine has been something of a guardian angel for the Pennsylvania Ballet. A protégé of Balanchine, Barbara Weisberger, founded the company in 1963 and the great choreographer gave freely ballets, dancers and support. The Pennsylvania Ballet always has given Balanchine his due, so it needed no special occasion to present an all-Balanchine bill (as it has done every season).
This year the company was able to open its 41st season with a program that honored the centennial of Balanchine’s birth, offering a selection of ballets which showed off the choreographer’s wide range and made a delightful evening: “Ballo della Regina,” “Agon,” and “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
The Pennsylvania Ballet has the Balanchine style as its core strength (most of its dancers spent time at the School of America Ballet, the school Balanchine founded), but it dances with a slightly different accent than Balanchine’s home company, the New York City Ballet, just as a South Philly accent is different than a Brooklyn one, but both are identifiable as coming from the Northeast.
New to the Pennsylvania Ballet repertoire is “Ballo della Regina”—“Dance of the Queen.” The queen in this case was New York City Ballet star Merrill Ashley, whose brilliant technique and razor-sharp quickness inspired Balanchine to choreograph a virtuoso work to the ballet music from Verdi’s opera “Don Carlo” in 1978. Ashley, whose partner in the work was former Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss, came down to set the ballet on three leading casts and took a well-deserved bow with the dancers.
The intensely musical Amy Aldridge danced the first performance with fellow principal dancer Zachary Hench. The lead role in “Ballo” has humbled many a ballerina—Ms. Ashley had a rare gift for speed—but Ms. Aldridge not only rose to the challenge but also rose above it, displaying marvelous aplomb.
Ms. Aldridge’s footwork in her first solo—the one filled with hopes on pointe— was fleet. She sailed through the intricate section, which resembles needlework, with a softer attack than Ms. Ashley or her predecessors. Ms. Aldridge smoothly navigated her subsequent solos, including the one with two phrases of two straight pique turns each ending in arabesque plie. This part was simplified as the choreography calls for three pique combinations, although dancers at NYCB also have done just two. If there was anything lacking in the performance it was better shape of Ms. Aldridge’s arabesques in the short adagio section—her raised leg often drooped.
Mr. Hench, a former principal dancer at both San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet, returned to his home state this past June in time to debut in Siegfried in Pennsylvania Ballet’s new production of “Swan Lake,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Mr. Hench appeared more at home in “Ballo,” a showcase for his impressive leaping ability. A shorter haircut also was appreciated.
The four demi-solos were well performed by Tara Keating, Valerie Amiss, Heidi Cruz and Jennifer Smith, while the young corps de ballet dove into the water-inflected work with verve.
Despite its large trove of Balanchine ballets, Pennsylvania Ballet has been dancing “Agon” only since 1992, but it performs it in a style reminiscent of its originators in 1957. Arantxa Ochoa exhibited a nervous intensity closer to that of the original lead, Diana Adams (if video and written accounts are to be believed), than the aggressive style often seen in New York today.
Ms. Ochoa, partnered by a masterful Meredith Rainey, was emotionally cool but intellectually involved. The two didn’t thrash through the great modern work, but treated the choreography as an interesting puzzle to be solved. They didn’t sit in the famous poses, but instead, moved through them. Ms. Ochoa showed the great flexibility that is a hallmark of this ballet, but always seemed as if she could bend even more.
Mr. Rainey was superb in the role created by Arthur Mitchell, in whose company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mr. Rainey spent a brief period of time in 1985. He manipulated Ms. Ochoa with ease, but did not smother her.
Alexei Borovik, along with Ms. Cruz and Ms. Keating, performed the first Pas de Trois. I did not feel the movement emanating from his body organically as the choreography appeared to be just a collection of steps.
Martha Chamberlain, supported by James Ady and Neil Marshall, was a bit tentative in the balances early in the second Pas de Trois, but flourished in her solo. Less an exotic than those who normally dance this role at NYCB, Ms. Chamberlain performed as if she was telling an amusing story—with all the characters’ voices acted out. The solo was rich with rhythmic texture.
Ady and Marshall coped well during their duet, but were undone by toxic trumpet playing (it wasn’t first-night jitters, the trumpet players were just as bad throughout the program three performances later).
The ballet was a success, drawing gasps from the audience, and some of the credit should go to Ballet Master Jeffrey Gribler, who staged the work.
“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” set by Ballet Mistress Tamara Hadley, represented the “popular” portion of Balanchine’s oeuvre. The piece is the ballet within a ballet from Balanchine’s first Broadway musical, the 1936 “On Your Toes.” When Balanchine restaged the work in 1968, it was with Mr. Mitchell as The Hoofer and Suzanne Farrell as The Stripper.
Julie Diana shares a facial likeness with Ms. Farrell, Balanchine’s last great muse, and can even be thought of, in this ballet at least, as a pocket-sized Farrell with her kitten-like face and sensuality. Ms. Diana, who left the San Francisco Ballet with Hench, was fun and sexy as The Stripper, while Philip Colucci was his usual likeable self as The Hoofer.
Ms. Diana has all the requisite glamour and high extensions this part calls for but was never coarse. The production as a whole was less vulgar than usual. She playfully seduced Mr. Colucci in their first duet, ready to take him for a ride. But Ms. Diana showed genuine passion in their second pas de deux, and remorse before she was shot dead by the Big Boss.
Mr. Colucci was simply the best tap-dancer I’ve seen in this role since Robert La Fosse at NYCB in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He impressed not just with his dancing, but also his acting ability.
“Slaughter” sent the crowd out of the theater with smiles on their faces. But the whole program was performed with such pleasure and appreciation of Balanchine, a fitting “Thank You” to one of their benefactors.
2, No. 42