Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’

10 May

The skeptic in me often finds that versatility can be overrated and at its worst, an exercise in mediocrity that masquerades at mastery. However, Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’—named for Christopher Wheeldon’s comedy choreographed to the famous music of the same name by Camille Saint-Saëns and including two different works from the grab bag of Balanchine—proved the company’s genuine skill at handling everything from deviant classicism to abstract modernism, and throwing in many a laugh for good measure. From start to finish the program was thoroughly engaging, informative, and intelligently designed to fan out the possibilities of what ballet can do. Opening night at the Academy of Music, with its plush red interior and ornate décor certainly played out in the company’s favor, displaying the great variety with incredibly strong performances throughout the ranks of Pennsylvania Ballet’s dancers as well as the musicians of Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra.

First came Ballo della Regina, a notoriously difficult ballet in which Balanchine famously challenged his then anointed muse Merrill Ashley (now a repetiteur of the piece, along with Sandra Jennings) with steps he didn’t think she could do.  Set to ballet music from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera ‘Don Carlos’—and often cut from the opera itself—Ballo pays homage to the original story of a famous pearl that belonged to the Queen of Spain, but mostly in color via the pastel costumes painted in the icy tones of iridescent luster. Balletomanes may have noted the omission of fouettés en dedans, a series of consecutive pirouettes on one leg that turns in the opposite direction that dancers normally train, but that’s a horrifyingly difficult and unnatural step, the effect of which isn’t lost when Amy Aldridge performed the more intuitive version. Aldridge had sharpness and angularity, sure-footed in the formidable series of jumps and hops that land en pointe, and partnering with the soft landings and long lines of Zachary Hench made for an arresting, breezy flight through the choreography. Especially enjoyable was the vitality Evelyn Kocak, Abigail Mentzer, Rachel Maher, and Gabriella Yudenich brought in featured solos, as well as the immaculate timing and marvelous unity of the entire ensemble with the corps de ballet.

Far different was the austerity of The Four Temperaments, one of Balanchine’s signature “leotard ballets” in which the costumes were pared down to plain black leotards and pink tights for the women, white shirts and black tights for the men. Set to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith, the choreography is barbed and often peculiar, making references to ancient Greek theories of imbalances of bodily fluids as the catalysts of mood and human behavior. As a ballet, The Four Temperaments is both harsh and quirky in appearance, meaty in content, and grand in scale. Although the entire cast turned in strong performances in the Melancholic, Sanguinic, and Choleric sections, the audience saved the loudest ovation for Jermel Johnson’s spine tingling Phlegmatic solo. Johnson’s movements utilized the whole body with a smoothness rarely seen, his focused gazes of detachment inducing chill after chill. He created a magic both eerie and limpid, which had me feeling like I was having an out of body experience as a spectator. As far as The Four Temperaments is concerned, it was one of the most impressive and astonishing performances I’ve ever seen (full disclosure, I know it’s ballet heresy but I don’t really even like 4T’s that much! Don’t tell anyone?).

Switching gears to end with something light-hearted and playful, Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals took to the stage, a stampede led by celebrated actor John Lithgow, also an author of children’s books. Wheeldon and Lithgow devised a clever premise for the famous music by Saint-Saëns, in which a young boy falls asleep in a natural history museum, and his dreams are a mish-mash of people from his reality coming to life as the animals in the exhibits. Nothing could have been a more appropriate visualization of human dreams, where illogical and fantastical things happen without giving them a second thought, which perfectly matched the pastiche of medleys that even cheekily uses orchestral instruments to produce animal-like sounds. The concept for Wheeldon’s Carnival is unique, and Lithgow’s rhyming narration was delightful. The entire creative team behind Carnival, from the costumes to the sets, is to be lauded for telling a fun story that can enchant both children and adults. Though it’s not the type of ballet in which individual dancers stand out because the dancing doesn’t take precedence, it’s a wonderful fusion work of dance theatre in which the company can show its funny bone, and the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers impressed with their aplomb. It’s difficult to do comedy well, and while Lithgow is certainly no stranger to it, it’s wonderful to see Wheeldon put something together that respects the art of humor. I never thought I could like Carnival of the Animals as a ballet, but Wheeldon has definitely changed my mind.

Hats off to artistic director Roy Kaiser, who will lead Pennsylvania Ballet into its 50th anniversary season, having been a part of the company’s history for over thirty years as a dancer rising through the ranks from corps de ballet member to principal, as a teacher in the role of ballet master, and finally directorship. Knowing the company’s history so intimately has obviously helped him to develop a clear image for it, in which they can perform an incredible array of ballets by Balanchine, full scale classics, contemporary work, etc. always to live music and of course, with many talented dancers, who looked strong, vibrant, and well rehearsed. The programming from this season and next are evidence of Kaiser’s great leadership, and I’m really jealous of the Philadelphia residents that get to enjoy the fruits of the entire company’s labor. With a handful of performances of ‘Carnival of the Animals’ to go, there’s also ‘Forsythe & Kylián’ in one month’s time, and Balanchine’s illustrious Jewels to look forward to after the summer, all of which I highly recommend. I can’t praise the company enough for its polish and yes, true versatility, and can only hope to have the opportunity to enjoy seeing them again in the future.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet (Photo ©Alexander Iziliaev)

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet (Photo ©Alexander Iziliaev)

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7 Responses to “Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’”

  1. Kristen Gillette May 10, 2013 at 5:15 am #

    I’m excited to see it tonight!

    • youdancefunny May 11, 2013 at 4:34 am #

      How was it? As good as I described I hope!

  2. Sandra Eshima May 10, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    Just have to say that “Four Temperaments” is considered the greatest ballet of the 20th century. Named by Time Magazine and many great dance critics and balletomanes. Maybe you have never seen it done well?

    • Sandra Eshima May 10, 2013 at 8:46 am #

      I know for a fact the Pennsylvania Ballet dances “Four Temperaments ” beautifully. Had you never seen them do it before?
      For me your saying you never cared for “Four Temperaments” makes me absolutely stunned!!!!!!

    • youdancefunny May 11, 2013 at 4:42 am #

      Unfortunately, I was only in town for one night before zipping off to Boston for a mixed bill the next day so it’s the only time I’ve ever seen Pennsylvania Ballet perform.

      I did see 4Ts a few years ago on Pacific Northwest Ballet and just a couple of months ago on Los Angeles Ballet. Every company–Pennsylvania included–performed it wonderfully and I don’t dispute the monumentality of the work, but even in so many performances over the years it never really resonated with me. I’ve always preferred more classicist Balanchine–his ballets to Tchaikovsky never fail to move me!

      • Jessica Zeller May 11, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

        There’s no need to justify not liking it. What’s impressive is that despite your personal distaste for it, you can still review it based on its merits as a work and discuss the quality of the performance. Just because it’s Balanchine doesn’t make it immune to personal aesthetic preference.

  3. The Traveling Dancer May 12, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Thanks for this great review, Steve! I would really like to see Carnival of Animals!! It seems really fun. I had no idea John Lithgow was a part of it! 🙂 I think I’ll try to go down to Pennsylvania for Forsythe and Kylian! 🙂 I’m a little ashamed to say I haven’t seen The Four Temperaments but I’ll have to make it a point to see it soon!

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