Phrenic New Ballet

'Tabula Rasa,' 'High Low Short & Tight,' 'Until Ten,' and 'Pursuit'

by Lewis Whittington

August 13-16, 2003 -- Mandell Theatre at Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA

The Phrenic New Ballet’s name, "Phrenic," refers to the diaphragm’s reflexive breathing nerve--a name symbolic of this company’s artistic goal to stay grounded in classical ballet technique infused with liberating, natural artistic impulse. Co-founded three years ago by artistic directors Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, both currently dancers with the Pennsylvania Ballet, and ex-PB dancer Amanda Miller, the fourth member is dance filmmaker Tobin Rothlein, Miller’s husband.

Without doubt, the company has covered a lot of ground in just three years with mature works like Neenan’s "Frequencies" and Cox’s "Ashen," and performing when PB is off-season is a tricky prospect considering the ambitious works seen so far. Joined mostly with other PB dancers, Phrenic attracts some of the most interesting guest dancers and choreographers around the country, such as choreographer Jessica Lange, Eric Wagner from San Francisco Ballet, and this year, Thaddeus Davis from Donald Bryd‘s company. Phrenic has been innovative, unexpected, and memorable, carving a distinct niche for professional dance in Philadelphia.

The four dances presented at Drexel University’s Mandell Theatre on August 13-16 represents a pause in Phrenic’s upward trajectory, revealing growing pains of a developing company. Phrenic dancers are always technically impressive and no matter what variation a unison group is using, for instance, there is no missing the classical training. Yet several times during this bill, there were form breaks and a general sluggishness.

The opening work, "Tabula Rasa," begins dramatically with choreographer Christine Cox introducing her sister on film shot by Rothlein, projected on dangling fabric. Barbara Cox, whose dance career was destroyed by a near fatal auto accident, narrates her own story struggling to rebuild her life and body, moved with limited but hypnotic control.

As the sisters tell the story of Barbara’s difficult recovery, dancers appear though a scrim and start moving from crouched positions. Suddenly, the two sisters appear in a moving duet framed by dancers rolling in from the wings prone on the floor. Soon the ensemble of six PB dancers, Philip Colucci, Tara Keating, Meredith Rainey, Amanda Miller, Anitra Nurnberger, and guest Peter de Grasse (Sacramento Ballet) circle the two sisters who are locked in a playful, rhythmic dance of sisterly communion.

After this moving introduction, Cox uses transcendent Indian techno/new age score, enfolding her six dancers in flowing circular patterns and yogic movement that she displayed equally well in last year’s "Rasa" first installment at the annual Shut Up and Dance AIDS benefit concert. One minute three female dancers are executing a shoulder stand with their legs locked mid-air, in pointe shoes, like a closed flower; the next has three men, arms entwined, reeling back like an open bloom.

After this captivating opening, the sisters exit and Cox's focus seems to wander, and seems disconnected to her original theme. But by the end, propelled by a pulsing score, the ending phrases brought movement from classical Indian dance, and as she did with "Rasa," she returns to her signature moving communal circles and clusters, moving in gorgeous patterns.

Thaddeus Davis' "High Low Short & Tight" had similar problems with focus and thematic cohesion. After a claustrophobic video projection of a women writhing in confined spaces, the stage is lit with square spotlights and seven dancers appear, storming around the stage like pissed off models. I thought I was in hell with Bob Fosse and the solid-gold dancers.

After this abrasive opening, Davis uses an effective concussive club score by Peter M. Wyer, Uri Caine, Mbuti chant, and Evan Ziporyn, with Miles Davis’ "So What" floating in to introduce the work. Visually aided by great costuming by PB principal Martha Chamberlain, the piece had the women in burnt yellow, pink, and orange sundresses, and the men in neutral dance togs.

The general theme for this work is based on filmed interviews Davis and Rothlein conducted at a North Philadelphia YMCA asking people about what freedom and independence mean to them. However, this admirable content, part of a broader work called "The Constitution Project" by Davis, didn’t seem connected to the dance that was performed onstage this night.

But Davis’ deflated configurations were instantly erased when he moved the action to a series of sizzling pas de deux, showing the company’s top-drawer technical ability. Antonio Sisk (Philadanco) enters with Anitra Nurnberger’s torso bowed back against his body with her legs both spidery and voluptuously pulling them across the stage. Christine Cox makes a series of bounding lateral jetes and at one point is dramatically positioned into an extended penche arabesque by de Grasse, Colucci, and Sisk. Colucci and Miller also mesmerized in smoldering lifts and dips that just kept moving, and Davis thrillingly punctuated the transitions by having the women slide across the stage en pointe.

Next was Matt Neenan’s pas de deux, "Until Ten," danced with fellow PB dancer Jennifer Smith. Neenan was away this summer choreographing a work for Ballet Pacifica but came back in time to create this duet, which was little more than a pleasing studio essay showcasing Smith's virtuosi. An academic reading of Frederick Chopin's score by Violinist Olga Konopelsky and pianist Yorgo Papadakis didn’t open up the pairing much, and Neenan’s duet was only carried by the pair’s charm, not up to the high standard he has consistently set for Phrenic.

The show closed with a work by Miller called "Pursuit," an ambitious but eventually over-serious work with good intentions that were too protracted. Rothlein’s projections of a bucolic utopia are interrupted by Miller’s witty yet predictable indictment on our consumer culture. The movement expressed repression in a blissfully abundant society with dancers dressed winningly in day-glow bathing suits, but degraded to repetitive movements. It is scored to clever but abrasive a capella vocals from Toby Twining's five man chorus. Most effective was a central solo Miller threw, which had Sisk in a writhing floor solo, his undulations creating a hypnotic bodyscape. Miller, who made comic interlude dances with Neenan for several of the Shut Up and Dance benefits, just shows a glimpse of what she is really capable of in her first full length outing with Phrenic.

This program showed growing pains of a growing company and overall looked under-rehearsed. Maybe it was just a rough opening to a cold audience, who seemed so baffled that they didn’t know when each piece was over. One might say that Phrenic got on its own nerve. Not to worry, this company is smart enough to know that, like sports teams, shaky seasons are just as vital as solid ones when the technique and passion is always there.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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