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Pennsylvania Ballet

'Company B,' 'Quartet for IV,' 'Jaybird Lounge'

by Lewis Whittington

March 26-30, 2003 -- Merriam Theater, Philadelphia, PA

After the demands of the premiere of "Le Travail"' last month on the same bill with the hour-long opus 'Carmina Burana,' and area tours in blizzards, the dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet also squeezed in rehearsals for their annual AIDS benefit "Shut Up and Dance" while they were getting ready for "Company B." The flu was also making the rounds in the company faster than grand pirouettes.

Well, spring finally came and they are dancing, joyously, in the Paul Taylor classic on a bill with Kevin O'Day's "Quartet for IV" (and sometimes one, two or three…) and the first revival of Val Caniparoli's "Jaybird Lounge." Actually, there were moments in this program where the remaining stress showed, but they were fleeting and this program showed a company in exciting transition, with both its strengths and weaknesses apparent. This was a preview of things to come with many new dancers on the roster and the ambitious programming coming up for their 40th anniversary PAB season.

Caniparoli, who has created works primarily for San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, choreographed "Jaybird Lounge" for Pennsylvania Ballet two years ago and it's no wonder they wanted to do it again so soon. Philadelphia composer Uri Crane named the work after a jazz nightspot here where he played and the score is a soundscape of Johann Sebastian Bach variations through the ages that veers from a classic solo piano to blues vocals and even a jazz/classical fusion.

The opening and closing motifs have the full ensemble, six men on one side of the stage and six women on the other working in staggered places,with basic ballet positions set to Bach's introspective Goldberg Variations. Crane's musical journey makes for some crowded dance transitions in its eighteen sections, with classical and modern dance techniques butting against each other. Some of the disparate sections were jarring and looked forced, but, then, versatility was the choreographer's point. And the precariousness actually led to in-the-moment performances where the ensemble caught fire.

Even with conceptual problems, there were fascinating segments, such as Meredith Rainey's contrapuntal phrasing in "Variation 4" dancing to challenging a Bach classical/jazz fusion with quicksilver clarity. A duet with Jennifer Smith and Matthew Neenan that opened up the emotional landscape in Bach's music, in an intimate adagio partnering. And a blues/gospel free-for all "The Nobody Knows Variation" with Rainey and Tara Keating, Heidi Cruz and Johnathan Stiles, Martha Chamberlain and Edward Cieslak all in sumptuous form.

Next was O'Day's "Quartet for IV" with Rainey, Christine Cox, Dede Barfield and David Krensing dancing to Kevin Volans' taut-stringed score. Cox and Rainey, set the fast pace with an opening act that flies into double tempo by the end, and both dancers bouncing off the airiness of the music. Barfield and Krensing, equally captivating, followed in similar fashion. The strings propel the dancers in intricate floor-slides, then they break into backward runs and there are those intimate lifts. The dancers configure in a series of duets and trios, finally with the four in a flowing dance ring, which the quartet paced a little too tightly, although the artistry was certainly there.

Paul Taylor made "Company B" in 1991 and it was an instant classic for his company and a sure fire hit for many others including PAB. Set to the World War II hits by the Andrew Sisters, Taylor stylized the attitudes and dances from the canteens and dancehalls that defined a generation at war. In addition to flashes of the jitterbug, jive walks and lindy hops, there is subtext of wartime America.

Our current war with Iraq gave a grim nostalgia to the silhouette of soldiers marching off to war. Taylor finishes off the solo for "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B," danced with relaxed aplomb by Matthew Neenan, by having him take a bullet. Tara Keating and Edward Cieslak create instant drama dancing to. "There will Never Be Another You."' The lovers sweep across the stage toward each other and before long, Keating is crumbled on the floor as Cieslak joins the boys marching off to war.

Rainey, who danced in all three works, essays "Tico, Tico"' almost off-handedly, flying into somersaults, jetes and dance pratfalls in a portrait of a shell-shocked soldier who is just trying to keep himself together. A coy looking Cox vamps it up in "Rum and Coca-Cola," sashaying around six prone tongue-wagging soldiers. Not to be outdone, Jonathan Stiles showed off his soldier boy charm to the ladies with unfussy jetes in "Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!" Book-ended by "Bei Mir Bist du Schön," PAB brought this one home in spirit, if not in Taylor's sharpness. Patty, Maxine and LaVerne would have approved.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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