Pennsylvania Ballet

'Carmina Burana' and 'Le Travail'

by Lewis Whittington

February 14, 2003 -- The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA

Overshadowed by the spectacular Edgar Degas exhibit currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is Pennsylvania Ballet's premiere "Le Travail," (French for "the work") choreographed by featured corps dancer Matthew Neenan.  It may be the companion ballet to the painter's retrospective of dance artworks, but that is not to say it is mere novelty tie-in. 

Commissioned a year ago by PB's artistic director Roy Kaiser, Neenan's approach was "If I start getting literal, I'll be in deep trouble."  Actually, Neenan is literal in another way.  He used Degas' oeuvre as an allusive key to the complex societal and personal relationships of the class-driven society of 19th century Paris.

Neenan presents his vision of Degas-ean characters in a captivating swirl of visuals, motion and sound.  He wryly skirts any pretension or expectation of a ballet attached to the impressionist's works of art by devising dizzying backstage dance vignettes involving a buoyant cast of 22 dancers. 

Visually, Neenan was directly intrigued by the color schemes and private off-stage moments that were indelibly rendered by Degas.  His designer, Steven Weber (and lighting designer John Hoey) brings a world of half-hidden figures, footlight hues and dank shadows to life by way of moveable panels that frame the dancers in various ways, at once exalting and stripping away stage artifice.  Weber also abstracts ballet clothes of the period to suggest the stage and private lives of the dancers. 

A flank of floppy-tutu-ed, bent-over ballerinas grab at each other, lock into rehearsal mode, scamper away en pointe, peer over their shoulders, drop out of line into flash poses that give glimpses of Degas' sensual impressions of them.  Degas is in there, but it is a broad portrait of the backstage hidden society of ballet life of that period that Neenan is aiming for. 

The musical transitions are ponderous in the first half as is some of Neenan's choreography, but by midway through, both paint lustrous dance phrases built around fascinating characters.  Robert Maggio's score ascends from eerie symphonic colors to the final movement's encroaching dramaturge that leave everything, including the dancers' lives, unresolved.    

Neenan drops in a stunning central pas de deux in "Le Travail" with Meredith Rainey and newcomer Riolama Lorenzo in a fiery partnering.  Their lifts are clean and full out, the turns fully realized.  At one point, Rainey supports Lorenzo in pirouettes when she suddenly steps into arabesque with her leg passing in front of Rainey's face.  This is one of the gorgeous steps Neenan throws in that requires perfected technique from both dancers.  

The sumptuous trio of Christine Cox, Heidi Cruz and Tara Keating, dressed in tigh- bodiced blue tutus, are the overt bad girls of this troupe, suggesting the complicated real lives of the conservative images we now have of the ballerinas of the period.  They scuttle across the stage almost mocking the other dancers in quicksilver, tight, but ever-changing patterns. 

The three featured dancers have a great command, but were tentative in execution on opening night. There was no holding back Amy Aldridge, as their leader though. Using the cadet-like Edward Cieslak like a prop, her performance as a wild-eyed dance diva was lithe and dramatic.  The panels split the stage and Aldridge lurched tentatively, bathed in orange light while on the opposite side Cox, Cruz and Keating hovered on pointe in blue.

The last movement brought all the different classes of dancers together and the panels spun to reveal the back footlights, the exposed theater wall and the empty rawness of stage life. 

Neenan has stayed rooted in classical idioms, usually as a starting point for variation.  His brilliant development as choreographer for the modern classical company he co-founded three-years ago, Phrenic New Ballet, showed here.  That troupe will perform in Poland later this year.

Pennsylvania Ballet's version of John Butler's 1959 opus "Carmina Burana" gets dustier at each outing. Its dated theme of a sacred cult throwing off the religious mantle for earthly pleasures, now creaks toward self-parody.  The awkward sexual poses are underlined rather than used in the way that, say, Martha Graham used similar content in ballets like "Errand into the Maze," where sex was a psychosexual journey, not a dance frieze. 

Really, "Carmina" could be saved by wholesale cuts, but I'm sure there is reluctance to tamper with the familiar score and what is considered a sacred dance text.  This company does this ballet with studied reverence and that veneer shows, though seasoned dancers know to go for more. 

Among the stand-outs, Arantxa Ochoa and David Krensing simmer wryly in their duets, throwing a cool blue flame on Butler's over-boiled sexual expression.  Ochoa particularly seemed joyous in skirting the heavy-handedness, making it an urbane ritual and still dancing the choreography with searing accuracy.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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