Dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet

11th Annual 'Shut Up and Dance' Benefit: 'When You're Good to Mama,' 'The Glistening,' 'Raga,' 'The Dying Swan,' 'Smoke Rings,' 'Krlya,' 'Divvy Up,' 'Tint #1 and Tint #2'

by Lewis Whittington

March 15, 2003 -- Forrest Theater, Philadelphia, PA

The dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet opened the 11th" Shut Up and Dance" benefit for MANNA (Metropolitan Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance) with a red-hot camp rendition  from "Chicago" featuring PAB soloist Meredith Rainey, at least 6'7" in heels and in a smoldering gold lamé cocktail dress, lip-synching to "When You're Good to Mama" with the dirty tag line "...we'll put out for you." And they did, in an uneven, but nevertheless exciting evening of dance, community and comedy.  It was certainly an easy comic turn for Rainey, and his sinewy vamping was sardonically flawless, leaving the audience panting. 

Among the highlights this year was Heidi Cruz's "The Glistening." Set to the urban soundscape of "Jazzanova," it began with Tara Keating, Riolama Lorenzo and Elaine Matthews who were joined by Edward Ceislatz, Juan Carlos Penuela and Meredith Rainey in a flowing series of intricate duets.  Cruz keeps the rhythmic tension taut in her group formations and there is tango-like intimacy in her duets.

Rainey's "Raga," scored to percussive vocal scat by Sheila Chandra, is an edgy and kinetic trio with Rainey, Neil Marshall and a hypnotic Cruz, who attacked the double-tempo footwork and expressive upper body movements with breathtaking drama.  The staccato vocal propels a rhythm line of rapid-fire pointe runs from Cruz, muscularly framed by Rainey and Marshall.

Stepping in for principal dancer Dede Barfield, who was sidelined with the flu, was Sarah Edery for a slow-paced classical rendition of Mikhail Fokine's "The Dying Swan," which has been done in a variety of comic, alternative and classic versions every year.  Some tentativeness was understandable since she learned the solo in one day; nevertheless Edery's fluttering, liquid arms were gorgeous.  PAB principal dancer David Krensing was equally satisfying in Lar Lubovitch's "Smoke Rings," excerpted from "Waiting for Sunrise."   Krensing makes the jazzy phrasing lyrical and his clarity in adagio work shows how grounded he is in rock-solid technique.

Christine Cox's "Krlya" is another movement from the highlight from last year's SUAD, world rhythm communal dance "Rasa."  Matthew Neenan's "Divvy up" started with a baroque version of the old Beatles standard "For No One," with eight dancers rushing on the stage including Valerie Amis, who is six months pregnant partnered by her husband Edward Cieslatz.  Amis' belly is joyously thrust out in dancing around six other buff bods.  Neenan's groovy, loopy group patterns suggest a psychedelic fantasy world of forgotten innocence. 

Francis Veyette's movement studies 'Tint #1 & Tint #2" set to the melodramatic music of Sergei Rachmaninoff have the typical look of a first work and are too derivative of Balanchine and even Fokine.  The unapologetic romanticism is a valiant try, and some of the princely behavior looks good on his noble face and body, but he needs to either put it into a clear narrative context or not underline all of the drama.  With four women floating and fluttering around him, while he clutches his head in despair, he is a step away from unintentional parody.

The tradition of doing comic 'interludes' was carried on this year by dancer/choreographer Brian Sanders, who has a way of making dancers into virtual animation.  His heroine/victim this time was Cox. First seen in a white tutu with a leather black bodice and hoisted on skis by two tuxedoed gentlemen, Cox hullaballooed her way to hilarity to the blaring vocals of Shirley Bassey. 

Next, she was leather-tethered, in a dominatrix gown to a jock-strapped Thomas Baltrushunas, who flashed superhero poses only be yo-yoed back by Cox's reins.  Strauss' "Blue Danube" Waltz ushered James Ihde onstage, wheeling Cox on a hand truck with her limbs in plaster casts, but with traction cords tied to them that let her hit those arabesques and extensions.

All proceeds of SUAD -- about $100,000 -- goes to MANNA, the all-volunteer organization that prepares and delivers 50,000 meals a month to people in the Pensylvania/New Jersey/New York area to people living with HIV/AIDS.  SUAD was started by several of the dancers in the company in the early 90s, as a response to the devastating toll that AIDS has taken on the local and national dance community.  Past that, the benefit showcases new choreography. Over the years emerging talents like Cox have cut their eyeteeth creating work for this benefit.

Krensing, who has been the artistic producer of the benefit for three years, said in an interview this week, "We were happy to do last year's 10-year anniversary at the Mann Music Center in Fairmount Park, but we're glad to be downtown again.  It's always scary, because it comes together at the last minute, but it's always exciting.  A lot of this comes down to the last few days.  I let them do their work.  It's their show and I try to put it in a theatrical context."

Greg Goldman, executive director of MANNA, said, "I'm hard-pressed to imagine that there is another thing like this in the dance world.  The elements are pretty amazing.  They are creating a culture of giving in the dance community."  Goldman notes that even in these tough times MANNA is going strong, expanding services in the tri-state area.  "We had a good year last year and we met the needs and increased our meal output.  We have a lot of energy in our organization on all levels and the passion that these dancers give us is an incredible emotional boost." 

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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