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A No-Tutu Night of Stellar Ballet

Philadelphia Ballet’s annual New Works series opened its 2023 season with a program called “Forward Motion” at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Perelman Theater last weekend. Over its 60-plus years, the company has seen many changes, including last year’s name change from Pennsylvania Ballet. It now dances its New Works program in the 627-seat theater with superb sightlines and, at intermissions, audience members can mingle in a new café seating area with window views of busy Spruce Street pedestrian traffic.

Performance

Philadelphia Ballet: “PS,” “ENdure,” “Circumstellar”

Place

Perelman Theater, Kimmel Cultural Campus, Philadelphia, PA, February 3, 2023

Words

Merilyn Jackson

Mayara Pineiro and Sterling Baca of Philadelphia Ballet in “Circumstellars” by Andonis Foniadakis. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

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Artistic director Angél Corella sense of moving forward also extends to commissioning new works from choreographers around the globe and inviting them to take advantage of the company’s mix of more seasoned and neophyte dancers. Rather than just obtaining the rights to existing ballets this creates a more elastic, democratic looking ensemble.

Three world premieres actualize what this company of mixed ethnicities and races is capable of, with ethereal new dancers hungry to move up in the company or make their debuts. This was more than evident in the ballets by resident choreographer Juliano Nunes, Hope Boykin, recently retired as one of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater great stars, and internationally acclaimed Andonis Foniadakis from Greece.

Sans the stiff-boned stays in the bustiers that brace a ballerina’s torso in story ballets, this no tutu program allowed us to see the hard work and training of each dancing body as if from within. Whether tight bodysuits or looser pajama styles, we saw their diaphragms working to keep breathing even, their sinews in turnouts, fabrics furling around their wrists and ankles, and their superhuman flexibility.

Jack Thomas, Zecheng Liang, and Arian Molina Soca of Philadelphia Ballet in “PS” by Juliano Nunes. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

Brazilian choreographer Juliano Nunes is resident choreographer, so many of the 17 dancers were comfortable in his liquid style. For his “PS,” Mikaela Kelly sheathed them in green bodysuits from shoulder to toe, further elongating the vertical look of the choreography. It began in silhouette in quotidian ballet studio stances. When the designer Nick Kolin’s lights came up, the costumes tinted a gorgeous verdigris. Split second stops after each pose, lift, or tour, created a glyphic look, like art deco figurines.

First soloist Sydney Dolan and soloist Thays Golz join principal dancers Yuka Iseda, Nayara Lopes, Oksana Maslova, Dayesi Torriente in duos and trios like preening beach birds outdoing each other. In at least one sly nod to iconic classical ballet motifs, the principals remix “Swan Lake’s” Dance of the Cygnets. Arms upreached and legs in wide second position en pointe they make Xs of their bodies. A plinking piano score by Alexander McKenzie and Sune Martin increased into a pulsing, ever quickening tempo as string instruments accompanied a soaring duet between Austin Eyler and Ashton Roxander.

Nayara Lopes of Philadelphia Ballet in “PS” by Juliano Nunes. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

The company showed excellent port de bras in a sequence of ballet’s upper body positions, but needed more expressiveness, more eye contact. That came in the athletic pas de trois between Zecheng Liang, Arian Molina Soca, and Jack Thomas. Their mercurial serpentine twisting of each other between and across their limbs and into the air required eye contact to pace the timing and maintain trust. The postscript is the romantic duet between Iseda and principal danceur Zecheng Liang. It says it all: “PS,” you have to practice, practice, practice before you get to do the beautiful pas de deux.

Philadelphia Ballet in “ENdure” by Hope Boykin. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

The style and tone changed with Hope Boykin’s “ENdure.” Her nine young dancers in loose red and purplish jumpsuits by Mark Eric filled the space almost continuously with intricate choreography and stagecraft. It had an overall feel of lighthearted, casual movement. Though, thematically the idea of enduring was conveyed in different forms as dancers soloed or paired off. Bill Laurance’s piano music began moodily but picked up speed as the dance progressed.

She paired corps member Siobhan Howley with demi-soloist Jack Sprance in their pas de deux of breathtaking compatibility—their arabesques penchée in perfect unison.

Jack Sprance and Siobhan Howley of Philadelphia Ballet in “ENdure” by Hope Boykin. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

In Howley’s solos, she repeated a tight-fisted arabesque fondue that blazed a fierceness later emphasized as she arrowed her elbows back in a run. Throughout, the group which included Isabella DiEmedio, Alexandra Heier, Julia Vinez, and Federico D’Ortenzi danced with relaxed liquid knees and took turns slow walking across the backdrop while others danced in the foreground. Javier Rivet’s grand jeté en avant was a joyous moment. D’Ortenzi, Rivet, and Freire cartwheel upstage. Vinicius Ferreira Friere walked across downstage, a faint smile lighting his face.

Ashley Lewis, who joined Philadelphia Ballet II in the 2021/2022 season, and danced in last spring’s Balanchine program has now moved up to apprentice. She is another in this group to watch. Thanks to Al Crawford’s warm lighting design we could clearly see these dancers’ faces and the patterns Boykin created for them.

Mayara Pineiro and Sterling Baca of Philadelphia Ballet in “Circumstellars” by Andonis Foniadakis. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

Spectacular lighting by Sakis Birbilis and an evocative set made for an otherworldly mise en scène for Greek choreographer Foniadakis’ “Circumstellars.” Pyramidical shafts of light shone down on them as they emerged from black fog-filled areas that created a persistent nebulous atmosphere in a rectangular frame. Piercing this primordial look was a manmade horizontal rod of bright light that, when rising up towards the fly loft, appeared to morph into a waterfall, another of the elements introduced into the wonders of the world Foniadakis created. Julien Tarride’s vibrant minimalist scorekept the tension suspended as different sequences emerged.

Mayara Pineiro and Sterling Baca collided with each other like adversaries who soon entwined to create a new multi-limbed heavenly body that moved in non-stop slithering lifts and daring jumps and throws. When she sits on him facing the audience, his legslash out as if they were hers. Baca’s unexpected cartwheel is like a shooting star. You wonder if you saw it.

Anastasios Sofroniou described his bodystocking costumes which stretched over the footwear and included gloves as “rich Florentine renaissance colors referencing royalty and the generational heritage of the Medicis.”

Gabriela Mesa and Jacqueline Callahan of Philadelphia Ballet in “Circumstellars” by Andonis Foniadakis. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Writing about Foniadakis’ “Kosmos” in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2016, as danced by Ballet Jazz de Montreal, I described it as “furiously dark choreography to Julien Tarride’s drum soundscape . . . . Just magical.” As in “Kosmos,” Foniadakis kept his cast savagely engaged with each other in tight clusters. The quicksilver foot work was almost brutal, but all were more than up to it, with exceptional work by demi-soloists Russell Ducker, Gabriela Mesa, Isaac Hollis and apprentice Giovanna Assis Genovez.

At a post-show talk Foniadakis said he wanted to keep the dancers “in a state of emergency.” I took that to mean crisis, but now I think he also meant emergent as in a state of efflorescence. He’s an intergalactic explorer for choreography, freely transporting a sense of outer space to our inner spaces.

Merilyn Jackson


Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.

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