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Sparks Flew

Entering his 10th year as artistic director of Philadelphia Ballet, Ángel Corella put his artists through a ring of fire in their early spring concert at the Academy of Music. The program began with Alvin Ailey’s 1970 “The River” danced to a smooth score which Duke Ellington wrote for the work. The entire program, though made of works from the ’70s and ’80s, looked oh so today and often took us through a history of ballet showing  how, even though only 50 years ago and less, choreographers, individual dancers and companies reaccentuate work and redefine repertoires.

Performance

Philadelphia Ballet: Dance Masterpieces

Place

The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA, March 14-16, 2024

Words

Merilyn Jackson

Ashton Roxander, Russell Ducker, Lucia Erickson, and Mine Kusano of Philadelphia Ballet in “In the Upper Room,” by Twyla Tharp. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev.

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Ailey’s peaceful, springy, blue-hued work opened with Philadelphia Ballet superstar, principal dance Arian Molina Soca, down on one knee and wobbling a bit. It was hard to say if this was intentional but if not, Soca recovered magnificently leading the 15 dancers on stage in gentle waves in the first section, “Spring.” Soloist So Jing Shin, and Apprentices, Jorge Garcia Alonso and Juan Montobbio Maestre in “Meander,” danced a lighthearted ballet that might have come from court dance ending with a girlish rejection of the two men by Shin. Though the men’s satin puffy sleeved blouses by designer A. Christina Giannini seemed dated and dissonant with Ellington’s jazzy score they soon enough shed them for simple unitards. First soloist Sydney Dolan’s solo in Vortex was a showstopper.

The music throughout the program played a starring role from the Ellington beginning to the hard-driving 40-minute work Philip Glass made for Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” which ended the show. A pre-curtain announcement warned us of Thom Willem’s jarring soundscape for William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” but did not mention the cast changes for the Ailey. The print program, set a month before, baffled me as I was sure I was watching Principal dancer Ashton Roxander dancing in place of Issaac Hollis, in the “Falls” section along with Demi-Soloist Nicholas Patterson and Corp de Ballet dancers Javier Rivet and Denis Maciel. 

Throughout its fine rapid-fire pacing, its light, unforced tours, against a fiery red backlight danced masterfully by each, it was Roxander who mesmerized me. Whether from sauté or pas de chat all his landings were so cushioned, his plies soft-kneed, arms flowing out effortlessly from the scapular blades of his back, the joy of dancing exuding from his bare, open-hearted chest and his self-assured smile made me glad of the cast change.

Jack Sprance of Philadelphia Ballet in “The River” by Alvin Ailey. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

Charmed and lulled after this wade through a peek at spring, we mulled around at intermission and I soon found myself with my companion who had just scored us unused box seats. So I was really “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” for Forsythe’s piece I felt lucky to see it that close-up. It’s one of the most difficult works in the company’s repertoire and one of two magnum opuses on this series.

Rudolf Nureyev commissioned the work in 1987 for the Paris Opéra Ballet, with Sylvie Guillem dancing its premiere. It prevails as a lynchpin between story, lyrical and abstract ballets and Forsythe-influenced contemporary ballets that followed. Former Forsythe dancer, choreographer Jodie Gates, set “In the Middle” on Philadelphia Ballet back in 2010. 

Like Cunningham with Cage, Forsythe has almost always worked with Willems’ electronic scores, and also gives his dancers some leeway to make their own choices. This cast danced indefatigably, stabbing their toes to the floor to Willems’ earplug worthy industrial score that caromed around the Academy’s nicely filled balconies. I last saw this six or seven years ago on then Pennsylvania Ballet. Corella has whipped this cast into a well-oiled machine. I saw a matinee with principals Yuka Iseda and Zecheng Liang, doloist Pau Pujol, Dolan, demi-soloist Gabriela Mesa, corps dancers, Yuval Cohen, Erin Patterson, Sophie Savas-Carstens, and Julia Vinez, and apprentice Jorge Garcia Alonso, who each attacked their sections with undaunted ferocity. All wore tops and tights in vivid shades of sea-green and black, the men in white socks and the women in white pointe shoes as designed by Forsythe. 

The push and pull of the cantilevered pairings often reminded me of contact-improv with everyone dangerously unhinged at times. But just as an ingeniously designed machine, they were instantly pulled upright to vertical lifts and six o’clock extensions. The rapidly changing stop-motion moves were like pages in animated filmmaking, or, like the precursor to film, chronophotography, where subjects in separate poses were photographed in sequences. The core combination of steps repeated i endless variations. Yet this was neither factory nor film set. Originally set in an imaginary boxing ring with an upside-down mic dangling above the dancers for the ring announcer to bring down between rounds, not a punch was thrown. But it did seem a brigade of dancers fiercely challenging one another for the future of ballet. The work easily moves from last century to this. The “Ballet Mécanique” of our time, it goes beyond DADA.

Oksana Maslova and Jack Thomas of Philadelphia Ballet in “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

In the final piece, “In The Upper Room,” The momentum and velocity of Glass’s 1986 Score combined with the splash and flash of Twyla Tharp’s choreography. Staged with knife sharp sequences, by former Tharp dancers Shelley Washington and Kaitlyn Gilliland, the cast was infused with the casual upbeat feel in counterpoint to the incredibly difficult feat of executing Tharp’s mercurial exits, entrances, pairings, costume changes (all by Norma Kamali that I’d wear today.)  

While “The River” told a story, “Upper Room’s” nine sections could conceivably be interchangeable. Tharp originally divided her corps of 13 into squads she calls “Stompers” in white sneakers, and “Ballet,” in red ballet footwear, with a single dancer called a “Crossover girl” danced by Amy Aldridge in its 2003 Philadelphia premiere. The sections are simply numbered and I’m guessing the Crossover girl was Mayara Piniero, since she was in six sections, although Jacqueline Callahan was in five and they were perhaps sharing the role. Either way their stamina and force of will dominated throughout.

Artists of Philadelphia Ballet in “In the Upper Room” by Twyla Tharp. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

So Jung Shin of Philadelphia Ballet in “In the Upper Room” by Twyla Tharp. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

Pujol, Baca and Maestre burst from the clouds in bent legged foot-forward leaps, one arm elbowed out high in fourth position, dancing with Piniero and Callahan, all in their black and white striped PJ’s. A glorious second section brought in Roxander and Ducker, Lucia Erickson and Mine Kusano in deep dive pirouettes en pointe, held securely at the waist by their partners. Baca and Pujol hoist Pineiro and Alexandra Heier in six o’clocks with just one arm under their thighs. There were so many stop-frame moments here that reminded me of Greek bas-reliefs. Shin was a vision in her little red flared skirt, all poise on a flat-footed arabesque. 

But again, watching Roxander this close and personal made my day. His untethered oscillations between Tharp’s unpredictable phrases stood out from the monumental walls of dance that only Glass’s loud succession of celestial choruses in the finale could match.

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 Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher, 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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