Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in Helen Pickett’s “Tilt.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Full Tilt

Pennsylvania Ballet's compelling mixed bill

Pennsylvania Ballet: “On Edge”
Merriam Theater, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 9, 2017
Merilyn Jackson

Pennsylvania Ballet presented an epic program Thursday evening at Philadelphia’s Merriam Theater with a triplet of works by Helen Pickett, Matthew Neenan and Alexander Ekman. Called “On Edge,” we audience were as much on edge of our seats as the performance was razor-sharp.

Pickett, an 11-year alum of William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt where she learned her craft through his improvisational technique, mounted her world premiere of “Tilt” on the company. It was her first commission from director Ángel Corella, now firmly in charge of the company’s future trajectory. Some may remember her BalletX commission “Union” from 2008. “Tilt” is far more ambitious, with Corella giving her every tool she needed to make it monumental, in costumes and set design by Emma Kingsbury and lighting by David Finn.

Four well-matched couples in butterfly colors partnered with each other and flitted among the six supporting dancers: Mayara Pineiro and Sterling Baca in cobalt blue; Yuka Iseda and Jermel Johnson in coppery hues; Oksana Maslova danced in a pear green pleated dress with Arian Molina Soca in green mesh top; Alexandra Hughes in a flowing apricot dress, with Zecheng Liang in blue.

The parity between them was striking. Neither gender played second fiddle to the other. They shared an interdependency, the women looking coequal to their partners, no coy daintiness, no inferior weaknesses needing a hero to the rescue. The men calibrated their strength so as not to seem overpowering.

Pickett said in an interview that she was interested in the precarious tilt of human nature, power and the negotiation of that tilt. A visit to London’s Tate Museum influenced both the set and the movement. Louise Bourgeois’ backbent hanging sculptured bodies were an ever-present image throughout the choreography, in the high lifts of the women and in their curved-back bodies when carried aloft by the men. Pineiro’s and Maslova’s backs were quicksilver throughout. The enormous set provided the stage with a smaller dais and slightly cantilevered wall, which gave the couples and six supporting dancers startling ways to emerge and disappear.

The chromatic scale of Finn’s lighting stunningly matched the chromatics of four pieces by Philip Glass and delivered one of the most breathtaking dance entrances on record. Like apparitions, they appear out of nowhere eliciting a collective breath from the audience. Nevertheless, the dim lighting didn’t work for the Merriam space as it meant audience towards the back of the hall could not see faces or much of the upstage action.

“Tilt’s” rapid locomotion matched Glass’s tempos to the T. The dancers angled, inclined, canted, listed, plunged and teetered every which way without ever losing balance. If they were challenging themselves to a tipping point, a bit too much speed caused them to blur like wild brushstrokes in an abstract painting.

The second world premiere is Matthew Neenan’s “It goes that way” to a compilation of Laurie Anderson music ranging from “O Superman” to “From the Air” with lighting by Christopher J. Frey and costumes by Reid & Harriet Designs—pale body stockings with abstract designs. After Hughes, Ana Calderon, Ian Hussey angle their way onto the stage, others join in with some of Neenan’s awkwardly amusing movements. Albert Gordon comes on almost waddling through the other seven dancers, one hand under his armpit exaggerating those phrases. He then takes a glorious extended solo that reminded me of the young Neenan in his heyday as a principal in the ballet.

Snappy duets by Dayesi Torriente and Baca and Johnson and Iseda made this yet another of Neenan’s 14 creations for the Pennsylvania Ballet that are always worth the wait to see.

A company premiere by Swedish Choreographer Alexander Ekman, “Episode 31” from 2011 closes the program with hammering music by Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson while drawing its dynamism down to a soft landing with Erik Satie’s plinking Gymnopédies. Ekman’s set design had the stage bare to the bones save for some hanging barrel lights. Luke Simcock’s costumes consisted of white short-sleeved shirts and black shorts or skirts, like school uniforms disheveled after recess. Ekman filled in the cast of 18 with young dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet II and they brought a wonderful youthful exuberance to their mad scrambles that included yelling and pulling up the Marley flooring and rearranging it into architectural shapes over themselves.

A short film of the cast doing portions of the dance throughout Center City’s iconic spaces to the surprise and delight of bystanders preambled the dance. But the film did not prepare us for the bystander on stage who created the tension between the “kids” dancing as the grown-up circling them. Veteran soloist James Ihde in a gray suit and slicked down hair, appeared outside the curtain to turn on a floor lamp. Then he turns and in an agonizingly slo-mo amble takes a walk-around the entire stage. The curtain rises and falls repeatedly on the still wildly creating mayhem. Ihde never deviates from his gait or his pose, face straight ahead, one slow foot stepping in front of the other, the opposite arm mechanically lifting. As the Satie music begins, one of the schoolchildren walks on with a sign that says “Beautiful.” Finally, Ihde reaches the lamp again and as the curtain goes down behind him, he switches off the lamp. And it was beautiful.