Five years into his appointment as artistic director, former American Ballet Theatre star, Ángel Corella challenges the Pennsylvania Ballet’s cadre to surpass themselves each new season. Adding demi-soloist and first soloist last spring gives him 23 dancers above the corps and a freer hand in casting for each ballet. The result is a faster, sleeker look on the entire company from corps to principal dancer.
Corella simply titled the first triple bill of the season, “World Premieres.” The audience at opening night at the 1800 seat Merriam Theater implies these contemporary works are weaning the region’s balletomanes off the big story ballets and Balanchine-based look that has—too often—branded the company. Commissioned choreographers, Yin Yue, Juliano Nunes, and Garrett Smith—none of whom yet have celebrity name-recognition (although BalletX fans know Yue for her 2016 choreographic fellowship)—nevertheless managed to pack the hall with enthusiastic responses.
Yue’s “A Trace of Inevitability” to Dutch composer Michel Banabila’s “Dragonfly II,” a driving and buzzy electronic score, opened the program. In some cultures, the dragonfly symbolizes transformation and self-realization. Like this ancient iridescent insect, the dancers hover, reverse themselves rapidly, dissolving into soft-focus at the backdrop. Lifts often initiate at mid-body and remain horizontal. A dancer clasps her legs backwards around her partner’s waist as she swoops her torso and arms upwards, for one.
Michael Mazzola’s flickering cone of light on floating gray rectangular scrims gave the work a proto-cinematic feel that set up its solos, duets and groupings as filmic freeze frames that come to life before fading into the background with brisés en arrière.
Yue inventively calls her practice FoCo (folkloric and contemporary.) Briefly, the style is sharp angles intersecting with lush, languorous curves. For this commission, she chose nine of PABallet’s newer dancers, consisting mostly of soloists. Christine Darch’s joggers and cuffed-sleeve tops ran the spectrum of reds from crimsons to pale pink. The coloring, and fluidity of the technique’s isolated phrases popped elegantly against the bleak and sometimes fitful backdrop and lighting. Alexandra Hughes and Albert Gordon opened with a brisk duet of intertwining geometries and plunges.
Finally, a fleet of lights, glowing orange as Chinese lanterns, float down growing whiter and blinding as the dancers below glide on bent knees. They form a circle before pulling each other off in a chain. The music turns to a chorus of rising voices and lulls to Hughes and Gordon slow dancing, his forehead resting on her chest. As in any artwork, a title shapes our perspective. This conclusion was predestined with this couple’s first opening duet and supported by all the other couplings in their mirroring. Jack Sprance and So Jung Shin performed a duet of tensile delicacy, his strength supporting her silkiness. Thays Golz supported Ashton Roxander in a head-down twist with his foot hooking over her neck in one of the more original moves in the piece.
By contrast, Juliano Nunes’ “Connection” began with its ten dancers in silhouette. Wittily, the vertical boning in the flesh-toned bustiers of the women and the men’s boxer briefs (by Hogan McLaughlin) assured the audience that nudity was only an optical illusion. Women mounted the squat-legged men, legs splayed upwards, promising erotic affairs. The choreography is also lightly informed by the Brazilian martial art Capoeira, which trains dancers for lightning speed directional changes.
Recently named principal dancer, Chinese-born Zecheng Liang came to Pennsylvania Ballet’s corps in 2017 after years at Houston Ballet. Promoted to soloist within the year, Liang was often the center of the action as the others encircle him. Other principals, Lillian DiPiazza, Jermel Johnson, Oksana Maslova and Arian Molina Soca, took the spotlight from him in turn. Passing the ever-pliant Maslova between them, Johnson and Soca formed a romantic trio. But in the end, Liang walks off with her, fingers trailing before they wistfully part three times. They join the rest of the cast in a lineup with a surprise ending of a shocking light, and isolated moves. Is anyone really connected here?
For the finale—Garrett Smith’s “Reverberance”—Peter Gregson, played his “Bach Recomposed”—a variation on Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G—with electronically altered sections on his laptop, sometimes mixing the live with the recorded. Ten cellos limned in Mazzola’s blue lighting, concealed the dancers behind them before wafting above them. The dancers, costumed gorgeously in Monica Guerra’s blue-hued designs, seemed to float with them. Nayara Lopes and Sterling Baca were so light in their pas de deux I experienced a momentary optical illusion mistaking them for the cellos. Sophie Savas-Carstens, and Yuka Iseda also defied gravity with their perfectly twinned grand jetés. Overall, the choreography matched the cello melodically, blending the music and dance into a lilting and breathless whole.
Since 2015, ballet master Charles Askegard has smoothed this company into a coherent ensemble that still allows for star quality individuality. I can still pick out certain dancers as their toes alight on the stage. I relish discovering and recognizing all the newer personalities. None of the three choreographers made big volcanic dances, and none took advantage of all the gifted dancers, but chose small groups for pieces that will surely become favored repertoire. The serendipity of this program lay in the uncanny fit that made for a cohesive evening. A difficult feat when you are commissioning and not sure what you’ll get—which is a laudatory credit to Corella, his board of directors and funders. Viva the twenty-first century Pennsylvania Ballet!