What better way to review a newly named ballet company than on World Ballet Day? At almost 60 years old, Pennsylvania Ballet recently changed its name to Philadelphia Ballet. Founded by the late Barbara Weisberger with a Ford Foundation grant in the early ‘60s, it inspired the NEA program that funded regional ballet companies around the country. Weisberger passed in December 2020 and the ballet honored her in its 2021 digital online series. During Covid, artistic director Ángel Corella and the board of directors felt it was time to put a more metropolitan brand on the company.
Covid-19 shutdown changed everything and everyone, so this was the right time to rebrand the ballet. Though never fear, you Balanchinetomanes out there, a Balanchine protégé who had the support of her mentor, Weisberger’s Balanchine stamp will remain in the repertoire. A program called “Bold, Brilliant, Balanchine” opens in March 2022.
In the interim, Corella took advantage of the nearby proximity of former Martha Graham dancer Jeanne Ruddy’s Performance Garage. The ballet’s HQ is about 2 miles up on North Broad Street where it performs at the Academy of Music and the Kimmel’s Perelman stage. To keep his dancers moving and paid, the ballet updated the space adding comfortable seating, enlarging the stage with a sprung floor, and using it to create an online season with videographer and former PA ballet dancer, Alexander Iziliaev.
Uncertain how the pandemic would continue to control our lives and livelihoods, Corella had planned to open in December with the annual “Nutcracker” series. But he and the dancers grew accustomed to the Performance Garage’s smaller space and opened a long run they called “The Spark” there last week. Corella sat behind me in the 70-seat space. I turned to tell him how thrilling it was to see the dancers so close up and remarked that audiences ought to be able to experience ballet this way from time to time. He said, “we might be looking for a small black box of our own.”
But that’s in the future. For now, Corella, who had once denied being a choreographer, describing himself more as a stager, turned the tables and created a work for a “soft opening” last week.
Martha Koeneman, who is solo pianist for the Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra played four sections of Philip Glass’s music live off to the side for Corella’s “Landscaping the Mist.” Its 22 dancers crowded the space, and will work better on a proscenium stage where you’ll get a sense of the rapid-change patterning. I’d like to see it from a balcony as some of the motifs reminded me of Lucinda Childs’ geometrics. Nonetheless, getting to note some of the tyro dancers—one who looked more ballet mistress than ballerina—and getting to pick out the standout dancers, like corps de ballet member Jeremy Power, was a treat for me. The waltz-length, mist-colored costumes may benefit from better lighting on the big stage as well. But it showed Corella’s love for his neophytes and was the grand finale this soft opener needed.
I last reviewed the company in November 2019 which included Juliano Nunes’ “Connection” who cast his squad in silhouette. Up close, I was able to see the stirrups under the arches which elongated their legs in their nude-toned costumes by Hogan McLaughlin. With only 10 dancers it was good programming to sandwich between Neenan’s and Corella’s world premieres. Arian Molina Soca owned the building with his bold solos, fiercely flying through the air and spinning with a vengeance. Principal dancer, Zecheng Liang and first soloist Yuka Iseda’s romantic duet ends in connections and disconnections as their hands feather away from each other.
Newly-wed Matthew Neenan’s “Other Half,” a world premiere which began the show, was all about coupling in its endless variety. Couples in black with black anklets double-date to a whooshing sound that could have been storm brewing or an ebbing ocean. Most of the other music was by Rosie Langabeer, a frequent collaborator of Neenan’s. Her New Zealand birth and culture creates a mélange of musics from Latin beats to Island sways that suit Neenan’s lighthearted style.
Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung perfectly captured that style with the costumes for the other dancers. Iseda, in golden satin and a chiffon blouse tucked under the bosom, gorgeously entwined with Sterling Baca, his ultramarine blue tops hanging loosely away from his torso.
Corella’s piece ends with lights dimming, a harbinger of lights flaring up once Philadelphia Ballet begins its new chapter in a new home and new name.