Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Company B" at the Pennsylvania Ballet, published in Edge Philadelphia

The Pennsylvania Ballet opened their 44th season with Paul Taylor’s Company B, the featured work in an evening that also offered George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, and As It’s Going, by the Pennsylvania Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence Matthew Neenan. Though the dancers upheld their consistently high standards of performance (for the most part), contrasts—both between the works and within them—both delighted and annoyed.

If it’s possible to describe choreography as “Baroque,” where each movement matches one of the notes, Concerto Barocco fits that definition. In Balanchine’s piece, set to Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, two principal dancers (during this evening, Arantxa Ochoa and Amy Aldridge) play the “violins” of the piece, mirroring the score of the music in their movements.

To keep pace with the music, the dancers mimic the progressions of Bach’s chords through their sharp, nearly explosive, but perfectly controlled movements. There’s no plot or story, just a bare stage and a blue background, but Balanchine’s choreography nonetheless achieved a spiritual brilliance, an enchanting embodiment of Bach’s work. To see Ochoa and Aldridge dance to Balanchine’s choreography truly exhilarated, and the visual effect of their performance mesmerized.

Neenan’s As It’s Going offered an equally athletic, mostly in pairs choreography, with lots of lifts and tremendous physicality of motion and a structure that seems to echo the style of Concerto Barocco. But the plotless choreography here marks a frustrating difference between the first and second pieces of the evening. Where Balanchine does away with plot, he still keeps an overall structure, using Bach’s music as the backbone that structures the sequence of movements.

Neenan, by contrast, has one movement follow another in the way a bipolar sufferer (touched with a mild case of ADD) would suddenly express one contradictory emotion after the next. Only here, we see this affliction in movement, and while the effect sometimes pleases, it’s more often than not simply ridiculous, showcasing lots of technical artistry, but very little art.

His work does offer powerful images, utilizing the physical, aerial style of his choreography, combined with the ending moments of each of his pieces to great visual effect (John Hoey’s lighting helped out tremendously). However, even this is mere cleverness of style, as what Neenan effects at the end of each movement stands at a stark disconnect from the rest of the piece.

It’s not that Neenan can’t produce a coherent work either, as his seventh movement makes clear. Here he combines the physicality of his work with well-patterned ensemble choreography to produce something that’s harmonious visually and artistically.

Taylor’s Company B, paired to the 1930’s and 40’s hits of the Andrews Sisters, is engaging, spirited, and lots of fun. The music’s great to hear (I walked home humming the signature “Bei Mir Bist du Schon”), and the dancing incorporates or touches upon swing, jitterbug, and polka styles from that period. Santo Loquasto’s charming period costumes (think polka-dots and chinos), and the great hairstyles added to the overall feel of being carried back in time.

Many of the themes—love and loss, young men marching off to war during the heartbreaking “There Will Never Be Another You” number (captivatingly danced by Lindsay Purrington)—still resonate today. Though devoid of an overall story line, Company B offered some of the best-acted performances of the night, and how could it not? These songs of youth and free-spiritedness from a more optimistic time fit right in with the qualities that these dancers both posses and emanate in abundance.

But I’m puzzled as to why a ballet company should perform some of the numbers, especially the ones that either incorporate little classical (or even 20th C.) technique. Some rough spots make the differences in the training clear, as none of the ensemble in “Oh Johnny” can bob their heads convincingly, except Barette Vance. Her attitude throughout suggests that she’s one of the few who captures the overall spirit of Company B, and her sizzling and sultry dancing to “Rum and Coca-Cola” marked the best performance of the piece.

If only they had performed the Balanchine piece last (rather than first), the evening would not only have achieved a better style of presentation, but provided more enjoyment as well. Though ending on the Andrews Sister’s music puts the catchiest piece last, Balanchine’s superior choreography provides the best performances of the night, giving balletomanes what they came to the ballet to see.

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