Pennsylvania Ballet isn't so known for being a strong purveyor of traditional Petipa classics. Yet. That could be changing, and changing rather quickly.
Angel Corella’s new staging of Don Quixote is in the midst of a terrific run at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia through next Sunday, and the boss has just announced that he’s going to stage a new Le Corsaire for the 2016-2017 season. To the company’s strong core of Balanchine’s greatest classics and works by 21st Century choreographers, he will now add Petipa building blocks AND Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella. Pretty soon no one in Philadelphia will even care that the Flyers are in 5th place, the 76ers are in 15th place in their conference, the Phillies had the worst record in all of major league baseball last year, and the Eagles – well, we’ll just see how they manage without Chip Kelly. No one will care, because the city’s greatest team with strong players in every position will be Pennsylvania Ballet. And judging from the crowd’s reaction yesterday, a lot of people already know that.
Before the conclusion of Sunday afternoon’s performance, the folks in the nearly full house were ready to throw rice and confetti at the newlyweds and the whole wedding party on stage. They were standing and rhythmically clapping like in a Russian theater. Mind you, this was the typical Sunday matinee crowd of predominately seniors who had already had a big meal before arriving at the theater and would normally be ready for a nap. But instead, they were rejuvenated by and loved the dancers’ performances.
This new staging of Don Quixote is handsome: choreography, sets, costumes, and dancing. The sets are from the San Diego Opera’s production of Don Quixote and were designed by Ralph Funicello. Here’s a glimpse of the original opening set which is a tight fit on the Academy’s stage, but it easily meets Corella’s criteria for having a set that really looks like Spain and not Istanbul, as he said. The color palette for the costumes created in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s own shop includes lots of sunny yellow, bright red, spring green, and blue. The tutus for Act II are exquisite - Dulcinea’s bodice is like an antique gold over a white tutu. The Dryad Queen’s tutu has much gold sparkle and the corps women’s tutus have lots of yellow in them – all of it so beautiful. Kitri’s wedding tutu is Spanish traditional black with red tulle underneath. Its elegance brought ooohs from the audience.
For this first week of performances, everyone was debuting. It’s possible that a couple of the Flower Girls may have gotten a second performance, but basically, each performance represented a huge debut for a lot of people. Corella plucked dancers from all levels in the company for principal roles. He spread the wealth of opportunity. He gave many, many people huge career moments.
On Sunday, the young apprentice, Aaron Anker, stepped in as Basilo for Ian Hussey. Trained at The Rock School and Indiana University among other places, he has just the type of theater skills and charisma that Corella values. Fabulous turns a la second, exciting manèges of coupe jete, and steady (albeit slow) pirouettes are his pocket change. Double saute de basque and double tour should be stronger and there's work to do on line-stretch and flexibility, but he’s an engaging Basilo already and will no doubt have much to offer in next year’s Le Corsaire.
Soloist Lillian DiPiazza found her Kitri character quickly and held onto it throughout the afternoon while delivering glistening allegro. Schooled primarily at the Maryland Youth Ballet and SAB, she has been a soloist since the 2013-2014 season. We enjoyed this dancer last year in Concerto Barocco, but we think that her Kitri showed much more of what she can offer as an artist. The glow of her confidence grew from act to act. She was sassy but sly, and warm on the surface but hot just below it. Spacious jumps (including the Plisetskaya leaps), articulate feet and legs, an impressive 32 counts of fouettes (no wimpy single pirouette fraud like at ABT), and complete dedication to her less experienced partner were some of the takeaways from yesterday’s fine performance.
There were some rough spots in the partnering, mostly on supported pirouettes, but the circumstances of the late substitution make it all forgiven.
Amy Aldridge and Arian Molina Soca led the Gypsy Camp in Act II. Soca, who has double duty during the run as Basilio and 1st gypsy, is clearly out of the Sarabia mold in Havana. Have you ever seen upward moving lightning - from ground to cloud? Well, you can see it at Pennsylvania Ballet these days in Soca.
Espada and Mercedes were danced by Lorin Mathis and Amy Holihan. Their solos were more polished than the PdD. Elizabeth Mateer as Queen of the Dryads had a lovely regal quality but she ran into slight difficulty with the Italian fouettes.
Our Flower Girls, Marjorie Feiring and Misa Kasamatsu, were late cast replacements but we cannot imagine anyone dancing these roles better.
Yikes, we’d better not forget to mention the fine character portrayals by Charles Askegard as Don Quixote, R. Colby Damon as Sancho Panza, Matthew Neenan as Gamanche and Jon Martin as Lorenzo.
One thing that we noticed throughout the afternoon was that the tempi never, ever came close to what Angel danced to during his many years as Basilio. Of course over time there were a few complaints about him racing the tempi, but it built excitement to the point of frenzy. The energy of the Corella theatrical experience was addictive. On Sunday, it seemed as though the conductor waited too long to punctuate the ends of phrases, often after the dancers got to their final poses. This was most noticeable during PdDs; so maybe it was simply an effort to accommodate.
Haglund is going to try to make it down to Philly again sometime next weekend to see this warm, sunny production one more time.
The HH Pump Bump Award, a Louboutin stiletto with Sevillana black lace, is bestowed upon Lillian DiPiazza for her charming, dazzling Kitri.