Almost 21 years ago, Angel Corella made his celebrated debut with American Ballet Theatre as the Bronze Idol in La Bayadere. The following year Angel was named a principal dancer, the first and as yet the only Spaniard to reach that rank at ABT. We don’t remember any big ballyhoo being made about that at the time. Back in the good ole days, an artist’s dancing on stage spoke for itself – honestly and unedited.
Over the course of Angel’s 17 years with ABT, it was not the contemporary ballets that brought the throngs to his performances. It was his energy and commitment to the 19th & 20th century classics that raised the audience’s euphoria to illegal levels. There were novelty exceptions, of course. Who can forget when the audience’s reaction to Angel tearing through David Parson’s strob-sensation Caught disabled the Richter Scale for a time, but his individual draw was mostly in the craft-heavy & discipline-heavy ballets that espoused the classical vocabulary and form.
Therein lies the source of some discontent over Angel’s program choices for Pennsylvania Ballet’s visit to the Joyce Theater this week. His fans have shown up in healthy numbers, but his fans are diehard classical ballet fans who remember their idol in masterpieces. In contrast, the contemporary program being performed through Sunday represents the angst and yank of the current choreographic trend that hybridizes ballet with gymnastics, social dance, anti-social dance, and anything physical that runs contrary to the schools of classical ballet. It’s not a case where someone is bringing new ideas to the ballet table. They’re bringing old ideas to the ballet table because, for the most part, they lack the command and skill to use the traditional vocabulary needed to advance a concrete idea. If one is trying to converse in Spanish but is not fluent, one’s substitution of Persian or German words isn’t going to help make one understood – or appreciated.
We’ll get back to this idea the next time another good ballet company brings too much dismal choreography here with the idea that it makes them and their art relevant.
While watching Matthew Neenan’s Keep, a series of PdDs for four couples and two men to the string quartets by Borodin and Risky-Korsakov, Haglund's mind kept wandering and wondering, “How long is it going to take Angel to acquire Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto?" These dancers would look phenomenal in his classical work that has Balanchine’s influence swirling through Tippet’s own vivid imagination. Lillian DiPiazza in the dark violet tutu, Mayara Pineiro in the red, Oksana Maslova in the light blue – it could not be more obvious that this company would rekindle the beauty of Tippet’s ballet and could quickly claim it as a signature piece.
At both performances, the highlight of Neenan’s work was the match-up of Lillian DiPiazza with Arian Molina Soca – his gallant partnering and smoldering Cuban charm drew her own sensuality to the surface. She wore a long yellow dress while the other women were in shades of red/dark pink puffy skirtish tutu-ish dresses or in one case a shorter version of DiPiazza’s costume. We have no idea what this ballet was about or what the title meant, but there was definitely some spark between these two dancers that made you realize that there was an interesting conversation going on between them. True, each couple had a different level of angst in their relationship. But if Neenan was aiming to show differences akin to the couples in Tudor’s Leaves Are Fading or in any of Robbins’ dances that do the same thing, he missed the target by a wide margin. The couples must have made up internal stories that prompted them to show emotion while twisting their limbs about, spinning on a stool, etc., but we haven’t a clue why they were doing what they were doing. It was pretty much a waste of the extraordinary dancing talents of Amy Aldridge, Francis Veyette, Lauren Fadeley, Ian Hussey, Jermel Johnson, Evelyn Kocak, Alexandra Hughes and Andrew Daly.
Haglund enjoyed the Trey McIntyre Project many years ago at the Joyce Theater. The company had an identity and was easy to watch in much the same way that David Parsons’ company is easy to watch. The Accidental, a dance made by McIntyre for Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014, was not easy to watch. Dancers skipping around, doing triplets in parallel, yanking and vaulting to Rocky Mountain High type vocals sung by a John Denver aspirant was the low point of the evening.
The Accidental fully employed the current trend of gymno-dancing in gymnast’s leotards which, by the way, always make the legs look squatty and the fannies swollen no matter how thin the dancer. The dance relied on feigned emotions toward an abstract idea that wasn’t revealed through the choreography. Haglund wouldn’t mind seeing the Parsons company take this on, but he hates seeing the hard fought-for skills of accomplished ballet dancers wasted on this stuff.
Nicolo Fonte’s Grace Action closed the program. The Philip Glass score, the lighting by Brad Fields that utilized overhead spots that picked up the moisture and particles in the air suggesting a mist, and the costumes by Martha Chamberlain (loose tops for the men in shorts; sleek leotards for the women) created a good play off of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. At least Mr. Fonte was imitating one of the great 20th Century master-trailblazers — and that is precisely how one learns a craft like dancemaking, poetry, or musical composition. You practice and learn how the best did it before you, and then and only then, do you exploit it with your own imagination. But one has to be careful who one imitates. Going for the likes of what is seen on So You Think You Can Dance or in pop music videos will drive the true ballet audience away faster than you can say Britney Spears.
We would be disappointed if Fonte decided that this was his only style and continued to make dances in the Tharp model. Hopefully, he will try something totally different - using a new model with lots of true ballet vocabulary.
Six couples, including Lillian DiPiazza & Arian Molina Soca and Mayara Pineiro & Etienne Diaz, flew through the hypnotizing strains of Philip Glass’ minimalist magic with an energy that often shows up in Tharp dancers. When watching the two aforementioned pairs in a quartet, one couldn’t help but notice the hunger with which the three Cubans approached the contemporary movement. The recurring reason that Cuban ballet dancers give for leaving their country and coming to the U.S. to forge careers is that they want to dance contemporary works. Meanwhile, we here in the U.S want to see them apply their superb training to the classics. Hopefully, they will happily agree to dance both, because after seeing Molina Soca’s rapport with DiPiazza, we can’t wait for the day when he breaks her heart in Giselle.
Works like those on this program don’t offer a glimpse of a ballet company’s ballet style, and it is careless to assume that since it doesn’t, the company has no discernible style. One thing is clear: the style of this company is going to broaden and become more flexible. Having recently seen the dancers in the works of Balanchine, Petipa and 21st century choreographers, it is apparent that they are able to handily meet the challenges of it all. A lot of dancers who danced directly under Balanchine danced his choreography differently and are setting it on today’s companies according to their own experiences and memories. Who is to say that is wrong?
The H.H. Pump Bump Award is bestowed upon Arian Molina Soca who drew our eye every time he stepped on stage.