On Sunday morning Haglund rode the rumbling Acela through the crisp autumn air and deciduous delights to beautiful Philadelphia to catch a matinee performance of Pennsylvania Ballet. It is the directorial debut season of Angel Corella and he has taken this town by storm. There is hardly a street lamp or bus shelter along the Avenue of the Arts that doesn’t have his image and eyes focusing on you as you walk down the street. There are so many red hanging banners, they could call it Red Square.
Modern Philly is now clean to Disney standards. Not a scrap of trash on the sidewalks. The stunning new architecture and the historic landmarked buildings co-exist in harmony. The new structures emphasize bold engineering design while the old proudly display the handmade artistry of past centuries.
The 157-year-old Academy of Music is a gorgeous concert hall and opera house that has more curves than corners on the inside. The foyer bends around the back perimeter of the interior auditorium in the shape of a horseshoe creating a sense of expanse and luxury. The inside seating area is a warm, intimate space with beautiful ornamentation and gold-leafing.
The company’s dancers have had the benefit of Angel Corella for only two months but his positive influence is already strongly felt. On short notice, he altered the season’s pre-planned program to include Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante, Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy, and Jerome Robbins’ Other Dances in addition to the already scheduled Jeu de Cartes by Alexei Ratmansky, and renamed the program Press Play. (The program repeats next Saturday and Sunday.)
At the Sunday matinee before a large and very appreciative audience, the company danced all four ballets skillfully and with a sense of excitement that they were blazing down a new trail illuminated by a billion volts of AC. Tidy hands, super strong centers in the men's pirouettes, and a willingness to reach out boldly to the audience to make a connection were just a few of the positive impressions made.
Allegro Brilliante was led by Mayara Pineiro and Jermel Johnson – she, a new corps de ballet hire by Corella from Cuba via Milwaukee Ballet; he, a veteran PABer who has been a principal since 2012. They maneuvered through the tricky partnering smoothly and each shone in his or her variations. In her pirouette sequence, Mayara managed to whip off four revolutions on the final turn. She has extraordinary long limbs that are subtly sculpted and that wonderful Cuban sense of confidence and importance in her dancing. While she may not have blazed though Allegro Brilliante the way we might expect Tiler Peck or Ashley Bouder to do, Mayara certainly wasn’t stuck in any mud. She tightly hugged the brisk tempo and delivered a literal musical interpretation. Jermel led an extremely strong group of men (Craig Wasserman, Alejandro Ocasio, Alex Ratcliffe-Lee, and Lorin Mathis) in the ensemble grand allegro. They spun out their pirouettes with finishes that were exactly together, entered the air at precisely the same instant, and landed together - no small accomplishment considering the wide range of heights of these guys.
Elizabeth Wallace and James Ihde were the audience favorites in their striking interpretation of Wheeldon’s Liturgy to music by Arvo Pärt. Violin soloist Luigi Mazzocchi drew a haunting, mystic quality from his strings to carry the spiritual sense of the choreography. Elizabeth of the long legs and cool blondness was luminous against the darkness of the stage, and James’ shadowing of her arm movements was riveting. The only other person who Haglund has seen perform this ballet is Wendy Whelan. While Elizabeth isn’t as attenuated as Wendy – nor need she be, nor should she be – the geometric shapes she made with her limbs were wonderfully expressive and clear. The iconic pose created by the woman's stepover pirouette that ends with her leaning diagonally across the man while their front arms curve toward the heavens was divine.
Other Dances was handily dispatched by Lauren Fadeley and Ian Hussey. Although this piece can seem dated no matter who dances it these days, Lauren and Ian gave it a freshness and didn’t overplay the humor. Both are charming dancers, and Ian seems to have a natural charisma not unlike Corella's.
Ratmansky’s Jeu De Cartes to music by Stravinsky completed the program. This particular Jeu De Cartes, created for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2005, is not about card playing. Rather, it is a purely ensemble work that focuses on the gamble inherent in traversing across Stravinsky’s musical terrain. Pennsylvania Ballet first danced it in 2011 and the dancers have a solid grasp on what Ratmansky is all about. The extreme speed, the agility to go from balletic moment to collapsible pedestrian pose to antics the likes of Larry, Curly and Moe, and back to balletic moment posed no problems for these dancers. There is a lot of movement and energy expended in this ballet, but to what end?
Making the short trip down to Philly turned out to be one of the best spent Sundays in a long time. Before too long Amtrak will be nicknaming one of its weekend Acelas the “Corella Express” because Haglund is going to be dragging a lot of people from New York down there with him to see Pennsylvania Ballet’s wonderful dancers in Prodigal Son, Swan Lake, and the rest of their season's program.
Pennsylvania Ballet is so lucky to have its new director and we all are grateful that Angel Corella has come home to the U.S. Over the years, Haglund has bestowed upon Angel a lot of H.H. Pump Bump Awards and simply cannot resist doing it again. So here's a bold classic stiletto with a bolt of lightning under the heel: