By Ellen Dunkel
FOR THE INQUIRER
Art and religion are frequent companions, and Pennsylvania Ballet's Messiah, which opened Thursday night at the Academy of Music, is, not surprisingly, steeped in Christianity.
During this Lenten season, many audience members may appreciate a balletic look at Jesus' life, death and impact. But while Handel's Messiah is magnificent no matter what one's leanings, the 21/4-hour-long ballet (including an intermission and a significant pause), set to the complete Handel oratorio, may seem a bit of a haul for others.
Choreographed in 1998 by Robert Weiss, who was Pennsylvania Ballet's artistic director from 1982 to 1990, Messiah is a grand undertaking, featuring the side-stage Philadelphia Singers with four soloists, two dozen dancers, and the ballet orchestra.
Thursday's dancers, occasionally overshadowed by the intensity of the chorus, might have made their movements larger, but they performed very well. Especially notable were the men, including Ian Hussey and Francis Veyette, and Zachary Hench as Jesus.
In one beautiful section, Veyette partnered two women, Barette Vance Widell and Arantxa Ochoa, dressed in white. At times, he had both promenading or turning, requiring great strength from all three. In another section, pairs of dancers stretched out yards of fabric that rippled over the floor like water, as Hench walked atop it.
At a particularly quick and breathtaking point, several men threw Hench nearly onto the backs of three dancers; three men caught him at the last minute. The "Hallelujah Chorus," with the full cast of dancers, closed out the first part of the ballet with a bang.
At another point, the cast, all in white, lined up at the lip of the stage, leaning and supporting each other. Hench was weighted down by a great cross, which looked even more poignant in shadow against the backdrop. Finally, attached to a cable, he spun and rose toward Heaven.
But one section ("Why do the nations so furiously rage together") baffled, and almost made the entire ballet jump the shark. In it, the dancers, waved flags of various countries and causes, including that of the Confederacy. Some performed hand-to-hand combat with sticks, others goose-stepped like Nazis, a group vibrated as though firing machine guns. And then Hench, as Jesus, leapt back on stage and restored calm.
No question, Messiah looks good on Pennsylvania Ballet, and clearly some love it. But it may not be for everyone.
2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 2 and 8 p.m. March 17 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $20-$105. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.paballet.org