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Review: 'MESSIAH'

Handel's "Messiah" is magnificent no matter what one's leanings, but the 2 1/4-hour-long ballet, set to the complete oratorio, may seem a bit of a haul for others, says Ellen Dunkel.

Review: 'MESSIAH'

By Ellen Dunkel

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


About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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