Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Review: Pennsylvania Ballet soars in sneakers

With dance all over reality TV, in movies, and on music videos, one might think the interest would translate into theater as well. But concert dance still struggles. Jerome Robbins' 1958 piece N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz is a fine starter piece for hesitant viewers, a ballet in sneakers. Performed in casual street clothes, its format is that of a plotless ballet, with group sections, a pas de deux, several small solos, various patterns across the stage, and all thoroughly accessible.

Review: Pennsylvania Ballet soars in sneakers

With dance all over reality TV, in movies, and on music videos, one might think the interest would translate into theater as well. But concert dance still struggles.

Jerome Robbins’ 1958 piece N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz is a fine starter piece for hesitant viewers, a ballet in sneakers. Performed in casual street clothes, its format is that of a plotless ballet, with group sections, a pas de deux, several small solos, various patterns across the stage, and all thoroughly accessible.

Pennsylvania Ballet named the final program of its season for this company premiere, which opened Thursday night at the Merriam Theater. If you like West Side Story, Opus Jazz shares its choreographer and has a similar look and feel (minus the brawl). Dancers snap their fingers, shake their hips, shuffle around the stage in a circle, and strike a pose with a leg in the air in second position. (New York City Ballet’s filmed Opus Jazz, performed in gritty urban settings, aired in 2010 on PBS’s "Great Performance" series.)

Pennsylvania Ballet’s dancers looked young and fresh on stage against a series of backdrops that looked like paintings, stained glass, and a schoolyard. But they would look equally fantastic in Love Park or the courtyard at City Hall, with colorful outfits against gray stone and an audience of passersby.

While Opus Jazz is newbie friendly, Matthew Neenan’s world premiere Beside Them, They Dwell is far less so. Set to a very modern score by Pierre Boulez with plucked strings, vibrations, and long sections of silence, Beside Them refers to a passage from Psalm 104 about the beasts in the field and the birds of the heavens.

And indeed, the dancers fluttered, flew, and strutted — as much as one could see them. The performance was so dimly lit that details were lost in the dusky gloaming. A shame, because several dancers stood out, including Lauren Fadeley, Jermel Johnson, Evelyn Kocak, and Alexander Peters.

The ballet was pure Neenan but with new maturity. His signature quirky movements — lifting an arm with the opposite hand, overly stylized hand positions, off-balance postures, and tiny ronde de jambes en l’air — were interspersed with more traditional ballet vocabulary.

The evening opened with Peter Martins’ 1988 Barber Violin Concerto. It featured a classical couple – Amy Aldridge and James Ihde – mixing it up with a barefoot, modern duo – Laura Bowman and Ian Hussey.

Bowman, an adorable, non-stop dynamo, made the ballet, but the piece was studded with little problems, emphasized by a loud crash as Bowman and Hussey exited stage right.

This program’s performances close a season marked with several retirements in the top ranks. Aldridge and Francis Veyette were the only principals who danced Thursday night, and much of the season felt like auditions for future company stars. Tune in next fall for some big changes in the ranks. I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

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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