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.