Excitement filled the Merriam Theater on Thursday night as the Pennsylvania Ballet presented a program featuring a world premiere by resident choreographer Matthew Neenan and a trio of rising stars.
Mayara Pineiro, who joined the corps last fall, was outstanding in Neenan's Shift to Minor. Brand-new soloist Oksana Maslova distinguished herself - with the superb Ian Hussey as her partner - in Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia. And Alexander Peters, a Pennsylvania Ballet apprentice just three years ago, was a revelation in the title role of George Balanchine's Prodigal Son.
Set to a piano score by György Ligeti played by the excellent Martha Koeneman, Polyphonia was an impressive opener. The elegantly costumed cast seemed utterly confident, even when tackling Wheeldon's most eccentric and challenging movements.
Neenan chose Mozart (and violin soloist Luigi Mazzocchi) for Shift, his 16th Pennsylvania Ballet commission, which had all the whimsy and sophistication of a work by Twyla Tharp. Or Matthew Neenan.
Prodigal Son is one of the few Balanchine ballets that requires expert acting. Based on the well-known parable of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, it has inventive décor by Georges Rouault, plus a leggy seductress (Lauren Fadeley), and revelers whose weirdly powerful entrance makes them seem like gargoyles, or zombies. And then, there is the rebellious son.
Peters is a fine dancer and actor: convincingly wild and sullen at the start of this ballet, believably broken and anguished at the end. His iconic leap - with one leg and both arms fully extended - is a knockout. Much has been made of Peters' diminutive stature, but both Edward Villella and Mikhail Baryshnikov - two of the greatest Prodigals in living memory - also are short.
Last December, Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic for the New York Times, put Peters on his list of the 10 best performances by a male dancer that he had seen all year. Maybe he's onto something.
Additional performances: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $30-$125. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.paballet.org.