Pennsylvania Ballet program looks to the Corella future

Choreographer Nicolo Fonte works with Pennsylvania Ballet dancers Alexander Peters and Mayora Pineiro. Fonte's piece "Grace Action" premieres, along with works by Larry Keigwin and William Forsythe. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)

Angel Corella's first year as artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet has been one of many changes. The entire artistic staff was replaced, new dancers and guest artists were hired, and, just Monday, Alexander Peters was promoted to principal dancer.

But what hardly changed was the lineup of ballets audiences saw all season.

"I was actually very pleased with the whole season," Corella said. "I know I could have changed a lot of the ballets that Roy [Kaiser, his predecessor] picked, but I thought it was actually quite interesting. I think it was really spot-on."

But the final program of the season opens Thursday at the Merriam Theater, and after that, it will be all Corella, all the time.

If you want to know what next year will look like, he said, look no further than this week's program, which includes the company premieres of Larry Keigwin's Canvas and William Forsythe's The Second Detail, plus the world premiere of Nicolo Fonte's Grace Action. Corella also added the pas de deux from Don Quixote as a preview of next season's full-length ballet.

"I think this one is going to take by surprise everyone," Corella says of the program. "It's very, very extreme. I think it's putting the company in the perfect era for what it's going to be. It's such an interesting program, and for people who like a more modern approach, it's going to start now."

New works from highly sought-after choreographers are "all going to define the future of the company and what kind of rep we will do," he says.

Forsythe - considered one of the greatest contemporary choreographers - came to Philadelphia last week to polish The Second Detail, which the dancers learned during two visits from repetiteurs who prepare them for performance.

What did he do here? "I often work with the dancers on the elasticity of their musical phrasing," Forsythe says, "or how to achieve visible musical differentiation. Another focus tends to be on how the hands are used."

Fonte is delighted to be on a program with such dancemakers. The resident choreographer of Ballet West, he was commissioned by the ballet after he created the full-length Beautiful Decay for BalletX in 2013. He will return to Philadelphia in the fall to make another evening-length work for that company.

But at this moment, he likes being presented on a program with masters. "It makes me bring my 'A' game," Fonte says.

His "A" game includes building in enough time to make mistakes, surrounding himself with similar personalities and collaborators, and casting the dancers months in advance.

"It takes a little bit of time to figure out who's going to really jump off the page for you," he says.

For Grace Action, Lauren Fadeley and Ian Hussey were among the page jumpers, and Fonte cast them as his principal couple.

"They're fabulous," he says, "it's as simple as that. Lauren in particular - she's kind of like a choreographer's dream. She's extremely versatile and she knows how to use that instrument she has, which is that killer body.

"And Ian's a true collaborator. He really tries to tap into what I'm looking for and reproduce it."

Hussey enjoys the collaborative process, as well, and says years of making his own works, improvising, and working with lots of choreographers have given him insight, which came into play with Fonte.

"I can see what he wants. Maybe if I just throw my body, something beautiful will come out of it. Maybe something foolish and silly. I'm not afraid to go there, I'm not afraid to make a fool out of myself. A more timid, insecure dancer is not going to do well in his process."

The three banter a lot in the studio, but Fonte is exacting about how he wants things done, Hussey says.

"He loves using your upper body in extreme ways. There is a lot of neck and head, a lot of reaching arms. So far, I really, really enjoy moving like this."

Fonte was born in New York and has danced with several companies, including Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal and Nacho Duato's Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid. He began exploring choreography at each, before devoting himself full-time to making dance. Based for a time in Sweden, he now lives in Portland, Ore., where his partner, Kevin Irving, is artistic director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Grace Action, set to music by Philip Glass, is an abstract ballet, although Fonte wonders: "Is true abstraction really even possible in dance? I mean, as soon as two people walk on stage together, you infer meaning immediately."

He also is going for pure beauty.

"We lived through deconstructing ballet. We lived through only electronic music. And I feel like, 'Can't we just have another beautiful thing to look at? Is there anything wrong with that?' "

Fonte also had some concerns about the music that inspired the piece. "It's like, 'Oh, just what the world needs, another Philip Glass ballet.' But what I believe I can do is reveal something else about his music in the choreography.

"I don't want to sound like I'm pandering to audiences, but if there's some way I can package a really good ballet with a lot of substance in beautiful, accessible music, a lot more people will approach it."


Keigwin, Fonte & Forsythe


7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 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