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Lewis J Whittington
Performance Reviews
Ballet
Academy of Music
United States
Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA
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Pennsylvania Ballet's Zachary Hench's Princely Swan Song

by Lewis J Whittington
March 20, 2015
Academy of Music
240 South Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
215.893.1999
Reviews of both the March 8 and March 14 performances with two differnent casts.

Original review posted March 11 and updated March 20.
Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Zachary Hench knew he would be retiring when he was named the company's ballet master last summer by the company's new artistic director Angel Corella. Corella asked him if he would consider dancing Prince Siegfried, a role he has danced many times, during the run of Christopher Wheeldon's Swan Lake, which Wheeldon re-envisioned for Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004.

Aside from not performing for months, Hench has also been dancing with cartilage damage in one of his toes. But if Hench was dealing with pain during his final performance on March 8 (matinee), no one noticed during what proved a most valiant swan song performance. Known for his stage presence and luminously unfussy classical technique, with Siegfried the dance was the dancer.

Wheeldon's version of Swan Lake re-imagines the ballet with the framework of a 19th century dance company touring the classic ballet in Paris. The company's lead danseur noble daydreams his own Swan Lake scenario of falling in love with an ethereal white swan (Odette) and being entranced by Odile, the black swan and fighting off the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart.

Chunks of the Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov minted classicism is kept in along with Wheeldon's tweaks and interpretations. Wheeldon doesn't hedge his bets on choreographic depth as he carves out the dual worlds of the insular backstage language of the ballet and its sterling classical vocabulary. Speaking of classicism, Pennsylvania Ballet's orchestra conductor Beatrice Jona Affron details Tchaikovsky's score from every angle. Among the many standout players, Luigi Mazzocchi's masterful violin solos just engulfed the Academy of Music.

Wheeldon showed huge choreographic respect for the music especially in the lesser-known passages. He built in a whimsical backstage dynamic that captured the grit and esprit of a dancer's life. The ballerinas posed in scenes immortalized by the paintings of Degas, not to mention the Moulin Rouge-inspired divertissements, with can-cans, Spanish and Russian folkloric variations, all working very well.

The ballet's iconic classicism came early in the limb entwined petit cygnets as danced by Marria Cosentino, Evelyn Kocak, Oksana Maslova and Elizabeth Mateer. Wheeldon made the evil Von Rothbart a minor devise and his spells over the swans, pointed at how little details of the story were relied on choreographically. The corps women showed their steeled ensemble power as the lakeside swans under Rothbart's spell who eventually turned on him. They also showed their steel in the sustained suppleness and ensemble precision. Of note were the performances of lead corps swans Amy Holihan and Elizabeth Wallace. The corps de ballet men made the most of their café society characters during the Russian striptease danced by Lillian Dipiazza whose wit and balletic litheness made it all the more scandalous.

Hench as Siegfried and principal dancer Lauren Fadeley as Odette/Odile were attendant to every demand, delivering spectacular moments filled with fiery technique and thrilling artistry. Hench's beautiful amplitude in leg scissoring jumps was complemented by great line and clarity in his turn work. Meanwhile, Fadeley's pirouette runs and adagio pointe work as Odette were equally captivating. It was easy to believe she stepped out of an idealized vision in Siegfried's mind. As the deceitful Odile, she cast a subtly different temperament that showcased her dazzling classical attack.

In the last act of the ballet, Hench came through the mist as Odette returned to the swans. Back into reality he walked a shaft of light into the studio ending up balled up on the floor, emotionally spent.

At the end, the curtain first came back up on Fadeley and Hench, came back down and back up on just Hench as the audience thundered their affection and recognition of his many brilliant lead performances at Pennsylvania Ballet since he came here in 2004. The swans started to file in all laying a red rose at his feet. Then roses showered over the footlight. Former principal dancer Julie Diana, Zack's wife, came onstage with their two children for a shared family moment. Angel Corella bounded on to embrace Hench, with the whole company following, as the audience continued their lusty appreciation for his triumphant performances in Philadelphia. Sometimes, everything is still beautiful at the ballet.

Swan Lake
March 14 matinee


Wheeldon created this 2004 version of Swan Lake for the mid-sized Pennsylvania Ballet and, detractors notwithstanding, this ballet continues to pay off. The final partnering of Lauren Fadeley with Zachary Hench for his retirement performances were an added draw, but Corella also made this run of the ballet work for everybody by rotating five lead casts and doubling them in supporting feature roles.

The ballet again showcased the refinement of the corps de ballet under repetiteur Jason Fowler, the precision was a fireworks display of sterling technique, equally as impressive as the iconic solos and duets by the principals.

Jermel Johnson, Brooke Moore and Lillian DiPiazza were among those dancing leading roles during the run, but didn't sit out the other performances. In the March 8, for instance, they may have had some bumpy transitional phrasing in the Act I pas de tois, but mostly they sustained glittering focus and character.

The following week, it was also great to see Johnson, an African American cast as Siegfried, a 19th century classical European fictional character that is automatically cast with a white dancer by many ballet companies. In 2015, that mindset is absurd and offensive.

For two performances Johnson was partnered with Mayara Pineiro, a Cuban National Ballet School graduate who began her professional career as a soloist at National Opera of Bucharest, before dancing for Milwaukee Ballet. Corella hired Pineiro as a Pennsylvania Ballet corps de ballet member last year.

Pineiro and Johnson ignited palpable chemistry from the start. Pineiro has an earthy and regal stage presence and classical vocabulary that is so natural in her deportment. Piniero possesses expressive carriage and fiery pointe technique. Their partnering was detailed, polished and filled with thrillingly-paced turn and lift patterns. Pineiro's beautiful expressive port de bra can look to forced at moments, but that did little to take away from her overall electrifying performance.

In one of Johnson's Act III solos, his boot skidded, jarring his pacing for some turns, but by the next pass he quickly recovered and erased that earlier mistep. Pineiro just seems to be able to hang en pointe for as long as she wants. She whipped off 26 fouettes (& many doubles) during Tchaikovsky's brassy fanfare finale (For that two minutes the Academy of Music sounded like a soccer stadium).

Among many standouts in this performance, Francis Veyette was a most raffish creeper as Von Rothbart.

Seeing both the March 8 and March 14 casts also was a chance to see adjustments in orchestra pacing in certain scenes with the different dancers. At the March 14 performance a quicker tempo for certain passages was utilized for its leads. It is always instructive and entertaining seeing the interpretations of the same ballet by different dancers.
Principal Dancer Zachary Hench and Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Swan Lake.'

Principal Dancer Zachary Hench and Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev


Principal Dancer Zachary Hench and Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Swan Lake.'

Principal Dancer Zachary Hench and Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev


Principal Dancer Zachary Hench and Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Swan Lake.'

Principal Dancer Zachary Hench and Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev


Pennsylvania Ballet dancers in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Swan Lake.'

Pennsylvania Ballet dancers in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev


Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson and Company Member Mayara Pineiro in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Swan Lake.'

Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson and Company Member Mayara Pineiro in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev


Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Swan Lake.'

Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev

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