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Merilyn Jackson
Performance Reviews
The Academy of Music
United States
Philadelphia, PA

A Rapturous Jerome Robbins Run at The Pennsylvania Ballet

by Merilyn Jackson
October 18, 2006
The Academy of Music
240 S. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
(215) 893-1935
When you listen to music and see colors its called synesthesia. When you listen to music and feel movement it could be called, or can result in, choreography. Some choreographers are more adept at it than others.

Take Jerome Robbins in his hilarious 1956 ballet The Concert about how people's minds roam while they are in the state of musical audition. At the Academy of Music last Thursday, it was part of The Pennsylvania Ballet's brilliantly programmed, all-Robbins tribute called Romance and Revelry. The evening of three contrasting works from Robbins' early, middle and late periods exhibited the great American master's democratic choreography. Untrained in dance until his teens, he treated all movement equally borrowing and stealing from whatever he saw in motion, pulling it all together elegantly and aptly. No wonder his talent caught George Balanchine's eye, who also had a genius for matching musical phrasing to dance phrasing.

If you grew up watching Robbins' choreography on Broadway and in film (West Side Story, On the Town) you know his work well and I'll bet you were more enriched by his Peter Pan than anyone in the Pac Man generation.

The Pennsylvania Ballet first performed The Concert in April 2005 with its cast moving as if in stiffly starched shirts. Now, the company is oh so at home in the work. Had they been longing for choreography that gave them comic relief? The dancers, some PAB stalwarts and a couple of newcomers, also shone as actors with a scintillating chemistry between them. Their ensemble-level dancing allowed for superb star turns, but mainly you wanted to watch each of them for their separate qualities.

The Concert closed the show, sending everyone home laughing. I overheard a woman saying she liked it but that it was fluff. I disagree. To be sure, Robbins painted the material with light strokes that ranged from broad slapstick to more finely pointed tongue-in-cheek. But, his keen insights into human behavior along with the suggestions the music evoked for him, brought a deeper socio-psychological level to the work with comedy as its outcome. If laughter is one of the most intelligent of human qualities, I can't get enough of it.

Pianist Martha Koeneman quite literally set the tone onstage with her piano, compulsively adjusting her seat and fussily dusting the keyboard. Her playing, however, was no joke. She played seriously, in nearly oblivious counterpoint to the antics going on about her.

Robbins' interpretations of Chopin's musical titles make for some surreal dances. The Raindrop Prelude, with the dancers carrying large black umbrellas, suggests Magritte, while the Butterfly Etude that has them in wings and antennae says Disney.

Tara Keating is a critical and hardened concertgoer, the kind that will shush you in a heartbeat. Philip Colucci is a shy guy who turns violent in his daydreams. Another standout performer in this run is a newcomer from Carolina Ballet, Maximilien Baud. As a cigar-chomping businessman, he'd like to do away with his wife, Hawley Rowe, and replace her with the narcissistic beauty, Riolama Lorenzo.

This, after just having taken everyone's breath away as the Pennsylvania Ballet's most romantic lead since Zachary Hench joined the company. In the PAB's newest Robbins acquisition In the Night, Baud and Arantxa Ochoa danced in lavender costumes — he tall, blond and craggy-faced, she, willowy, dark-haired and delicate boned.

One of the most gorgeous ballets for pas de deux, it features three couples in varying stages of their relationships. They eventually meet and formally introduce themselves in a dance for six. Roy Kaiser cast his most glorious dancers, Ochoa, Lorenzo and Julie Diana as the female leads. (James Ihde partnered Lorenzo and James Ady, Diana.) In a French company, they'd be called étoile and at the end, they drift offstage in their partners arms like stars fading at dawn.

Each couple has a distinct character, with Baud and Ochoa the most tender as he turns her upside down as easily as if she were a baton before gliding off with her. Diana and Ady aren't sure if they want to continue together, vacillating between attraction, repulsion and submission.

Down in the pit, Koeneman played the ballet's Chopin Nocturnes with such fragility it is a mild shock when the rest of the orchestra comes in. The Bernstein and Chopin scores fit them well and conductor Beatrice Jona Affron kept them smoothly rolling along through the night.

The show opened with Robbins first ballet, the first also of many collaborations with Leonard Bernstein. PAB premiered the 1944 Fancy Free in 2003. I reviewed it then saying it was sure to join the ranks of the repertoire for seasons to come. I hope it will be a staple for at least as long as Philip Colucci is dancing as one of the sailors. James Ady and Jonathan Stiles joined Colucci this time around too, and each has something unique to bring to his role.

Three sailors looking for action on leave, they belly up to the bar for a beer fuel-up and scout the ladies out on the sidewalk. At sight of Tara Keating, they're like boys with a new toy, playing catch with Keating's handbag until she snatches it back. The men dance in trios until Amy Aldridge is enticed into the bar by Stiles. He pantomimes himself as a gunner on an airplane but fails to impress her. When Bernstein's bluesy trombone section starts, she falls into a sultry dance with him. Both Bernstein and Robbins knew how to announce a change in emotion with music or dance. And Aldridge and Stiles know how to interpret it. Sliding along each other's limbs their desire turns to joy once they know it's reciprocated. During the men's attention-seeking solos Stiles seems in such a reverie about Aldridge it could melt a girl's heart.

While Ady seemed coy when he danced his role three years ago, he now takes it with commanding sophistication. He teases Keating and Aldridge with brazen Latin-style hip shimmys that hint he could teach them a thing or two about how to Rumba.

The most supple and boyish of the three, Colluci explodes into mid-air splits, tours and arabesques that brought joy to the faces of the audience. Yet, two girls into three guys doesn't work out for pairing off and a fight breaks out. The girls walk off leaving the guys dejected, until the captivating Emily Waters comes along. Hope springs eternal as they speculate about who will get her and fail to notice as she saunters off.

At 24, Robbins made his mark with this ballet, pulling on every sort of dance â€" ballet, tap, folk, pedestrian movement and even, in the end, the cartoonish, skidding crooked-knee corner turns of the sailors as they bolt after the disappearing Waters.

Like Twyla Tharp's Sinatra Suite last year, Fancy Free is on many companies' schedules this year, from New York's American Ballet Theater to Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet. More than 50 years later, its evocation of the awe first timers feel when they see New York and the heart-bursting yearning of young servicemen out to have fun makes it the quintessential American ballet. Someone needs to fund a European tour for this company, and this timeless show, in its entirety, is the one they should take.

No further performances
©Merilyn Jackson, 2006
Pennsylvania Ballet Soloist Philip Colucci in Jerome Robbins's 'Fancy Free'

Pennsylvania Ballet Soloist Philip Colucci in Jerome Robbins's "Fancy Free"

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Riolama Lorenzo with Soloist James Ihde in Jerome Robbins's 'In the Night'.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Riolama Lorenzo with Soloist James Ihde in Jerome Robbins's "In the Night".

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Riolama Lorenzo in Jerome Robbins's 'The Concert'

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Riolama Lorenzo in Jerome Robbins's "The Concert"

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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