Messiah, Pennsylvania Ballet


‘Messiah’

Choreographed by Robert Weiss
Music by George Frideric Handel
Pennsylvania Ballet
Academy of Music, Philadelphia
March 8-17, 2012

Robert Weiss is artistic director of the Carolina Ballet, where his ballet “Messiah” has played to very enthusiastic returning crowds. The choreographer was also artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet two decades ago, and he came back in 2008 to set the ballet on PB. Scored to Handel’s epic oratorio, the liturgical narratives are performed by four soloists appearing on and at the side of the stage and with the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, in the pit with the orchestra.

Weiss is supported throughout by the complete detailing of conductor Beatrice Jona Affron leading the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra and fine choral work by Philadelphia Singers Chorale, directed by David Hayes; soloists Suzanne Ramo (soprano), Jamie Van Eyck (mezzo), Steven Sanders (tenor), Levi Hernandez (baritone) and a valiant chorus projecting very well in the Academy, even though they were unseen in the pit.

It is not music that you think of as dancey, but Weiss works well with the baroque counterpoint and tempi. He is subtle and potent in the adagio segments, particularly in the couples duets. The crowd scenes pose more of a challenge, but Weiss avoids the many pitfalls that can make a biblical epic campy (think de Mille’s “The Ten Commandments“)— for a two-act ballet, this is inherently risky territory. Rather than a linear choreographic narrative, it has literal renderings of the passion play and thematic abstracts in dance.

Two dancers, principal Zachary Hench and soloist Jermel Johnson, rotated in the title role. At the March 11 performance, Johnson had one or two pacing issues toward the end (he pitched out of a turn sequence, one or two rushed steps, maybe) but this was an altogether towering performance, danced full out and transmitting the character aura in every moment. Johnson, known for his explosive ability in the air, and at this performance he not only walked on water, in many moments he was dancing on air — such clarity in the lateral jumps and his trademark air-slicing jetés. But, equally impressive were his grounded acting and fluid partnering work.

The ballet featured several breakout roles for some of the new dancers, starting with Evelyn Kocak, the front dancer in many of the quartets. Amy Aldridge and Jong Suk Park were commanding in their duet (Pastoral Symphony) as the young married couple celebrating with diamond hard adagio work. Park is a most attentive partner and Aldridge, as usual, brings supple polish to every phrase. There were some pacing scrambles as well in a couple of the crowd sections, but mostly the unison work was clean and in the full company part in Act II, was razor sharp where it counted. Park and Frances Veyette as composite apostles impressed in several scenes with strong jump and turn sequences.

The iconography from some of the most famous religious Renaissance sacred paintings (Jesus’ birth, his entrance into the marketplace, etc.) is dramatically rendered. Some of the visual concepts play out fast — the disgraced man and woman engulfed by flames portrayed by dancers in red-ribbon unitards is pretty “Solid Gold Dancer” tired. Also troubling were two or three phrases that were quoting Balanchine’s work too closely. These moments did not bother the ballet overall, which is a proven hit in its second appearance.

Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.