Pennsylvania Ballet film premiere season

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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The Pennsylvania Ballet is the largest dance company in Philadelphia and as most of the other smaller companies have been able to rehearse short films or scaled down livestreams in the last half of 2020, PAB has just launched its the first season of dance films accessed through the website at very affordably priced tickets.    

Over the last few months PAB artistic director Angel Corella designed a spring season of new commissions and repertory ballet as a return to the company onstage together again performing after more than a year off the stage. The films represent the artistic range and introduces many new members of the company in featured roles as well as dancers who have been with the company for many years. The full season is titled ‘Strength. Resilience. Beauty’ is dedicated to the company’s founder Barbara Weisberger, who died in December.

Corella said that they included ballets that were postponed last year and works that could be transferred to a smaller stage and rehearsed in quarantined environments, for the safety of the dancers and company staff. 

In a ZOOM interview earlier this month, Angel Corella discusses the dancers returning to the performance stage after a year working in isolation.

“I felt a little like a movie director-choreographer,” adding that it was “complicated to film all the ballets and to really put together a season that would show where we were now and keep everyone safe.”  And that would include not only the dancers, but costumers, repetiteurs, filmmakers and support staff.  

Corella explained that the dancers worked in separate studio pods, in quarantined groups.  They worked out of the company studios on Broad St. and the ballets are then filmed at the nearby Performance Garage on Brandywine St. The company’s regular venues the Academy of Music and The Merriam Theater remain closed due to the pandemic.

Dance artists faced specific issues to stay safe and to continue their training and rehearsals during the pandemic. For artistic directors and choreographers, everything had to be rethought for performances to be filmed for virtual audiences.

“We put together a season to showcase and the dancer in very collaborative atmosphere in the studio. Corella credits the dancers for their “patience and very collaborative atmosphere that we all experienced being back in the studio.” 

Corella said the dancers have been working in isolation and are back with a renewed sense of purpose. “the fact that could be back in the studio and their mindset. “They have different priorities I think after this difficult year. Doing what they love. they don’t take it for granted. They. When you’re a dancer you can focus on this or that small problem- all of that disappears.

After a year of taking class, rehearsing virtually and keeping in performance shape in isolation in their apartments and home, as the first two installments of the film have captured that their technical artistry and ensemble esprit are back in fine form.

Corella said he has been inspired by the legendary Barbara Weisberger in so many ways as director, especially at this time. “I know what it’s like to start a company and how difficult it is. how much of your creative soul goes into a company and that is her living legacy?”

While Corella was still a principal at American Ballet Theater, he toured a company of ballet stars off season and established the Barcelona Ballet (later changed to Corella Ballet), and after he disbanded his company, he took the reins at PABallet.

 Mrs. Weisberger was chosen by George Balanchine to form PAB in the early 60s and her tenure there and her equally legendary work nationally in dance training, education and advocacy for ballet on every level continued the rest of her life.

“It was amazing that the first conversation talking to her, and I called her & was prepared to speak to her for a long time. she called me back when I was driving, and I pulled off the road and we talked for over an hour. From the start we had an instant connection. I could tell how much love and passion she put in to creating this company.”

PABallet digital stage   showcases PAB’s artistic range.

The Pennsylvania Ballet’s Virtual season this spring of ballets filmed at the Performance Garage, is an admirable showcase that shows how much the dancers have stayed in performance shape. The cameras are up close, and the works as scaled down for safety, and what would in any circumstance be considered fast production schedule of four ballets.

Artistic director Angel Corella adapted-French master choreographer Marius Petipa’s ‘Raymonda Suite’, exemplar of Russian ballet classicism, which can look musty to contemporary audiences. But for Corella, it is also a barometer of specific classical technique by the principals, soloists and corps de ballet. After more than a year of scaled down dance on screen because of the pandemic, it was almost strange to see 18 dancers on stage unmasked again. Corella made this a chamber dance set with candelabra posts and epic clouds as a backdrop, it was a ballet fantasy realm.

Up close on film the precision and energy need to be tight, and even with some heavy hoisting of one or two ballerinas, and some unison ensemble breaks, Glazunov score is packed with Russian fanfare. These dancers sustained wonderful character esprit and technical clarity. Principals Arian Molina Soca as Jean and Dayesi Torriente as Raymonda, show have technical grace and imperial deportment in grande pas de deux.

More fireworks come as Soca floats with ease in the tour en’ l air and thrilling turn sequences. But it is Torriente’s final solo, scored to Glazunov’s haunting piano passage, dances with a characterization that is both earthy and regal, carved out with flawless adagio pointe work.

Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Polyphonia’ was created on NYCB in 2001 and first performed by PAB in 2005 and with this cast looks as edgy and inventive as ever on a new generation of dancers at the PABallet. Set to piano works by George Ligeti, it is a repertory classic on with the opening piano that unleashes Wheeldon’s frantic opening with four male-female couples moving in quicksilver time moving in and out of unison phrases and hectic ensemble geometric.

Then Sterling Baca and Oksana Maslova perform one of Wheeldon’s most volcanic pas de deux. It is packed with ballet acrobatics, precarious lifts and torqued bodyscapes that keep evolving. But this is also an interior, intimate drama and Baca and Maslova keep intensify its dramatic effects.  

Jermel Johnson solo for Dwight Rhoden’s ‘And So It Is…’ scored to a hypnotic percussive score by Steve Reich, Rhoden’s choreography imbues Johnson’s technical and interpretive artistry.      This is a transcendent performance, beautifully filmed by Alexander Iziliaev.  

‘Allegro Brilliante’ is another measure of a particular neoclassical style that George Balanchine was forging in the US with the NYCB in its premiere in 1956. Next to seminal classics of the choreographer’s masterworks ‘Agon’ and ‘Four Temperaments’ it can look like a retro-ballet museum piece, as the Tchaikovsky score, nudged Balanchine toward his more decorative style. But in this performance, principals Zecheng Liang and Mayara Pinero lead the ensemble in the  rote Balanchine configurations with unfussy flair. As in ‘Raymonda Suite,’ the corps dancers showcasing how much they have sustained in technical clarity and ensemble esprit after not performing together onstage after a year apart.

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