The Philadelphia Ballet sparkles in a revisit of its Balanchine roots
Almost 60 years ago, Barbara Weisberger opened the Philadelphia Ballet – until recently called Pennsylvania Ballet – with the help and encouragement of her mentor, the great choreographer George Balanchine, who founded the New York City Ballet.
For most of the Philadelphia Ballet’s existence, it was known as a Balanchine company, whose repertoire featured heavily the works of the great master.
That changed when Angel Corella took over as artistic director in 2014. Corella came from the American Ballet Theater, which performs more story ballets and classical works. Nutcracker would remain the Balanchine version, but for many seasons Balanchine’s other work seemed to be an afterthought, a weaker program performed with many dancers who never trained in the Balanchine style.
But the Philadelphia Ballet opened its Balanchine program Thursday night at the Academy of Music, and it really shone.
When a company wants to perform a Balanchine ballet, it must hire a repeaterusually a former City Ballet dancer whom the Balanchine Trust certifies to stage their work.
This time it was Colleen Neary, a soloist with City Ballet in the 1970s and artistic director of Los Angeles Ballet. She taught the entire Bold, Brilliant, Balanchine program at the Philadelphia Ballet – Symphony in C, Entertainment No. 15and stars and stripes. All tutu ballets and crowd favorites, one was more charming than the other, and the dancers looked crisp and precise.
The only big misstep was in the programming, not the dancing. The evening opened with a presentation honoring black ballet dancers, including some Philadelphia Ballet alumni and Jermel Johnson, who will retire on May 15. But as soon as it was over, the curtain went up on Symphony in C – a so-called “white ballet”, named after the rows of dancers in white tutus, and in this case featuring only white dancers. Dancers from other races joined in the second movement, but the contrast between speech and action made for a goofy moment.
It was a choice of the producers, not the dancers. Aside from the fact that some of the women didn’t seem to have enough room to fly in their jumps, the dancers, to music by Georges Bizet, all looked excellent, especially Oksana Maslova and Arian Molina Soca in the second movement and Mayara Piniero and Ashton Roxander in the third. Maslova in particular has the most beautiful feet and a flexible back.
The white tutus of Symphony in C gave way to blues and greens Entertainment No. 15, with music by Mozart and also lovely. The stars here were Nayara Lopes (who was recently promoted to principal dancer) and Johnson (in one of her latest performances), both particularly quick and dynamic. Not all dancers were equally good at fast footwork.
The evening ended with stars and stripes. Born in Russia, Balanchine was an enthusiastic immigrant who loved America and America. This ballet is all John Philip Sousa and red, white and blue (with a bit of pink and yellow on the tutus). This is a crowd-pleasing ballet parade with all the dancers putting on crisp, clean performances.
The lovely couple playing Liberty Bell and El Capitan on Thursday? Like Balanchine, they are immigrants who embrace all movements – Dayesi Torriente and Molina Soca, both from Cuba.
Philadelphia Ballet in Bold, Brilliant, Balanchine.
Until March 20. Academy of Music. $25 to $199. philadelphiaballet.org215-893-1999.