The music of Igor Stravinsky is notoriously complex, with rhythms that are fiendishly difficult to count. Yet his compositions inspired some of the most important choreographers of the 20th century — notably, his fellow Russian George Balanchine — to create now-classic works.

The Pennsylvania Ballet’s all-Stravinsky program, which began its four-day run Thursday night at the Merriam Theater, showcases the variety and accessibility of the master’s music as played by the ballet’s orchestra, featuring the extraordinary piano soloist Martha Koeneman and virtuoso violinist Luigi Mazzocchi under the baton of Beatrice Jona Affron.

It also demonstrates the dancers’ ability to conquer Balanchine’s myriad technical challenges while extracting both the drama and the humor inherent in two of his pieces. The program includes a 1951 work by Jerome Robbins, as well, and the world premiere of a lovely ballet by Matthew Neenan.

Neenan’s Deco, danced to Stravinsky’s Sonata for Piano and his Tango, is abstract and features six young dancers, mainly drawn from the corps de ballet, with stunning costume and lighting designs by Christina Darch and Michael Korsch, respectively. The movement is sometimes courtly, sometimes witty, with fascinating, unexpected endings to many segments. As usual, soloist Zecheng Liang was superb.

Pennsylvania Ballet dancers in Matthew Neenan's world premiere "Deco"
Pennsylvania Ballet dancers in Matthew Neenan's world premiere "Deco"

Now 91 years old, Balanchine’s Apollo is still a visual delight as it explores the relationship between the title character and his three female muses. On opening night, Sterling Baca looked every inch the young Greek god, and the spatial designs the women’s extended limbs made were thrilling.

The other Balanchine piece, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, provided an opportunity for viewers to revel in the tender, thoughtful duets exquisitely danced by the principal couples: Dayesi Torriente with Ian Hussey and Nayara Lopes with Arian Molina Soca.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was Robbins’ ballet The Cage, set to Stravinsky’s Concerto en Ré. This is a metaphorical look at biological imperatives within the insect world — where spiderlike females kill their mates.

Oksana Maslova was outstanding as the Novice, surprised and confused by her own behavior, and Torriente as the Queen was appropriately terrifying. This Cold War-era ballet could easily have seemed dated, but the Pennsylvania Ballet’s spirited performance kept the audience rapt throughout.


Pa. Ballet All-Stravinsky Program

The program repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 7, at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $35-$159. Information: 215-893-1999 or