This week, the Pennsylvania Ballet (PAB) ends an exceptionally challenging year with a grand flourish. The virtual program “Beauty” offers viewers a trio of exciting world premieres by choreographers from three different countries, all set to recorded music by the extraordinarily gifted and much lauded Philadelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon.
Encounters is, simply, exquisite. It is difficult to believe that this seamless, lyrical yet emotionally wrenching piece was created via Zoom, with the Brazilian choreographer Juliano Nuñes communicating with PAB dancers from Germany, where he was working on another commission.
The first movement of Higdon’s Piano Trio, plus two sections from her String Poetic, create a rich and generally calming mood, perfect for a world still dealing with a pandemic. Nuñes’ beautifully phrased movement is an ideal complement, featuring small, tender, surprisingly eloquent gestures — like gently placing one hand atop a partner’s head — or switching the focus from one dancer to another by sending a few performers out from the wings and across the stage, whisking that dancer away with them while magically revealing another, previously unseen, individual.
Particularly moving are a series of solos, notably So Jung Shin’s evocative opening sequence, an understated yet powerful star turn by Zecheng Liang, and the always-fascinating Arian Molina Soca. Current PAB fan favorite Jack Thomas demonstrates why he deserves the audience’s attention, and the duet between Liang and Molina Soca is filled with physical and emotional dynamism.
Despite the somewhat distracting colored leotards worn underneath them, Martha Chamberlain’s short, filmy, side-slit beige dresses clearly reveal in Encounters the women’s impressive flexibility. However, the bare-chested male dancers’ legs — clad in black tights — too often disappear against the dark backdrop.
For his contribution to this program, Florida native Meredith Rainey (a beloved former PAB principal) sets 14 dancers moving to Higdon’s Concerto 4-3. Inspired by her study of three rivers in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the music for Spillway combines bluegrass references with Western classical sounds.
Rainey’s steps are equally eclectic and upbeat — matching the initial section of quick, percussive music with precise footwork — more Irish step-dancing than hoedown. In subsequent parts the mood slows down, providing the scaffolding for lovely partner-work by Jermel Johnson and Yuka Iseda, and Sterling Baca and Lillian DiPiazza.
The credits for Spillway note that its costumes were “constructed by the Pennsylvania Ballet wardrobe department” and Rainey has explained that his options in this area were limited because of pandemic-related constraints. Still, the recycled two-tone shorts (plus new two-tone dresses, reportedly based on the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian) are unflattering and the short, untucked white T-shirts that accompany the shorts do nothing for anyone.
PAB demi soloist Russell Ducker has been choreographing since his student days in England and his new work, Dance Card — echoing the title of Higdon’s music — demonstrates this experience. At the beginning three dancers burst onto the stage, soon joined by others, joyfully moving to the high-energy score. All are in formal attire — the men in white tie, the women wearing attractive off-the-shoulder black gowns with asymmetrical hems (also apparently sourced by the wardrobe department).
The segments highlighting Etienne Diaz and Lucia Erickson are especially appealing.
One the most striking aspects of Ducker’s work is his ability to create dramatic pauses, suddenly stopping the action with dancers frozen in impossible positions. The women’s luxuriant arm gestures and deep backbends, plus the men’s controlled jumps and attentive partnering, are also admirable.
Alexander Iziliaev’s video direction is solid, clear, and restrained; each composition runs for about 20 minutes. Obviously, there is no substitute for in-person dance performances, which we hope will return very soon. Meanwhile, the wonders of digital technology made it possible for me to watch Encounters again. Several times. I encourage you to do the same.
Pennsylvania Ballet’s “Beauty” (virtual program). Single ticket $25, allows viewing through June 2. Information at 215-893-1999 or paballet.org.