Nineteen months ago, the company then known as Pennsylvania Ballet was opening a big, glittering, expensive world premiere at the Academy of Music when the world shutdown. Artistic director Angel Corella’s La Bayadère was canceled due to COVID-19, along with so much else.
On Wednesday night, the troupe took its first steps back toward normalcy with a live performance in a small venue, the Performance Garage. It returned to the stage with a new name, the Philadelphia Ballet, three ballets ― including two world premieres ― and even live music. A maximum of 70 people — all vaccinated and, therefore, over the age of 12 — may attend each show.
This show is called The Spark, and Corella is hoping it is the first strike to ignite a renaissance. It includes Other Half, by Matthew Neenan; Juliano Nunes’ Connection; and Corella’s Landscaping the Mist.
Opening night was a little surreal and also wonderful.
After a lifetime of going to performances, everything pre-show seemed a bit confusing. Do I print out my tickets or show my phone? Who needs to see my vaccine card? Do I sit anywhere? Where do I get a program?
The program turned out to be digital only, available by scanning a QR code. No smartphone? No program. Want to check on the list of dancers while the show is going on? You can’t do that without illuminating much of the four-row theater.
But the atmosphere was welcoming and the Performance Garage has had a stunning makeover since my last visit. The ballet has been in residence at the Garage most of the year, filming its digital season there. The company installed new lighting and wings and extended the stage nearly into the audience. The seating has also been upgraded and the sound system bathes audience members in music.
For ballet lovers, this program in this location is a good opportunity to get the sort of up close experience that was enjoyable during the digital season. All of the seats are wonderful, and if you sit in the front row, the dancers all but leap into your lap in Landscaping the Mist, thanks to that extended stage.
That piece is Corella’s first totally new choreography for the Philadelphia Ballet. He has been reworking the full-length classics for the company for years, but they always leaned heavily on known stories (Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Giselle). This time, he created an optimistic celebratory piece with a stage full of dancers performing fast, technical series of steps, each dancer all but running into the next.
It’s impressive to see 21 dancers performing at once in a small space, although the choreography hovers on the edge of chaos.
Landscaping the Mist is set to four pieces of music by Philip Glass played live on the piano by Martha Koeneman, solo pianist for the Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra. Live music, especially during a pandemic, even more in such a small theater is a rare treat, and Koeneman sounded wonderful.
Light gray costumes are not the best choice for an intimate performance, however. Most were darkened with sweat stains over the course of the piece and there’s no distance to hide that.
The other world premiere is Neenan’s Other Half. The program notes say he and musician Rosie Langabeer, a frequent collaborator, began imagining this piece in 2019, but it feels current, both trapped and hopeful. It features couples performing in pods, as well as a group of dancers in black repeating somber steps. Finally, another group in pastels and jewel tones burst onto the scene joyfully. Langabeer’s music fills the theater with the addition of ringing bells and the sound of rushing water.
Nayara Lopes and Sydney Dolan were cheeky and charming in their section, lighting up the mood as well as the technique.
Nunes created Connection for the Philadelphia Ballet in 2019, and it’s still a beauty. It’s all about the gorgeous bodies and the geometry of the patterns they make both individually and as a group. Set to music by Ezio Bosso, it has the dancers reacting to the music, changing their steps or direction with the beat, as well as reacting to each other. Their minimalistic costumes show off every sublime muscle, highlight every long limb.
This piece was choreographed pre-pandemic, but the dancers’ interactions and connections feel hopeful for the future, perhaps sparking what’s next for the Philadelphia Ballet and all of us.
Through Oct. 30, Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine St.