Essential to success for a choreographer are a native instinct for what the body can do, enormous imagination to create a new world of complementary movements, and the immense confidence to give it all a unique personal style.
You couldn't find better examples than in Pennsylvania Ballet's season finale. Three brilliant young choreographers celebrate great music with storytelling, classical and contemporary styles.
"Carnival of the Animals" is the family attraction that will get patrons in the door. It was designed for the New York City Ballet in 2003 by the gifted Christopher Wheeldon, who did our company's blockbuster "Swan Lake" a few years ago.
For tonight and tomorrow's performances, actor John Lithgow reprises his roles in the original production as narrator and as the character of the elephant Mabel Buntz. (Paul Hope will take over the roles for the other performances.)
" 'Carnival' has a broad appeal to audiences," said Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Roy Kaiser, "but they'll get to see three aspects of contemporary dance [on this varied program]. The experience makes the company better dancers, because it requires different sensibilities and taking on a different persona for each ballet."
Saint-Saens' piece, a "grand zoological fantasy" in 14 sections, is scored for two pianos and chamber octet with subtle melodic homages to Offenbach, Rossini, Berlioz and probably others. Only the elegiac "Swan" for cello and piano has remained in the standard repertoire, but the piece's depiction of lions, kangaroos, floating fish and a plaintive cuckoo demonstrate the compositional master's rare light moments.
In Wheeldon's interpretation, the narrator plays the night watchman in a museum where the animals cavort to the delicious music.
The other two pieces are world premieres of company commissions.
Audiences should be dazzled by the classically tinged "Jupiter," which Peter Quanz set for 20 dancers to Mozart's magnificent final symphony.
Last year, Quanz, who is just 28, became the first Canadian choreographer to create a piece for St. Petersburg's famed Kirov Ballet. He returns there to collaborate with Russian legend Valery Gergiev after this engagement.
Asked why he chose the "Jupiter" Symphony, known for its complexity, Quanz said, "Mozart's music is dancing music. It screams for choreography. And dance was everywhere in the court world he was surrounded by. It verges on the Romantic period, with a bigger sweep of emotions, and I chose simple solutions that would allow the power of the music to be accessible."
Quanz said being a guest choreographer is "a privilege, with no distraction." But, he added that the "Jupiter" was "a demanding work to set, almost terrifying, for great music raises the demands."
Quanz described the piece as "set in an old theater with the wings removed so the audience will see the whole backstage - great from the balcony - with dancers in tutus to show that we live in a different world with phenomenal new ways of moving. . . . we have two casts, with one dancer [Tyler Galster] appearing in the first corps and as a principal in the second cast, rising to the challenge. This is typical of these phenomenal talents, a result of Roy Kaiser's nurturing attitude."
The knockout punch on this program comes from Matthew Neenan, a talented company alumnus and creator of his own company, the hot BalletX.
For his ninth commission from the Pennsylvania Ballet, Neenan has created two pieces using pulsing music by the Argentinian composer Albert Ginastera: "Pampeana No. 2," and Neenan's own assemblage from several Ginastera works, "Penumbra."
"I always end up using more than I plan," said Neenan, describing how he selected the number of dancers for his work. (The first piece has five dancers, the second seven.) "I usually like to work with big groups, but I wanted to concentrate on individuality, with lots of surprises, very spicy and saucy, with more contemporary, more human physicality.
"Of course, choices are made depending on what else is on the program. I choose dancers because of their talent, but also their states of mind, where they are in their head, because you have to mentally be ready, too."
He continued, "As I've gotten more experienced, imagery has become more important to me, including the look and the picture - beautiful, cool lighting effects and the sets, not just about the steps. But these ballets are tougher than I thought, since the tempos change too often for the dancers to count - we call it doing it "from ear sake." There's a lot of pressure on dancers who are doing their first pas de deux. Scary and exciting, too." *
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