Picture this: a ballet contrasting classical with modern movement paired with the earliest Romantic story ballet.
The Pennsylvania Ballet's programming of August Bournonville's 1836 tale of love and death, La Sylphide, alongside Peter Martins' Barber Violin Concerto (1988) is perfect. Along with illustrating dance's development through time, the works share the theme of being seduced by the forbidden.
Martins set his quartet to Samuel Barber's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14. With Luigi Mazzochi as guest violin, the music is entirely compelling, dance or no dance.
Barber showcases two couples - one in a handsome neoclassical pas de deux and the second using angled shapes and charged dynamics from modern dance. As it progresses, partners are swapped and the classical dancers are coaxed into trying modern forms. On opening night, Riolama Lorenzo dazzled with her transition from the ideal ballerina, who seemed to descend from each jump onto pillows of air, to literally letting her hair down in gutsier action.
Particularly interesting is the difference in lifts, with Martins inventing novel cantilevers and holds for the modern sections. Laura Bowman, the woman in the modern pair, is giddily active, trying to coerce the stalwart James Ihde into getting with the new program. And Maximilien Baud danced with simple clarity - a fine squire.
In La Sylphide, the Bournonville style looks devilish to do, with lots of jumps coming from nearly no momentum, and super-fast beats for the feet with subtle head and arm placements. It's all exacting precision and control.
Zachary Hench in the first cast is a strapping James, a gentleman in his Scottish hunting lodge who on his wedding day is visited by a sylph - a woodland spirit (Julie Diana). When she reappears during his wedding festivities, the fascination she exerts is so irresistible that he flees, abandoning his wife-to-be, and follows the sylph to a woodland glade.
There they dance, but never touch. Her own magical presence is undone with other magic - a witch whom James had earlier offended causes the death of the sylph and leaves him despondent.
The sylph is both innocent and temptress. Diana's rendering was suitably supernatural in its lightness - her feet executed bourrée steps at the speed of hummingbird wings. But her expression didn't fully convey the nuanced emotions that the role asks until the final scene. That last moment, of rising to walk one final time, was stunningly transcendent.
A fund-raising speech preceding Friday's premiere was a poignant reminder of the financial challenges facing the arts. This enchanting program bore out why they merit support.