Fueled by controversy, the public perception of ballet is evolving from girly pink to grown-up sexy. The evolution was evident Thursday night in Pennsylvania Ballet's presentation of three contemporary works at the Merriam Theater.
The pieces that made up the program, "Classic Innovations," were 10 to 23 years old, but looked as clean and crisp as spring blossoms. Their vibrance rebutted the death knell that New Republic writer and former dancer Jennifer Homans virtually rang for ballet in her recent book Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet. And these dancers looked delightfully human, compared with the obsessive character Natalie Portman portrays in the hit film Black Swan.
In the first piece on Thursday, William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, two male dancers wear backless leotards while three women dance in pancakelike tutus that dip and sway with their hips, looking cute and loopy against the booming bombast of the allegro vivace from Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 9. This is the ballet's second piece by Forsythe in a year, and many more should be added.
The Forsythe work was followed by Christopher Wheeldon's 2001 Polyphonia, which launched his career. Its architectural, alphabetic-looking choreography triangulates the dancers' bodies. Legs and arms form tripods to the floor, jut out horizontally or vertically in V's. Off to the side, Martha Koeneman played a tinkling piano superbly.
In the span of a few months, Philadelphia audiences have seen two classic postmodern ballets - Lucinda Childs' Dance, and now, the third piece of Thursday's program, a reprise of Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room. Both have a compelling momentum driven by Philip Glass' music.
The company premiered Tharp's 1988 work in 2007. It's a bullet-train ballet that takes you on a joyride. Tharp's corps of 13 divides into squads she calls "Stompers" in sneakers and "Ballet" in red ankle socks and pointe shoes. The black, white, and red Norma Kamali costumes, with their dolman-sleeve blouses and pleated skirts, still work. Arantxa Ochoa spun charmingly on the heels of her pointe shoes, and Francis Veyette, James Ihde, and Jonathan Stiles showed an easy rapport. Stiles' duets with Martha Chamberlain, his real-life wife, were the evening's valentine.
Some of the nine sections of In the Upper Room ended in odd silences while action continued, making me wonder if timing was off, as it was here and there throughout.
But that didn't diminish the impact of the three works as they built a musical and choreographic arc from Schubert to Ligeti to Glass in the kind of programming that could well groom the next generation of audience.
Vive le ballet.