They're not the Bolshoi. They're not New York City Ballet. They're not on Broadway.
Pennsylvania Ballet had its work cut out for it with "Russian Suite," the program that opened its season Thursday night at the Academy of Music. It presented the North American premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's Jeu de Cartes, which he created for the Bolshoi, as well as two Balanchine ballets.
Raymonda Variations was choreographed in 1961 for Balanchine's own City Ballet; he made Slaughter on Tenth Avenue as a set piece within the 1936 Broadway show On Your Toes, then brought it to his company in 1968. (I saw the 1983 Broadway revival of On Your Toes, which netted international star Natalia Makarova a ballet first - the Tony Award for best actress in a musical.)
Those are daunting precedents, but Pennsylvania Ballet did an admirable job with all three ballets.
Jeu de Cartes, set to Stravinsky, is nothing short of a delight. The choreography is headlong and difficult, but the dancers rose to the occasion. Dressed in purple and yellow, they bounded on and off the stage, and whipped off fast series of turns. Ratmansky - artist in residence at the American Ballet Theatre - creates layers of dancers, with the women bopping in a series of simple steps as the men leap around them.
The choreographer also inserts humorous movement from everyday life. Dancers energetically bounce up and down in place. They audibly slap their legs. A woman skips across the stage on pointe. One brusquely moves another's leg so she can get to a man. The piece is not literally the card game of the title, but Ratmansky makes references. At one point, Ian Hussey sits on the floor and plays solitaire. Near the piece's end, the dancers topple like a line of cards.
Raymonda Variations, the tutu ballet that opened the program, was, in contrast, a mixed success. There was visible nervousness among some dancers, even as several of its younger members leaped out from the corps. Lillian DiPiazza and Caralin Curcio both had solos but also stood out for their port de bras and stretched necks in the group sections.
Principal dancer Arantxa Ochoa proved herself a rock, refreshingly unshakable even during some awkward partnering moments.
The evening closed with Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. With its Richard Rodgers score, it was a bit of Broadway for the ballet, and a rare chance to hear dancers speak onstage. Jonathan Stiles performed an amusing tap dance; Amy Aldridge was the striptease girl, the role I saw Makarova dance. It's a tough comparison, but Aldridge made the sexy, sultry, sometimes funny part her own.
"Russian Suite" was a program that could have eaten Pennsylvania Ballet alive. Instead, it was one of the more enjoyable performances I've seen from the company.