The Pennsylvania Ballet closes its 2013 spring season with an artistically varied program that is emotionally and intellectually satisfying.
At the Academy of Music on Thursday night, the curtain rose on 12 dancers, backs to the audience, walking forward, taking steps back, making half-turns, adding more dance moves until they broke rank.
The women in long-sleeved gowns, the men in blouses and straight trousers (by John Macfarlane, who also designed the moody set based on a Munch painting) were dancing Jirí Kylián's 1981 Forgotten Land. In this company premiere, Gabriella Yudenich and partner James Ihde were passionately dramatic in black, while Lillian Di Piazza and Lorin Mathis were exquisitely romantic in white.
Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem gave the work gravitas, but the women's hunched backs and crooked arms with fingers seeming to drip from their hands gave it a macabre, Munch-ian look.
The ballet's resident choreographer, Matthew Neenan, set his poetic At Various Points to Mendelssohn's Song Without Words. A world premiere, this quartet is his 14th commission for the company. There is always something ludic about Neenan's work. Here, it's finger-wagging, putting the finger on the nose or chin, or pointing straight at the audience as if to say, "We see you seeing us."
I wish I could have seen Rebecca Kanach's raggedy costumes better, but designer John Hoey shaded them too darkly and the particolored spotlights didn't reach the dancers. If they had too little light, Martha Koeneman's piano playing in the pit sparked them through the lighter parts of the score.
With the company and East Coast premiere of William Forsythe's Artifact Suite, the Ballet adds to the two Forsythes in its repertoire. Condensed from his full evening-length 1984 ballet (the first he made for the Frankfurt Ballet when he became its director) and staged by choreographer Jodie Gates to the chaconne from Bach's Solo Violin Partita No. 2, it looked very masculine: muscular, combative, cerebral, philosophical, and breathtakingly unsentimental. The firewall falls repeatedly with unapologetic thuds to rise again on the 38 dancers now regrouped.
Barefooted Caralin Curcio is "The Other," who conducted arm signals throughout, echoing the mass motion in sync with Eurythmics exercises and Laban movement choirs. She was commanding, but sometimes got lost in the overly crowded field.
When these forces walked off in soft goose step at the end of the first half, it looked very like Forsythe was referencing Germany's past while ushering in its artistic future.
The pointe-slippered women performed a torrent of tendus to the late Eva Crossman-Hecht's pianisms in the second half, as if in ballet barre class. Later, "The Other" leads the men, ribboning them through the women in this blitzkrieg of pure classicism sans embellishment.