The annual "Shut Up & Dance" show gives the dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet a chance to stretch their wings, to do something new, to play. At this year's performance, Saturday at the Forrest Theater, some tried their hand at choreography, while others danced front and center for a change.
They and some of their friends in the dance community were there to raise money for the nonprofit Manna - which delivers free meals to those with life-threatening illnesses - while doing what they do best.
Last year the show, Manna's largest single-day benefit, raised $130,000, said Ian Hussey, a principal dancer with the ballet and the producing director of "Shut Up & Dance" for the last four years. That translated into more than 36,000 meals for critically ill Philadelphians.
"The basis of 'Shut Up & Dance' has always been choreography by Pennsylvania Ballet dancers in their free time and lunch breaks," Hussey said. "It's just so much fun, so much energy, the dancers get so excited."
It's been that way for 23 years, since four dancers whose lives were affected by the AIDS epidemic wanted to do something to help. Manna, then two years old, offered nourishment in the form of food and support and seemed like just the right organization for their support.
It's not just ballet. "I also like to sprinkle in other dance from the Philadelphia community," Hussey said, "at one sense keeping what it is and was, but also adding elements to the show."
Saturday night's program included everything from an ode to Rocky to a nod to the singer Sia, with the cast sporting beige leotards and blonde wigs a la Dance Moms' Maddie Zeigler in the often-spoofed "Chandelier" video. Throughout the evening, they also rocked out to Beyoncé, Fergie, Fiona Apple, and others. But the activity began as soon as the doors opened and the dancers could be seen stretching, jumping, and practicing their fouettes.
"One of my favorite parts is the half-hour when everyone's warming up on stage," said Hussey, who has participated in "Shut Up & Dance" 11 times, as a dancer, choreographer, and now director. "There are no curtains, no wings, the audience comes in and they're ready to party."
Every piece had heart, but there were some lessons the dancers were still learning, such as choreographing to fill up Forrest's large stage, and literally putting their dancers in the best possible light - many of the pieces were danced not quite in the spotlight or on a stage that was too dimly lit.
Highlights included Hussey's "Gotta Believe," a light trio danced by Alexandra Hughes (a ballet corps dancer and also production assistant for "Shut Up & Dance"), James Ihde (a soloist), and Hussey, as Joshua Thomas played and sang "Paper Heart" on the side of the stage.
Justin Allen, a ballet master and choreographer at the Rock School for Dance Education, created a lovely pas de deux to Olga Pyatigorskaya's version of "Ave Maria" for Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan (Pennsylvania Ballet II) and Harrison Monaco (corps).
It wouldn't be "Shut Up & Dance" without Mikhail Fokine's gorgeous "Dying Swan," this year beautifully danced by principal dancer Lauren Fadeley, her arms constantly moving to show every flutter and feather.
Guests Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers performed a soothing excerpt of a work-in-progress, and the Lady Hoofers provided some tap for the first time at "Shut Up & Dance."
In fact, things do get started at "Shut Up & Dance." It happened to BalletX cofounder Matthew Neenan, who launched his choreographic career with the show and now is in residence at the ballet, with a growing national reputation.
Neenan came back this year with "Sunday Smile," an excerpt from his The Last Glass, another light, delightful work that evoked spring, featuring Fadeley, Ihde, Hughes, and Maggie Feiring (Pennsylvania Ballet II).
But BalletX, stole the show with Amy Seiwart's stunning pas de deux "It's Not a Cry," about love and loss, which Andrea Yorita and Richard Villaverde danced to Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah."
Most shows end on a party note, and this "Shut Up & Dance" was no different, finishing with a raucous piece from University of the Arts. But to get benefactors to open their wallets, "It's Not a Cry" or "Dying Swan" would have fit the bill - and tugged on heartstrings.