Pennsylvania Ballet debuted a newly refurbished "Nutcracker" in December.
Six months later, it's premiered another ballet that resembles a much shorter, but equally whimsical "Nutcracker." "Carnival of the Animals" first danced Friday night at the Academy of Music, is a delightfully witty ballet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, and set to a story written by actor John Lithgow, who appeared on stage and narrated the first three performances.
First danced in 2003 by New York City Ballet while Wheeldon was artist in residence there, "Carnival" is the story of a boy, Oliver Percy, who inadvertently spends the night in a natural history museum, where his imagination gets the best of him. It is set to Camille Saint-Saens' music of the same name.
While "Nutcracker" is a dream of toys and candy that comes to life, "Carnival" has dioramas who "become" Oliver's friends, family members and classmates.
"Nutcracker" has the Sugar Plum Fairy, flowers and snowflakes. In "Carnival," it's a beautiful mermaid, danced by Amy Aldridge - who doubles as the formal yet bouncy school librarian/kangaroo - and her mer-corps de ballet. "Carnival" even has a Mother Ginger-like character, in this case, John Lithgow in a dress in the hilarious Elephant Waltz. (Houston, Texas-based actor Paul Hope replaces Lithgow for the remainder of the run.)
Other highlights included the ancient turtles dancing the can-can, performed by Alyson Pray and Gabriella Yudenich; a quartet of tropical birds/cheerleaders; the baboon, danced by Alexander Iziliaev; and the fossil ballet, complete with dust wafting out of the dancers' tutus.
Riolama Lorenzo was Oliver's wistful old aunt who dreamed of being a dancer; and Barette Vance boureed across the stage as the Odette, the swan of her dreams.
Wheeldon also choreographed "Swan Lake" for Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004. Along with his imaginative choreography and Lithgow's entertaining story, the costumes and scenery (both by Jon Morrell) often were stunning.
Also on the program were two world premieres: "Jupiter Symphony," by Peter Quanz, a young Canadian choreographer, and "Penumbra" and "Pampeana No. 2," a two-part ballet by Matthew Neenan, choreographer in residence at Pennsylvania Ballet.
"Jupiter Symphony," set to Mozart's "Symphony No. 41," might be called "Balanchine, the Next Generation." It reflected the master choreographer's geometric patterns and steps and even had tutus and unitards by Holly Hynes, the former director of City Ballet's costume shop. Most of the piece was crisply performed, but the corps got very imprecise near the end.
The new Neenan ballet would have worked better as two completely separate pieces or with a stronger through line in the choreography. The music for both was by Alberto Ginastera, and played beautifully on stage by pianist Martha Koeneman and cellist Jennie Lorenzo. But the sensibility between the two – the first resembling gorgeously flowing ballroom dancing, the second a more modern ballet – was too different to make it feel as one.