Pennsylvania Ballet

November 14, 2007

Pennsylvania Ballet

New York City Center, NYC

November 14–18, 2007

Reviewed by Susan Yung

There’s something about choosing to choreograph to Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” that spells trouble, like opening Pandora’s box. Its mere selection seems to mandate employing certain dynamic qualities that at first glance entice, yet when strung together, can be gaudy. For sure, this melodramatic composition is catchy enough to be used in ads and for kickoffs at pro football games. But its bombast and ritualistic undertones are difficult to balance with the inherent refinement of ballet. Pennsylvania Ballet, in its first New York City run since 1985, presented its new production of Carmina Burana alongside Balanchine’s Serenade.

    Pennsylvania Ballet’s choreographer in residence, Matthew Neenan, fell under the Carmina spell with his same-titled premiere at City Center. The story seemingly involved an earthy tribe (wearing flesh toned leotards with scaly patches) living in a space-age teepee, encountering “civilized” people (tulle-tailed tutus, grey Star Trek suits, protuberant black wire bustles, and red-fringed flapper minis tailor-made for spinning). Let’s not forget the group wearing Martha Grahamesque beige lycra wings which they looped over each other’s heads to form a chain. In the end, nature triumphed (in unflattering flesh-toned leotards), an ironic message as it was difficult to see past the dizzying, and presumably expensive, costume changes (designed by Oana Botez-Ban). Mimi Lien designed the nifty sail-shaped dimensional tent on wheels from which dancers emerged, or stood behind in silhouette. The choreography, bold neo-classical ballet with modern inflections, took a back seat to the design elements and the music (live orchestra with the New York Choral Society). The uneasy result was a blunt morality tale buried beneath glossy surfaces and power chords.

    The company did justice, however, to one of Balanchine’s most beautiful ballets, Serenade (1935). The venue had a significant impact on the perception of the ballet, which is a familiar friend at the State Theater, where New York City Ballet performs it regularly. There, the coolly-lit ballerinas seem immersed in the cubic volume of the stage as if in water—distant, archetypal apparitions. At City Center, the close proximity allows the audience to see the dancers as individuals rather than mythical beings. The performers showed why this company’s solid reputation precedes it. Julie Diana is a complete ballerina, with a relaxed, confident demeanor stemming from fine technique. Arantxa Ochoa, with her angled physique, is a more exotically dramatic presence. The muscular Sergio Torrado and lithe James Ady danced in Serenade, and Ady featured prominently in Carmina with Jermel Johnson, slashing through space in split leaps.