Review: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre at Hartwood

by Jayne Vranish | Originally published in Dance Currents on Aug 28, 2021

It was a warm summer evening at Hartwood acres, time for Ballet Under the Stars. Maybe Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre should rename it Ballet With the Stars, because the company, under the superb direction of Susan Jaffe, is on its way to developing a cadre of sparkling dancers who also have a great audience connection. Not that these artists didn’t give their all before, but Jaffe has instilled methods that fashion the kind of excitement that only the best groups produce.

The program line-up was as good as it gets. Jaffe selected two classical/traditional ballets as bookends, beginning with the Spanish overlay of “Paquita” and ending with the cheery Italian spirit of “Napoli,” filtered through Denmark’s sunny Bournonville style.

I’ve seen these ballets before — in performance, online and in student productions. But Jaffe showed me that I hadn’t really “seen” them.

She shared credit alongside repétitéurs Marianna Tcherkassky and Stephen Annegarn in setting the ballet, with splendid results. Just the opening entrance from the women’s corps, with a beautifully coordinated back arch and sweeping porte bras, nearly moved me to tears.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/H3E7Eimi35c?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en-US&autohide=2&wmode=transparent Complete variations from the Bolshoi Ballet.

“Paquita” is a series of divertissements taken from the full-length ballet. Jaffe is quite familiar with the work, having participated in Natalia Makarova’s staging at American Ballet Theatre in 1993-94 and starring in ABT’s 1995 version. The divertissements, or series of solos and group works, is quite popular as a graduation piece for ballet academies, given that there are numerous solo opportunities for the dancers.

But this was no academic work. It was a fully mature rendering by the PBT dancers. Led by Gabrielle Thurlow, who continued her newfound winning confidence, and Yoshiaki Nakano, whose authoritative presence and technical ease have fully developed, there was much to admire.

The dancers are now using their heads to add focus to the movement and are more generous with their epaulement, something that has been lacking, sometimes leading to a stilted company style. On a technical note, their pirouettes are more centered. And the dancers are skimming the floor while dancing en pointe, but, oddly enough, grounded. But that shows that they are sure-footed and daring in their approach. The few bobbles that resulted during the course of the evening really didn’t matter because the dance was that much more exhilarating throughout. But then, George Balanchine knew that. He even choreographed a fall into his acclaimed ballet, “Serenade. ”https://www.youtube.com/embed/GxMmAVZUFd0?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en-US&autohide=2&wmode=transparent. From The Royal Danish Ballet.

As for “Napoli,” Jaffe brought in Bournonville expert, Henning Torbin Albrechtsen of the Royal Danish Ballet. He was able to give this frothy, always fun piece a real depth. As he explained in a conversation at Hartwood, where he was in attendance, Albrechtsen was able to relay the numerous stories and relationships that take place in the ballet, part of the historic fabric for which the Danes are known.

The PBT cast was obviously inspired by it all, launching into Bournonville’s famously crisp footwork and punctuating it with controlled fifth positions and a satisfied smile. For all the swirling and twirling that began at the start, the ensemble still found room to escalate during the tarantella finale until the Hartwood stage literally rocked with color and movement.

The two classics offered solo opportunities, with four variations in “Paquita” and seven listed in “Napoli.” Solos were usually a weakness in the company, where nerves could be on display more often than not. But not only did the PBT dancers enthusiastically take the spotlight, but Jaffe seemed to be grooming the company to take charge on stage and dare to dream.

Kyle Abraham’s “The Quiet Dance” with (L to R) Jonathan Breight, Tommie Kesten, Cooper Verona, Victoria Watford and Jessica McCann. Photo: Richard Parsakian.

In the middle was a substantial dose of contemporary ballet. Pittsburgh native and international superstar Kyle Abraham was represented by “The Quiet Dance,” actually a bold artistic choice made by Jaffe since it started with Jessica McCann’s solo, carved in silence. It took a few minutes for the Hartwood audience, especially the children, to settle. But once they did, this little gem seduced the emotions.

I’ve watched Abraham harness his street sense and I’ve seen him conjure up a true physical excitement through his choreography. But his foray into minimalism, a minimalism with heart, has me hooked, for it extends his range without losing his choreographic significance.

There was so much to ponder in this seemingly simple piece.The work had an autobiographical aura. According to the composer’s website, Leonard Bernstein’s operatic score, “A Quiet Place,” deals with the story of a contemporary American family “struggling to connect, forgive, and accept one another’s difference after the death of a loved one.” Abraham has incorporated his tender father/son relationship into his art before. But it was also inspired by Bernstein’s “Some Other Time,” as played by pianist Bill Evans.

McCann was the outsider. Her alienation was conveyed through the simple use of color. With a simple costume change (the dancers wore plain silky pajamas in two colors, yellow and blue), Abraham showed the changing dynamics of a familial situation in such a simple and complete way, as the dancers  changed their colors one by one. That left it up to the viewers to access their own emotions and fill in the story.

Perhaps the most poignant thing about Abraham’s choreography is the unexpected humanity that we see in it. During this work, his tenderly articulated shapes included just touching the heart and a breathtaking lean. Both surprising, both so meaningful.

Hopefully this is not the first Abraham piece to be taken into PBT’s repertoire and we will see his work, preferable a world premiere, sooner than later.

Helen Pickett provided the fourth piece, a world premiere male trio appropriately called “THREE – 4,6,8.” The accompaniment came from “Einstein on the Beach,” a renowned minimalist opera by composer Philip Glass. It is the first of five “Knee Plays,” interludes that connect the various opera sections like the anatomical joint. The voices that count numbers refer to Einstein’s mathematical prowess. But the men manipulated three stools for added interest.

The choreography follows that abstract notion, along with the fact that dancers are always counting beats. Pickett tailored her entertaining approach to the three men so carefully, bringing out Corey Bourbonniere’s ebullient personality, Kurtis Sprowls’ airy jumps and Josiah Kauffman’s determined attack. What a gift bound up in this short contemporary divertissement, one that could easily be inserted in touring programs! Better yet, it whets the whistle for Pickett’s upcoming premiere later in the season, a season I look forward to with great anticipation.



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