New ballets are always a treat, and the Pennsylvania Ballet opened its second fall series at the Merriam Theater on Thursday night with three of them, including two world premieres. Its On Edge program shows the speed and daring of its dancers in a trio of contemporary ballets.
Helen Pickett's Tilt, commissioned by the company, opens the program. It's a multilayered ballet exploring how people interact with their environment. Set to music by Philip Glass, it includes many surprises, starting from the beginning, with the dancers popping up from under a large platform.
Dim lighting makes the details difficult to see, but there is always something to look at in unexpected places. While a couple is dancing a duet on one side of the platform, other dancers repeat small patterns in the shadows on the other side. One by one, the four principal women arched backward off the platform into their partners' arms, creating a lovely sort of layered effect.
Mayara Pineiro and Arian Molina Soca emote with their full upper bodies, arms and shoulders swooping as they step. Oksana Maslova, paired with Zecheng Liang, combines her delicate footwork with her amazing flexibility without being overly showy.
Matthew Neenan, choreographer-in-residence, created his 17th world premiere for the Pennsylvania Ballet, It Goes That Way. Set to a series of pieces by Laurie Anderson, it opens with Ana Calderon, Ian Hussey, and Alexandra Hughes moving robotically with each staccato beat, fitting in smooth steps and arm movements in every quick phrase.
Jermel Johnson and Yuka Iseda, a powerful couple, were paired for both new ballets. He jumps as she turns quickly toward him.
It Goes That Way features many signature Neenan steps — such as dancers circling around on their heels — but also shows how refined Neenan has become since he began choreographing while in ballet's corps. Yet the dancers who suit the choreography best are the ones who have performed with him the longest — Johnson and Hussey.
Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman wraps up the program with the company premiere of Episode 31. It opens with a delightful short film that takes the dancers and Ekman's choreography from the studio to the streets of Philadelphia. They run and krump and move as one in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a SEPTA station, on a train.
Set to a suite of music by Mikael Karlsson, Ane Brun, and Erik Satie, the ballet itself has a similar vibe. Dancers are in black and white, with garters holding up black socks, repeating the patterns on stage with much wit. Like scenes from an old movie, a man walks very slowly across the front of the stage as a scene is frantically danced behind him. The curtain falls and rises with the dancers assembled in another scene as the man lumbers by. Over and over this happens, amusing each time.
Dancers bring out long strips of flooring for one section. For another, a group pulls the section over themselves, creating a large sculpture. Women strut through on pointe, and groups do classical steps as a dancer walks by with a sign saying "beautiful."
And it is. The Pennsylvania Ballet looks strong in this program. It is also beginning to look like a very different company from the one Angel Corella took over as artistic director in 2014. The dancing is more consistent and flashier, but the faces change more frequently, making it harder to watch artists develop.
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