Review: ‘Balanchine and Beyond,’ and Going Beyond Isn’t Easy

Pennsylvania Ballet company members in “The Four Temperaments,” as part of “Balanchine and Beyond” at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia.
Credit...Alexander Iziliaev

PHILADELPHIA — Ballet, for many people, has never gone further than the creations of George Balanchine. So we could argue about the title of Pennsylvania Ballet’s new quadruple bill, “Balanchine and Beyond.” Yet on this occasion, we don’t need to. This program ends with “The Four Temperaments,” Balanchine’s 1946 classic of radical modernism, staged by Elyse Borne. What’s evident from the other three works, all by living choreographers, is that each proceeds down avenues that Balanchine never explored.

“Temperaments,” still extraordinary and overwhelming, was well performed — much better than the Pennsylvania’s accounts of Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” and “Serenade” earlier in the 2015-16 season. Ian Hussey (Melancholic), Amy Aldridge and Craig Wasserman (Sanguinic), and Jermel Johnson (Phlegmatic) were all remarkably well suited to their roles. (In Choleric, however, Mayara Pineiro shows an un-Balanchinean way of descending heavily from point.) The choreography was made lucid and arresting, with handsomely varied dynamics and cool objectivity of manner; the Hindemith score was played with exceptional élan (conducted by Michael Pratt, with Martha Koeneman as the piano soloist and with sensitive phrasing by the strings). The masterpiece was alive.

The whole evening showed the Pennsylvania dancers performing with belief and commitment. It’s remarkable to watch Trisha Brown’s “o zlozony / o composite” (2004, made for the Paris Opera Ballet), an extended trio — two men, one woman, dressed in informal white by Elizabeth Cannon, against a starlit sky designed for the original production by Vija Celmins and lighted here by Colman Rupp (assistant to the work’s original lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton) — in which Ms. Brown, a founding figure of postmodern dance, shows near-improvisatory experiments occurring before your eyes. Ms. Brown, a world-class choreographer for decades, has not choreographed — for health reasons — since 2011; her company now performs only intermittently. Her works are still danced, as in the Stephen Petronio Dance Company’s recent revival of “Glacial Decoy,” but they’re not widespread.

This isn’t the first staging of Brown choreography by an American ballet company: Pacific Northwest Ballet danced three works by her in its 2007 Celebrate Seattle Festival. May others now follow.

Credit...Alexander Iziliaev

Ms. Brown has been one of the most inventive American masters of pure dance; I wish this work weren’t marred by its music, by the usually admirable Laurie Anderson: soft pop accompanies a breathy, high-voiced recording of Polish-language poetry.

Currents of motion pass through the bodies with sensuous fluidity, exemplifying the Brown idiom, which she once memorably called “the path of least resistance.” And you see the dancers alternating between aspects of ballet’s rigor and a softer, looser style. The woman (Lillian Di Piazza) sometimes dances in soft shoes, sometimes on point; she helps partner the men (Ian Hussey, Aaron Anker), as well as being partnered by them.

In one image, she’s held between the men and softly rotated, with her horizontal arms making her look like both wheel and wheelshaft. The use of weight and propulsion keeps changing. In one duet, the two men, lying on the floor, maintain lines with their bodies while using their feet to turn them slowly in circles. One male solo suggests the various contours of a bird in flight. This refreshing, unstuffy, informal piece — kinesthetically affecting, like so many Brown creations — casts a spell; you could feel the Merriam Theater’s initially resistant, uncertain audience paying it increasing attention and respect.

It’s also very good to see Jean-Pierre Frohlich’s “Varied Trio (in fours),” a male-female duet taking its title from Lou Harrison’s 1987 score for piano, percussion and violin. This happily unpredictable piece, created for New York City Ballet Moves in 2013, briefly joined City Ballet’s repertory in 2014. With fresh openness of mind, it feasts on the variety of sounds and meters in Mr. Harrison’s trio.

It shows us woman and man (Oksana Maslova and Arian Molina Soca) both cooperating and independent; at times they exist in separate zones of the stage, doing separate solos at the same time. Ms. Maslova is a remarkable dancer — the fluttering of her hands (her back to the audience) was the enchanting highlight of a riveting performance — but her stance is often a problem, as she juts her ribs forward and pulls her pelvis back, weakening the impact of her spine’s central column.

The program opens with Hans van Manen’s 1973 “Adagio Hammerklavier,” which, set to the astounding adagio sostenuto movement of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata, is an odd addition to the repertory. Although the movement (three male-female couples) has the music’s overall spareness, Mr. Van Manen’s choreographic musicality is generally bizarre. He ignores the rhythms that mesh Beethoven’s grand construction together; and instead picks on isolated notes and harmonies. The effect is quirky, an irrelevant supplement to Beethoven’s astoundingly large-scale conception.