Photos: Aimee Waeltz
It’s important for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and other companies like it to expand their sphere of artistic influence without taking on the financial risks of major touring. It also offers artistic benefits, either to give all members of the company additional performing experience, which is so important, or to showcase some of the younger dancers in a setting that holds less pressure.
In the past few years, PBT has pirouetted to regional destinations like West Virginia University, Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel and Penn State Fayette’s Eberly Campus just outside of Uniontown. But perhaps the most fertile relationship has developed in Greensburg, where the most recent performance produced a tantalizing program, much better than the recent crop of pop-oriented programs.
It was most intriguing because it included the first viewing of Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden, which Pittsburgh won’t see until March, George Balanchine’s Serenade with live music(!) from the Westmoreland Symphony and a debut for corps member Yoshiaki Nakano, along with the bright-eyed Amanda Cochrane, in the Peasant Pas de Deux from Giselle.
Mr. Nakano has been a dancer to watch. As a graduate student in the PBT school program, he had trouble controlling his tall thin frame. But his raw technique included a soaring jump, an appetite for conquering space and an undeniable connection with audience, which is something you can’t teach.
At the Palace Theater Mr. Nakano had a better handle on that elusive control, although he held back a little in order to concentrate. But his promise bodes well for the future. As for Ms. Cochrane, she had an unflagging energy and delightful personality in a showpiece that relies on its buoyancy for impact.
Serenade has been rather popular with advanced ballet programs in the area (which is alright with me, because it has always been one of my favorite ballets). But PBT has not performed it since 2004.
While there were eight graduate students in the corps, the women had a silky-smooth, cohesive flow throughout the windswept patterns. Julia Erickson always possessed that leggy Balanchine look and her role here, where she filled the romantic expanse of the music, suited her superbly. Elysa Hotchkiss’ remarkable jump produced an added dimension to her performance, but did not totally define it, because she now enhances the dance with a complimentary phrasing in the porte bras. Alexandra Kochis completed the trio of featured ballerinas with a delicate style.
Daniel Meyer showed a natural flair for dance conducting and set precise tempi for the romantic Tchaikovsky score, allowing the dancers to literally ride the music. After only a few moments of hesitation, the Westmoreland Symphony strings dug in to provide a lush accompaniment. If this is any indication of the full orchestra, the Westmoreland area has a real arts asset in this group.
But Lilac Garden (Jardin aux Lilas) held the real allure for me. It’s a rarity to see Tudor ballets these days. I had seen several at American Ballet Theatre back in the ’60’s and I wondered if the distinctive psycho-drama of the British choreographer would hold up.
The ballet takes place in the Victorian Era, where Caroline (Ms. Kochis), is attending a party prior to her nuptials with The Man She Must Marry (Robert Moore). Also in attendance are Caroline’s lover (Luca Sbrizzi) and the fiancée’s former lover (Julia Erickson).
It’s a rather short ballet, but uncommonly complex as the relationships unfold. The dancers have to have a certain stoicism reminiscent of the Victorian Era so that the underlying emotions dart to the surface, but without becoming melodramatic. At the same time, they also have to convey the overall escalating passions indicated in the score.
Then there’s the idea of the lilacs — a garden filled with that wafting scent — so that entrances and exits have an aromatic feel, drifting in and out.
It’s a lot to think about and the dancers were still making their way in their roles, although Mr. Moore had a wonderful weight to the simplest of gestures, like the turn of his head or the placement of his hand. But it was a good beginning.
For now it looks like Greensburg dance fans are intent on continuing the partnership. Hopefully that will extend to the symphony as well and wonderfully-balanced programs like this.