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Flash Review, 3-29: Fashionable Hyperactivity
Lavish Looks Drown out the Dance in Neenan's 'Carmina'
By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2007 Lisa Kraus
PHILADELPHIA -- A new Matthew Neenan choreography for Pennsylvania
Ballet is always a big event. He's a local hero: a member of the corps whose
talent for dance-making has yielded a number of fresh and important
works. The premiere of his newest creation -- a refashioning of "Carmina
Burana" -- met with enthusiastic audience response when it premiered earlier this month
at the Academy of Music. This viewer found it stuffed with novel looks
but offering little satisfying choreography.
In creating a work designated to replace the John Butler 'Carmina,'
long a staple in PA Ballet's repertoire, Neenan chose to
distance himself from that and the other myriad earlier versions of the
work by engaging collaborators who fashioned a unique visual surround. In the end, the ongoing display of Oana Botez-Ban's costumes and manipulations of Mimi Lien's set superseded the forging of a sustained choreographic relationship to Carl Orff's monumental 1937 score.
Neenan's 'Carmina' is a veritable catwalk parade of costumes, changing
at odd moments, as though the choreographer fears that lingering too
long on any one vision would cause us to lose interest. There are
skin-toned baggy dresses, their voluminous stretch fabric used to reel
in the wearers like rolled up wraps. Stretched taught, the dresses
become rectangular appendages worn on the back, an effect Alwin Nikolais might
have enjoyed. There are bug-like headdresses and bustles in black lace,
off-kilter hairdos and angel-wing gowns. Unitards are etched with tattoo-like splatterings.
Men's Cossack jodhpurs in satin fly out sideways during pirouettes -- a fun
look. Taking the cake were the outfits that called to mind French can-can
dancers with slinky black gloves and ruffled trains draping between the
dancers' legs. All the costumes could be read as signifiers for class
and station in some alternate universe. But where? And what are they all
really up to?
The first image as the curtain rises on the March 8 premiere is of a
crouched Jermel Johnson, who bounds upward from center stage in one
enormous jump. He shares the space with a mountain-like tensile
structure -- translucent fabric stretched over a frame -- that slopes unevenly into a peak. During the course of the production it's hidden behind, pushed into (faces pressing
mask-like into its yielding surface), and wheeled about. At one moment
this set plays soloist bathed in gorgeously splotched light.
From Johnson's splashy opening the dance is off and running, using the
entire 30-something strong company. In a hyperactive cavalcade of
groupings and antics that continually shift rhythm and mood, the
sections refer loosely or sometimes literally to the lyrics of "Carmina Burana"
(the secular songs collected in 13th-century Germany on which Orff based
his work). Lusty exhortations and drinking songs are reflected in a
variety of playful couplings and combative jostlings.
Past works have shown Neenan to be intensely tuned to musical phrasings;
here the dancers dash in or out and gesture with little connection to
the music's rhythms or structural arcs. The dance's relationship to Orff's
bulwark seems distracted and removed, as if the music's thickly
cascading sonics are too loaded or daunting for Neenan to play off in a
significant or consistent way. He seems to be fascinated instead with a gestural
language that functions in its own time -- all sharp shifts and arm
hinges, perhaps an influence from recent work with Jorma Elo. Certain
Neenan-isms -- the bum stuck out and arms gesticulating, the legs
spread wide and torso lurched forward at a right angle -- grow tiresome here with their air of skittish insubstantiality.
A happy exception is one vigorous men's duet, featuring Francis Veyette
and Philip Colucci, that meets the music's powerful thrust as the pair
tussles and spars, sailing through the air to end in forward tumbles or kicking up into a one-armed handstand a la capoeira. This duo threads into the piece as a
The final image is of the entire company, now in skin-toned leotards,
in a roiling series of leaps and spread-out unison groupings that layer and
surge forward, like a human sea being pulled to shore as the lights
intensify to a brilliant gold -- humanity's sunset. It reminds us of
Neenan's gift for deploying these particular dancers (they give his work
their all!) and his ability to create a cohesive, jaw-droppingly kinetic
stage picture. It's just too bad we had to wait until the very end to
Ironic too is that this 'Carmina' was on a shared program with Balanchine's "Serenade," danced stunningly (Sandra Jennings was repetiteur). As elemental as a drink of
pure water, this dance focuses the eye on the roll of a head or the turn
of a wrist, isolating these actions in time and space to set them off
like so many jewels.
It's been said that death is the condiment that makes life especially
tasty. Similarly what makes dance read is its opposites: stillness and
empty space. In his rush to conquer 'Carmina,' Neenan seems to have
forgotten where true power resides.
The Ballet's orchestra, under the baton of Beatrice Jona
Affron, acquitted itself particularly well in both Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings"
and 'Carmina.' The latter was sung by the Philadelphia
Kantorei with soloists Alicia Berneche, Richard Troxell and Levi