March 9-15, 2006
In a terrific stroke of genius, Pennsylvania Ballet remounted former artistic director Christopher d'Amboise's Franklin Court to honor Ben's birthday. Opening night Ben himself wandered in the Academy lobby accepting good wishes. More than civic goodwill, this is like soul retrieval for PAB to honor the d'Amboise era.
Even better, PAB pairs d'Amboise's abstract ballet with their sumptuous one-act The Firebird, a convoluted Russian folktale. This is intriguing programming. D'Amboise's piece is all free-floating abstract movement; even Robert Venturi's minimalist set floats in space.
Franklin Court was a huge success back in 1990 when its debut was the city's official introduction to d'Amboise as artistic director. His inventive moves look as fresh today as if they'd been created last week. Cleverly glossing some of Franklin's ideas, including electricity, swim fins and bifocals (as well as using Franklin's weirdly wonderful armonica for an eerie introduction), d'Amboise's choreography superbly intertwines with Bach's glorious G Minor Fugue while overhead Venturi's magnificent free-floating set dances in air.
Tiny Laura Bowman has a star turn with dolphin-like moves in "Swim Fins," while the rapid-fire technique of Amy Aldridge and Philip Colucci make something special of "Bifocals" (Abigail Mentzer and Jonathan Stiles mirror their movements with slight distortion). Riolama Lorenzo and James Ady twirl, occasionally their fingertips touch, and, voila, the spark of electricity. D'Amboise chose to quietly watch this revival from the Academy's back row, unrecognized, seeking and taking no bows. One hopes that in this beautiful performance he saw not only his own talent manifest, but his sure and certain piece of the PAB story.
There's nothing minimal about Firebird, with its virtually incomprehensible story line involving demons, death eggs and lots of long fingernails. It is gloriously and baroquely conceived Aztec motifs meets The King and I a truly and imaginatively overwrought stage rendering. Elegant Bach and risky Stravinsky? It works.
Firebird is visually beautiful, the Santo Loquasto costumes and movable set are simply astounding; if there's any problem, it's that to some extent their glamour overwhelms the dancing. Nevertheless there are excellent performances in Firebird. Arantxa Ochoa's delicate line and steely attack perfectly capture the frailty and courage of the magical bird. Meredith Reffner is beautifully iconic as the priestess. What an endearing jaguar Philip Colucci is, rubbing against ankles and all but purring. But ooh la la Hawley Rowe is terrific as the snake in a gorgeous, slithering, boneless performance.
Franklin Court/The Firebird Through March 11, Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music