"Pushing Boundaries" is the marquee title of the Pennsylvania Ballet's latest program, but it also could be a good description of what the troupe's been at since its beginnings back in 1963. It's certainly been flexible in its physical setting, moving from Chestnut Street to Fairmount, then shifting down to Broad and Washington. Now, a dream comes true: A new building, with four rehearsal studios and a school, is slated to open on Broad Street just below Callowhill this fall.
During the planning, demolition and construction phase of moving to the new headquarters — which has now been going on since 2007 — the ballet's staff were divided between temporary administrative offices in Center City and studio space in East Falls. While this worked well enough, everyone's eager to reunite in the new space. Thematically, then, "pushing boundaries" could describe not only the astonishing and varied performance the troupe presented at the Merriam last weekend, but the more literal sense of the willpower and commitment recently needed to expand their physical space.
The program of three experimental ballets is practically in a different universe than swan queens and sylphs. It wouldn't be inappropriate to describe the troupe as luxuriating in the new and the challenging. The program opened with William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, a ballet full of well-performed odd movements and long pauses and set to Schubert's Symphony No. 9. The choreography suggests mysterious drama and subtext, but leaves it up to the audience to define their causes and meanings.
Next were two works from in-house choreographer and major experimenter Matthew Neenan. Six moody Rufus Wainwright songs hold Neenan's 11:11 together as dancers first appear in a line, then break loose and dance as couples. Julie Diana and Francis Veyette were standouts on "Vibrate"; "Greek Song" brought back Veyette, now partnering with Riolama Lorenzo; and "Poses" gave us beautiful boneless Arantxa Ochoa — only a selection of the talent showcased in this piece.
Keep, set to music from Alexander Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, was the program's focal point — the final performance of principal dancer Riolama Lorenzo, leaving after 10 years with the company to spend more time with her family.
Lorenzo readily admits she'll miss the company and dancing, but the 34-year-old says her two children are a "big part of why I am retiring." (Lorenzo says she started thinking about it while pregnant and dancing in Swan Lake.)
Keep, choreographed in 2009, was an opportunity for Lorenzo to revisit a work she'd helped premiere and the perfect vehicle to showcase her talent. The elegant ballerina accepted enough bouquets to start her own florist shop, but looked most delighted with the bouquet presented by her adorable 4-year-old son, all spruced up in necktie and suit, with Dad there to keep an eye on him and support his wife in this special moment — a lovely one in a field where careers do not always end with such warmth and grace.
But though Lorenzo's done being a professional dancer, she may not be done with dance — company artistic director Roy Kaiser wants her to come teach ?once the new space is ready. Lorenzo says she isn't ready to decide what comes next, but the applause, laughter and a few tears suggest she might want to keep her options open. (Feb 12, Merriam Theater)