Pennsylvania Ballet: Carnival of the Animals

Classic Arts Features   Pennsylvania Ballet: Carnival of the Animals
Pennsylvania Ballet hosts Christopher Wheeldon's treat for young and old, plus world premieres by Quanz and Neenan. The program runs at the Academy of Music from June 6-14.

Featuring two world premieres and a company premiere from three of the hottest young choreographers around‹Pennsylvania Ballet's June program offers a wealth of talent. British-born Christopher Wheeldon, Canadian Peter Quanz, and Boston native Matthew Neenan are all under 35, yet they all have impressive resumes as dancers and creators of dance, and each has come up with a very different ballet.

Peter Quanz's Jupiter Symphony

Quanz's Jupiter Symphony is set to Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C major. Quanz reportedly decided to become a choreographer at age 9; less than two decades later he has created works for such troupes as American Ballet Theatre, the National Ballet of Canada, and England's Royal Ballet. Last year he became the first Canadian invited to choreograph a work for the world famous Kirov Ballet and he's now busy with projects throughout Europe and North America.

In a recent interview Quanz explained that music is his initial source of inspiration. Regarding this particular work, Quanz says, "[All of] Mozart's music inspires listeners to dance. Jupiter Symphony has a range of emotions as wide as the universe. It bursts with exuberance at the beginning, becoming intimate and moody, then turns to an elegant playfulness before a joyous finale. When I listen to this piece the steps are just under the surface of the music‹it is a joy to choreograph."

But actually choreographing a new ballet requires a lot of complicated scheduling. Based in Toronto and simultaneously working on several other projects, Quanz could only spend a limited amount of time in Philadelphia. Like most guest choreographers, he had to assemble his new ballet over the course of several visits. Quanz said he spent seven weeks in Philadelphia. But, as Artistic Director Roy Kaiser noted, "Peter started the piece with our dancers in the winter, when he was here for a week and a half. He returned to work on it again this spring, and he came back for a final couple of weeks, right before the opening."

Fortunately, the dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet learn quickly and are used to absorbing new material while also rehearsing and performing other works. Kaiser noted that Ballet Mistress Tamara Hadley shadowed Quanz at each rehearsal. "She takes impeccable notes and knows the whole ballet as well as the dancers. So, even when Peter wasn't there, they still rehearsed."

When he was in Philadelphia, Quanz would take the morning to plan out the rest of the day. That way, he could have a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish before meeting with the dancers. As he got to know the Company better, he was able to tailor the ballet more specifically to them. The result, Kaiser says, is exactly what he had hoped Quanz would produce: "A dynamic, very classical work that showcases the individual dancers...and also has a modern, fresh look."

Matthew Neenan's World Premiere

Matthew Neenan is a longtime local favorite, for the many roles he danced with Pennsylvania Ballet and also for the eight highly successful ballets he had previously created for the troupe. Knowing the Company so well is an obvious advantage for Pennsylvania Ballet's first Choreographer in Residence, a position created for him following his retirement last year. But this energetic and ambitious young artist also creates works for other companies, while serving as co-director and performer with BalletX.

Neenan is known for being able to work fast; he typically creates a new ballet in just a couple of weeks, and he tends not to title his compositions until they're almost ready to go onstage. Like Quanz, Neenan starts with the music‹in this case, Pampeana No. 2, a rich and deeply emotional piano-cello piece by the celebrated Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. Neenan said, "I decided on this music a few months ago and really got to know it." Neenan also decided early on to use an unusual format: two short, abstract ballets, connected by a musical interlude, which can also be performed separately.

Although he writes down notes when choreographing for a large group, with this ballet (which will have only five dancers in one part and six or seven in the other) he said "I can just walk in and create, on the spot." Neenan tries to allow the dancers time to feel comfortable with the movements he gives them, and he sometimes incorporates some of their ideas. "I know what the music's saying, and how I want the dancers to move. But you've also got to allow some surprises to happen."

This piece is curiously absent of huge gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. In this new ballet, Neenan says, he's trying "to capture the human spirit, to get the dancers to be themselves and really feel the music."

Christopher Wheeldon's Carnival of the Animals

The best known choreographer of the trio is Christopher Wheeldon, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet. In 2001, he was named as New York City Ballet's first Choreographer in Residence. Six years later Wheeldon resigned to form his own company, Morphoses. Today, he is a prolific young artist, whose work is in demand all over the world.

Carnival of the Animals is Wheeldon's third work performed by Pennsylvania Ballet. Its fanciful costumes and comic narration make this a ballet that appeals to children, yet also has elements that adults enjoy. Wheeldon created Carnival for New York City Ballet in 2003. Pennsylvania Ballet and Houston Ballet co-produced this production, which premiered to sold-out houses in Houston last year, and now a welcome addition to Pennsylvania Ballet's repertoire.

Because his schedule is so busy, Wheeldon could not get to Philadelphia to stage the ballet‹cast it and teach it to the dancers. In his stead he sent Ben Huys, a former New York City Ballet dancer who has worked with Wheeldon on many occasions. Huys had also staged Carnival for Houston Ballet, so he knew the piece well. But Huys had to split his time between Center City Philadelphia and London, where he was staging a Jerome Robbins work for the Royal Ballet. So Huys came here for five days, during which he put together about half of Carnival, and he returned a few weeks later, to finish the staging. Wheeldon appeared a week before opening night, "to do some fine tuning."

Since this ballet had been done before, there were video recordings the dancers could study. But the process mainly involved the time-honored system of the teacher showing each step to the dancers. Huys said he writes down the choreography, using his own system, but noted that it was especially difficult to write down these movements, which mimic animals and don't have names, as standard ballet steps do.

This was Huys's first experience working with Pennsylvania Ballet dancers. "They're great!" he said. "I'm very impressed by how smart they are and how quickly they learn the material." Huys also liked "the way they express themselves through movement, and immediately got into their characters."

Kaiser admits he's very excited about this program. "Carnival is the big work that will probably draw people in. But I'm equally enthusiastic about the two new ballets. That's part of our mission: looking to the future, and trying to create new ballets‹not only for ourselves but in an effort to further the art form."

Nancy G. Heller is a dance writer and art historian; her latest books are "Why a Painting is Like a Pizza" and "Women Artists: An Illustrated History."

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