Repertory nights, usually a triple bill of ballets, have never been as popular as full-length story ballets in Pittsburgh. But I have embraced them since high school, heading off to New York City to see a format where more dancers can be seen over the course of a run and where you get a real sense of the variety, strengths and flexibility of the company at large.
So -- let's face it -- I admit that I was really, really looking forward to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's repertory program, titled "Unspoken," over the weekend. In fact, it was a no-brainer situation, given that the August Wilson Center program consisted of seminal works by a trio of very different master choreographers -- George Balanchine's "Serenade," Antony Tudor's "Jardin Aux Lilas (Lilac Garden)" and Mark Morris' "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes" -- a real plus for both the dancers and the audiences.
Furthermore there were delicious connections to be found in looking over the program. "Serenade" (1936) and "Jardin" (1937) were created within one year of each other, yet they were stylistically miles apart. "Serenade" took rehearsal situations -- the varying number of dancers available in Mr. Balanchine's fledgling company, a young woman who fell -- and wove them into an abstract work that was indelibly wedded to the music.
Mr. Tudor was quite adept in weaving human emotions into touching psychodramas. In "Jardin," the music created an atmosphere, much like the scent of lilacs wafting on a warm summer breeze, that supported those emotions more than the dance steps themselves.
This was the most difficult ballet, in a sense, for the dancers, filled as it was with comings and goings and furtive glances with hidden agendas briefly revealed, then tucked away. It perfectly captured the Victorian era, where Caroline and her lover tried to resolve their affair at a garden party, while The Man She Must Marry and An Episode in His Past provided a tangible counterpoint of their own.
The timing had to be precise without benefit of a steady rhythmic beat in Ernest Chausson's romantic "Poeme." While the ballet itself was engrossing in the opening performances Friday and Saturday, it still needed some minor adjustments in achieving an equilibrium between the Victorian tension and the turbulent passions simmering just beneath the surface.
But "Serenade" was a generous, sweeping moonlit dance, so visually arresting, most likely because a great many of the women have probably performed the ballet before. (It has become a staple at fine ballet schools across the country, although New York City Ballet has never really stopped performing it as well.) So the comfort level was high, with the women, particularly Julia Erickson, in a tangible state of rapture.
"Serenade" and "Drink To Me" also connected on a musical level, although Mr. Balanchine translated it into intoxicating dance patterns, while Mr. Morris tickled ballet's classroom vocabulary into an ultraclever display of oddball phrases and rhythms and challenged its formidable structure in new ways.
So there were echappes and passes in a series, except for a balance that served like a choreographic hiccup. Aerial turns received a boldly crafted exclamation point at the finish. Sometimes it gave a nod to Harald Landers' "Etudes" in exploiting the dance steps (and used Virgil Thomson's "Etudes for piano," played with a knowing whimsy by Yoland Collin), while other times it resembled a playground, which both casts obviously relished.
That is not to say that this program could have had a greater impact if there had been a fun-filled finale to send audiences jumping to their feet. Both "Lilac" and "Drink to Me" were more like middle ballets on a triple bill, meaty and thought-provoking. In spite of that, this was one of the strongest choreographic bills that PBT has ever assembled.