Free Library and Pennsylvania Ballet Present "One Book, Many Ballets"

Maria Johansson, for GPA -- The well known, city-wide project “One Book, One Philadelphia” started in 2003. Organized by the Mayor’s Office and the Free Library of Philadelphia, it promotes reading, literacy, library use and community building by encouraging Philadelphians to read the same book. This year’s main selection is Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, a novel about immigration, family and change. In addition, two other books have also been chosen to appeal to a younger audience: Rodzina by Karen Crushman and Locomotive by Brian Floca.

As part of “One Book, One Philadelphia,” the Free Library is organizing a number of great events inspired by the project. On January 24, the Pennsylvania Ballet joined forces with the Free Library to perform three pieces at the Parkway Central Library (1901 Vine St.), reflecting on the themes of the selected books.

The first piece, which came as a world premiere and exclusive, was choreographed by Blythe Smith and is called “Watermark.” Five young women and two young men entered the small stage in different constellations, merging and fanning out like waves of the ocean. The piece interprets the themes of journey and family. Two couples represented the older generations, while the three single dancers represented their children and how they move on in life while taking the memory of their ancestors with them.

The second piece was a classic set of choreography created by Jerome Robbins and used as the finale for his 1970 ballet “In The Night.” As Artistic Director Francis Veyette pointed out, Robbins was the choreographer for “West Side Story, for those of you who don’t recognize his name.”

The music that accompanied this piece was composed by Chopin, a Polish immigrant. His heritage is very much in line with the themes of this year’s books. The piece consisted of three couples dancing in three distinct ways, displaying the different masks of emotion that love can take on. In the end, the three couples met at the center of the stage, seemingly about to dance with one another. However, they all quickly returned to their significant other.

The third and final piece was also a world premiere. It was choreographed by Shelby Glidden, a graduate of the University of the Arts, and titled “Near Light.” The choreography was made up of three of the ballerinas in three different dances, stretching, bending and travelling around the stage like the subject of Locomotive on its journey. The beautiful music accompanied it well and Veyette confirmed, “this is my favorite piece.”

Once the performance was over, the dancers came on stage and were asked about their lives in ballet and their thoughts on the themes of the books. The dancers - Alessandra Mulin, Maggie Feiring, Elinor Hitt, Jaqueline Callahan, Sarah Ryan, Durante Verzola, Alex Hyman and Michael Holden - had discussed the themes as recently as that morning. They were, they said, trying to “see the music, hear the dance,” invoking a quote from George Balanchine, whose choreographic legacy has had a great impact on the Pennsylvania Ballet troop.

Smith, the choreographer for the first piece, was in the audience and was asked about how much freedom for interpretation she had afforded the dancers. She explained that while most of the performance was indeed choreographed, she did ask for the dancers’ input, particularly on what the natural transition from one pose to another would be for them. It is clear that, like the characters of Orphan Train, these dancers are strong willed and hard working. The outcome of all the pieces speaks volumes; the ability to express the themes of a book through music and dance reveals fantastic collaborations between dancers and choreographers.

The young men and women in this show, ranging in age from 17 to 21 and in geographical distance from Seattle to Florida, explained that joining the Pennsylvania Ballet is for those who do exceptionally well and are willing to work hard for their art.

“If you are a talented enough student there are only a few places to go,” said Veyette. “We are one of them.”

The Free Library of Philadelphia is hosting many more events. You can find them all on the Free Library website. The Pennsylvania Ballet offers a number of different shows, all of which can be found on their event calendar. PBII, the group that performed “One Book, Many Ballets”, will be performing again on May 27 at the Painted Bride Art Center (230 Vine St.).

Image courtesy of Philadelphia Weekly.