The audience at the Pennsylvania Ballet performance at the Merriam Theater Sunday went berserk for retiring prima ballerina Martha Chamberlain. The fifteen minute standing ovation for Martha was the culmination of an electric three-ballet program. It may have been the best performance this ballet company has ever given—at least the most exciting. Stravinsky’s “Agon” was a nice opening. “This Part in Darkness” with choreography by Benjamin Millepied of “Black Swan” fame was three times as fast moving—the audience as well as the dancers left breathless at the end of the piece. With its multi-media presentation this work was a window into the future of ballet, a demonstration that here is one classic art form which is evolving, very swiftly, positioning itself to survive. It was as thrilling a piece of art as you’ll see anyplace.
The excitement from the third ballet, “Who Cares?”— sixteen short dances to a series of Gershwin songs—came from the knowledge that this was Martha Chamberlain’s swan song. I found it interesting to contrast the styles, once they took their turns on stage after much anticipation, of Martha and fellow principal ballerina Arantxa Ochoa. Arantxa is technically the more precise and elegant ballerina, a wonder of beauty—but Martha edges her on exuberance and personality. The corny but romantic Gershwin music was perfect for Martha, who’s a very outgoing, American sort of ballet dancer. Very expressive, playing to the nosebleed seats. She’s always gotten by on sheer drive, grit, and pluck, probably why she’s loved by patrons and dancers alike.
Dance fans showed that exuberance at the conclusion of the final song, “I Got Rhythm.” Shouts, bravos, thrown roses, nonstop applause, not one person leaving their seats.
The applause was for Martha, but the thunderous shouting was also for the thriving ballet company, one day after the Philadelphia Orchestra declared bankruptcy. The applause was for the religion that is ballet, for art itself-- most of all, it was for the city of Philadelphia.