Premier soloist James Ihde bids farewell with ‘Diamonds’
Red roses sailed over the Academy of Music stage on May 13 landing at the feet of Pennsylvania Ballet soloist James Ides, retiring from the company after 25 seasons, a favorite with audiences and three generations of PABallet dance artists. Ihde’s career with the company is almost unparalleled & he is has continued to dance in top form in his final seasons. His swansong dance is indeed one of the most demanding roles for a danseur, the male lead in George Balanchine’s ‘Diamonds.’ It was suggested to Ihde by PAB artistic director Angel Corella and in his final performance James would partner prima ballerina Lillian Di Piazza.
Back to those roses in a moment, but first, there the matinee performance of Balanchine’s trilogy “Jewels”~ ‘Emeralds’, ‘Rubies’ and ‘Diamonds’~ representing a range of neoclassical choreography. The dramatic glittery backdrops and sumptuous costumes by Karinska elicited applause and wows as the curtain went up on each one. Much credit goes to Balanchine Trust repetiteur Elyse Borne’s for her technical precision and distinct musicality she brings to each ballet in this revival.
‘Emeralds’ is scored to music by Gabriel Fauré and is one of Balanchine’s most decorative ballets, and at its best as it was in this performance, a haunted mystique. Karinska’s costumes have the mens in velvet emerald doublets and the women in pale green tulle ballet skirts.
Both lead couples, Yuka Iseda-Jermel Johnson and So Yung Shin- Jack Thomas, captivating in their technical artistry. The featured trio also proved a dazzling mise-en-scene for corps dancers Alexandra Heier, Emily Davis and Ashton Roxander. Affron brought forth all of the lyrical mystique of Faure, and among the sterling soloists principal violinist Luigi Mazzocchi, harpist Mindy Cutcher, oboist Nick Masterson & cellist Jeannie Lorenzo.
‘Rubies’ is Balanchine is another defining collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky and an undisputed masterpiece. The propulsive drive of Stravinsky’s ‘Concerto for Piano and Orchestra’ inspiring Balanchine to break out of his own signatures and conventions. ‘Rubies’ choreo in a completely different choreographic key for Balanchine, so different from the austerity of his most famous modernist ballets. It’s witty and wry choreography that leaves room for liberated interpretation by the dancers. And lead couple Ian Hussey and Oksana Maslova revel in its propulsive virtuosity as a most fiery balletic romp. Balanchine’s angling the choreography in counterpoint to the Stravinsky dominant piano solos. played with breathtaking command by PAB pianist Martha Koenemann.
And the third lead, a breakthrough role for PB apprentice Sydney Dolan. Commanding technical artistry and star power. Five men are in position to move her around in arabesque variations, a dancer version of the ‘facets’ to a ruby’s inner ‘fire.’ And really that concept extended, in this performance to the corps women, who throughout with sharp ensemble pointe & (counter)pointe work.
Then it was all about ‘Diamonds.’ The anticipation for James Ihde entrance was building during the extended corps de ballet scene that opens Balanchine’s ‘Diamonds’ his glittering distillation of Imperial Ballet classicalism set to the sonic waves of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1. when they finally exit and then the burst of applause as Ihde and partner Lillian DiPiazza make their entrance, Di Piazza and Ihde have radiant chemistry together from the start. Ihde had a few tentative moments and completely pitched out of grand pirouettes, but, powered through, with incredible authority and artistry.
His jete circle nicely paced. DiPiazza’s steely pointe work and subtle expressiveness make this an indelible partnering. The full corps de ballet executing the crucial unison ensemble work without looking mechanical. And this was another opportunity for Corella to showcase what has been developing all season, a more uniform strength in the mens corps.
The curtain coming down on the full company ensemble grande processionale by Balanchine and DiPiazza and Ihde the glittering center. And then it was all over, the applause building as the curtain came back up on Ihde alone on the Academy stage for several moments that were, indeed, like an intimate, a once in a lifetime moment with an old friend…
…As the current roster of PABallet dancers came onstage with roses & heartfelt embraces. Many of James’ former dance colleagues were there to bid him farewell including legendary founder of Pennsylvania Ballet Barbara Weisberger, who was a protégé of Balanchine dating back to the 30s when she was the youngest dance student in his class.
A most memorable moment as Conductor Beatrice Jona Affron came onstage to take a bow with Ihde. Affron has been conducting PABallet Orchestra since the early 90s, in fact, as long as James’ tenure. And without doubt, this performance of Tchaikovsky, Faure and Stravinsky has to be among the finest programs this orchestra has ever played.
Artistic director Angel Corella presented Ihde with a bouquet and champagne as confetti and more roses sailed out from the orchestra pit during the 20 minutes of lusty applause for a great contemporary danseur, an indelible dancer in this and many another ballet season to remember.