Body Language

Features

By: Beth Kephart
The Balanchine Trust repetieurs are in the house- Merrill Ashely and Sandra Jennings, two once and always prima ballerinas. They have George Balanchine's work in their blood, an intimacy with the great choreographer's steps, an almost-secret knowing of how his ballets carry song.
It is noon, a warm day in October. In Stuido A at the Louise Reed Center for Dance on North Broad, Ashley and Jennings are bringing the Balanchine traditions forward- urging the Pennsylvania Ballet corps to circle thier arms, extend their legs, hold very still, attend more acutely to the Tchaikovsky score.
In knitted leg warmers, the dancers listen. In sheer skirts and velvet leotards, in torn stockings and scuffed pointe shoes, on their toes and on the back of their heels, in the middle of the room and there, beside the barre. Jeffrey Gribler, ballet master, and Tamara Hadley, ballet mistress, are having a conversation, and now a young dancer with a question gets a quick lesson in a series of steps, and now Ashley tells Martha Koeneman, who has been the ballet's solo pianist for 40 years, to begin at the scherzo again.
Sixty seconds of "Diamonds" is danced.
Ashley, wearing a blue sweater over black Lycra pants and shirt, claps and suspends the song.
Something is wrong, she says, with the diagonal.
"Diamonds" is the third act in the Balanchine ballet called Jewels- the final extravagance in the program that will open Pennsylvania Ballet's 50th season Thursday. It is a fitting selection for a ballet company that, in 1963, was formed by Balanchine protegee Barbara Weisberger and has danced Balanchine's ranging repertoire ever since. Jewels is a complex ballet. It is said to have no plot. It rises from a facination with glittering stones.
Beyond the Louise Reed Center, which fronts the quiet alley of Wood Street, the world rushes by. The impatient cars on the Vine Street Expressway. The boys of Roman Catholic High in their purple shirts. The nurses of Hahnemann Hospital getting some air, a student late for something at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the pinkened hair and caps of tulle and shirts and motorcycle escorts of the Susan G. Koman Three-Day walkers.
But here, in this hour, the dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet are immune to all that. Their world is this studio-tall and brightly lit, a bank of mirrors in the front, Koeneman's piano to the left, a ballet master, a ballet mistress, two repetiteurs.
Into all this now step Julie Diana and Zachary Hench, the principle dancers for whom the corps quickly parts. Diana and Hench are lithe and light. They dance without pretense, gentle toward each other, leaning in to learn from the repetiteurs, who are saying something about the necesary quickness of one step, about the backward glance over a shoulder, about the velocity of spins.
Center stage and central, Diana and Hench draw lines that seem (though they cannot be) effortless. Diana is muscle and porcelain skin, black hair. Hench is charming, attentive, his hands on her hips, a word or two to a younger dancer confused by the placement of a foot.
Two hours later, Diana and Hench, who are married and the parents of two young children, will take the floor in Studio C- alone save Ashley, Hadley, and Koeneman. Ashley has removed her blue sweater. She will, over the course of this hour, dance, too- show Diana what she means when she speaks about the agitation of feet and oppositional tension, about running the circle small and then running it big but not taking it too far across the floor.
"Hit your arabesque here," Ashley will say. "Turn here. Watch him. Don't let him catch you- not yet." Yes, yes, we can se your face far longer now. Yes. This is very good."
It's the little things, Ashley says, that must be mastered now. The smallest details, the nuances. She encourages Diana to experiment with her arms, to use her back as a hinge, to take smaller steps. She sympathizes with Hench- the rapid tempo of the song, the athleticism required at the end of a sequence for which even this large room is too small. Diana and Hench are intelligent dancers- unafraid to ask, quick to assimilate, capable of laughing at themselves. Ashley is empathetic, generous, transparently wise. Theatrics and technique are her stories.
It is exhausting, Ashley tells Diana and Hench. It is beautiful, she assures them. It must be a little more like this. A curl has escaped from Diana's bun and spirals partway down her forehead. Out of breath, in the fourth hour of rehearsal, she works the sequence again.
There is sun falling through the clerestory. The sound of a piano in a rehearsal room. There are the repetitions this repetiteur requires, the heat in Diana's face, the rasping breaths at the end of the sequence. The hard work is hardly done, and Hench begins a succession of leaps around the room- his body upright, his hands full of grace. his legs scissoring open, scissoring closed. When he is done he stands by the barre, clasping his hands to his knees, breathing hard. It is his wife's turn now for a solo run, and she summons all her beauty and turns.
At the barre, Hench looks up and watches his wife spin and blur. The charm in him becomes the way he looks at her- a lucky man in their world.