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Fonte muses in time for Beautiful Decay

by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

photo by Marcia Breuer

BalletX artistic directors Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan like to work with choreographers who push the company in different directions and this approach has been key in building their solid audience base that have come to trust their creative judgment  Their summer program Beautiful Decay by prolific choreographer Nicolo Fonte taps into a broad dance template in form and theme.

At the UArts studios a week before the opening, Fonte, talked about working with the company and how the ballet was developed.  “Christine contacted me through email about two years ago and she asked if I knew who BalletX was,” Fonte recalled. “I told her I did know of them, but not about them, she wrote me that the mission of the company was not only to support new work and also be adventurous in developing projects in the realm of classical language, and we almost immediately agreed on what this ballet should be.”

BX has been away from using overt classical markers, like pointe shoes, for instance, but with Fonte, the toe shoes are back, with a decided contemporary intent. This was something that Cox, he said, about which she was most enthusiastic. And it is no wonder, Fonte has choreographed boldly for pointe work, with distinctive phrasing and invention shown in such works as “Cornered“ (for Royal Ballet of Flanders) and “Quiet Bang“ (Les Ballets de Monte Carlo), among others.

“Christine and I were constantly consulting one another and we were always on the same page. Not only because it’s a full length ballet, that there are things that she was hoping to be able to achieve with a longer work,” he explained and from his perspective, “it was an intimate environment and, for me, more practical than premiering a work like this on a larger company,” he said.

Nicolo Fonte phBH
photo by Bill Hebert

Fonte couldn’t pin down how long it took him to choreograph Beautiful Decay, he initially thought it would be one continuous act, but “I eventually knew I should divide it, so we come back to a stage world that has changed. This worked much better for designer Mimi Lien, who devised a modular set, comprised of arches and fabrics, that also changes over the course of the ballet.

It is scored to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a unique version by Europa Galante, an Italian chamber ensemble that performs with period instruments and inventive interpretation. “Their sound is so beautiful, but some of it is just so bizarre because it sounds so contemporary,” Fonte said.  “The two acts are going to look very different. and not only physically, but set and costume wise, but need to enter into different aural landscapes, so Finte is also using music by composer Ólafur Arnalds, a mix of ambient electronica and vocals.

Fonte’s other main concept for the ballet was to work with a multi-generational cast, “I had dealt with the idea of time passing with other companies but had done it in an abstract way and I was interested in exploring that in a much more explicit way,” he explained. Cox suggested asking Manfred Fischbeck and Brigitta Herrmann to dance because of their legendary contributions to the establishment of contemporary and independent dance in Philly with Group Motion (with Helmut Gottschild) in the 60s.

Last month, at the Dance/USA reception at the Barnes Museum, Fischbeck, with typical modesty said his participation was more of a presence than dancing. But Fonte would beg to differ, seeing immediately how powerful their stage presence had. He notes that he worked separately with Fischbeck and Herrmann, and then had them dance together, then with the company, because of the uniqueness of the concept and their stage personas that reflect so much dance history in Philadelphia.

“On a physical level they may be more limited now, but…how theatrically impressive.  . I think I found the right balance. They are really incorporated in the piece I didn’t really know what they were going to be like dancing together after all these years and it’s been really interesting for me,” Fonte said.

rehearsal for BD photo Bill Herbert
photo by Bill Hebert

“I like working with creative people and I liked that they were choreographers and they have been around and they are working and they had worked with important people in contemporary dance. Brigitta was just working on the reconstruction of Mary Wigman’s “Rite of Spring“… so I was a little intimidated. But I like to be pushed and challenged and questioned. Actually, there was a lot of that. But it was good and made me dig deeper and find more creative intent.

Like many choreographers creating three or four works a year on different companies internationally, it is routine for Fonte to come a company new to him and create a 20 or 25-minute work for a mixed bill contemporary program, a much different dynamic creating a two-act piece.  Fonte’s previous long form piece was with Göteborg Ballet in Sweden where he had worked for three years and could choreograph with specific dancers in mind,” Fonte observed.

A different circumstance with BalletX, Fonte recounted, “I came in January for only five days to get to know the dancers and to play around with the material. I had seen them on YouTube, but I didn’t pay much attention to that,” Fonte said. The company also has several new dancers this season.  And, I can be a bit of a dictator; ok a benevolent dictator, but  you have to be with such a big piece in such a short time. But I’m very particular about how bodies move,” he said.  “Didn’t take long to get to know them. This is a young company and these are gifted dancers,”

Fonte stopped dancing  in 2000 and choreographs full time, since then he has created works for dozens of dance companies around the world. He is regular guest choreographer for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has recently been named Resident Choreographer for Ballet West, in Salt Lake City.

- Lewis Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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