by Lew Whittington for The Dance Journal
Photos by Bill Hebert
In the late January deep freeze 50s crooner Nat King Cole’s toasty hit L-O-V-E filled the rooms at the Performance Garage as BalletX dancers worked on jaunty unison for their next program that runs through Valentine’s Day week and a decidedly romantic air from a trio of guest choreographers including a reprise of Jodie Gates‘ burn the floor 2012 hit Delicate Balance.
Choreographer Joshua L. Peugh will reset a full ensemble piece ‘Slump‘ which revisits the sexually repressive, but no less lusty 50s. The ballet was his first hit with his own company Dark Circles Contemporary Dance and will premiere a short duet. James Gregg’s ‘Head in the Clouds’ looks at various aspects of love.
During breaks, the choreographers talked about their background and current work. BX artistic coordinator Tara Keating comments that the Peugh and Gregg have had the benefit of longer than usual continuous rehearsal weeks to develop the program and you can feel a certain relaxed creative air all around.
Choreographer Joshua L. Peugh is glad not only to have the rare extra time to get to know Ballet X dancers, for starters, because it is the first time he is resetting one of his ballets. Peugh has been had an breakneck schedule for five years as co-founder and co-artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, in Dallas, Texas and another DCCD ensemble operating in Seoul, South Korea, where Peugh first established himself there as a dancer with Universal Ballet Company, thinking he would stay for six months. He started to choreograph overseas and ended up loving South Korea so much he stayed for seven years, even learning to speak the language by ear. He founded DCCD there in 2010, with fellow UBC dancer-choreographer Cho Hyun Sang.
Out of the western blue, Peugh was offered a chance to form a company in the US in 2012 so reluctantly left, leaving Mr. Sang to run the Korean branch, with its ensemble of eight, while Peugh created the western wing in Dallas, Texas with a troupe of ten dancers. Together the two branches seek to represent cultural diversity, ages and styles. “It’s been kind of amazing. Between the two of us choreographing, we can spread our net wider. In four years to be able to tour seven countries and produce 20 new works, “he said.
“We got the companies together right after we premiered ‘Slump‘ in Dallas actually and we took it there and some of the Seoul members performed in it. Here we’ve done festivals in the States, Canada and Japan. And they have performed tours in Asia and Europe.
“This was tricky, me coming here; I had just finished my new piece for our program in Dallas which will premiere three weeks after going back. I trust my dancers enough to leave them and I’ll get back and polish it before we open in Fort-Worth.”
Peugh heard about BalletX from previous guest choreographer Adam Hoagland (Risk of Flight). “We’re both on faculty at Southern Methodist University and when I moved back to the states, I commented to him that I had to start I sending my work out and he suggested BalletX, so I sent video links to Christine (Cox, co-artistic director) and lucky for me she was interested,“ he recalled. “These dancers are so interesting, focused and sensitive. It was a great match for me…to see this model.”
For his own company, Peugh likes “All shapes and sizes, all different backgrounds. The thing that they all have in common is they love to move. I look for people who love to move. I look for the one who is fidgety in ballet class.”
Peugh said it has been instructive re-staging ‘Slump’ on another company, a first for him. Even though ‘Slump,’ has a “veneer of the 50s,” Peugh explains. He is not just creating nostalgia “I’m dealing with…the manner of how we court each other, what society dictates still. What if we took all that away and sniffed around each other,”
“When I was growing up we always watched old movies and Lawrence Welk at my grandparents house,” he recalls and now he loves the simplicity of that time. “There is a lot of noise around, and in dance too. When I see performances there is a lot of technical content, pushing the extremes. There is a lot of flashy dance, and that’s great, but I’m more interested in understatement.”
In Slump, Pleugh said his intent is to “look at the social behavior. The complicated way people were acting socially. I love to play with unraveling the layers of stuff about gender. If someone has their hands on hips or walking on tiptoes, it is viewed as feminine, but of course there is nothing intrinsically female about those movements,” he observes.
Nostalgia, he describes as “a tool that connects people to fantasy. I don’t like to give the answers, in program notes. If 70 people are viewing, there will be 70 different interpretations. I love people that can let go of the idea of what things are supposed to look like. And erase expectation.”
Feet on the ground, head in the clouds
James Gregg is onstage with dancers circling around Andrea Yorita and Richard Villaverde refining an intricate duet that requires intricate lifts and low-to-the-ground adagio work. At one point, Villaverde moves away and drops into a slightly comic squiggly plie but in an otherwise dramatic duet, the tricky mixes of techniques, typifies Gregg’s style. Gregg, trained with Ballet Oklahoma, his home state and has danced with River North Chicago Dance and Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal, just to name two and is currently a member of Victor Quijada’s Rubberband Dance Group, as well as being available “per project,” for choreographer Aszure Barton in New York.
But Gregg said that he “always hoped choreography would take over. Ever since I was a kid, actually, I knew I wanted to be a choreographer more than a dancer. But I knew having longevity as a dancer and being able to create with more and more people would make me a better choreographer too,” he explained.
“So every time I had someone choreograph on me, I always enjoyed the creative process more than anything. Once we were onstage it was fun to perform, but then I immediately wanted to be back to a constant state of creation. I didn’t want to be only a ballet dancer. I did hip-hop, jazz, some ballroom. Find ways to entangle it into one style. Each place I go, I’m inspired. That’s why I quit Ballet Jazz Montreal, so I could concentrate on choreography. I knew Matthew Neenan’s work. I kept in touch and sent them some video.”
“I have 12 pieces in my back pocket that I continually work on and when BalletX directors suggested that they were looking at a program that was upbeat in theme. I had been gathering ideas about ’Head in the Clouds’ for about two years. It’s basically duos and trios. with a couple of ensemble sections, and hopefully fun.”
Gregg’s method to aesthetically connect with new dancers is a process where he goes “into the studio and create phrases for a particular ballet and will teach that, then keep developing from there,” he said. With BalletX, he wanted to get to some “of my raw emotion. With classical dancers I can lean on certain clean technique and certain beautiful lines,” he said. He is adding to the list of ballet commissions and Gregg has premiered six ballets on different companies in the past year and describes himself now as a “total“ freelance choreographer.
“It was just a feeling I had. I knew it was going to be around Valentine’s Day, so that was in there already, about aspects of love, when you are in and out of it. Each section represents an emotion, discovery or loss.
I wanted something very different, challenging in a way that I’ve never done before. And a style that I could transfer to my own aesthetic. I really like his process and it is very inspiring.”
Recently, doing this piece has been quite challenging emotionally. I found when I’m talking to the dancers, I get choked up. Which is…great because I really feel like I’m pouring myself into the piece.
Gregg acknowledges that he is coming out off of a long-term relationship. “Of course, it can’t always be light and happy, relationships have ebb and flow, sometimes to find real love it’s after a long time, I’m speaking from a personal experience as well, because my life has been like that. Valentine’s Day is love on steroids,” Gregg laughs. In fact, the name of that plie variation, he said, is a “melting heart.”
BalletX Winter program is in performance at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce St. Philadelphia February 12-16 | www.balletx.org