BalletX: Classical Meets Whimsy

by Kat Richter, MA for The Dance Journal
Photographs by Bill Hebert

BalletX Co-Artistic Director Christine Cox beamed as she introduced the company’s spring program at the Wilma on Thursday night.  And why not?  There was not an empty seat in the house, the seven-year old company will soon be embarking upon a national tour (including at stint at the Joyce in July) and they’re still as quirky as ever.

The evening began with Edwaard Liang’s Largo, which premiered in 2009 at The Wilma.  Inspired by Jean-Honore Fragonard’s 18th-century “Progress of Love,” the work featured three couples costumed by former Pennsylvania Ballet dancer Martha Chamberlain.  The choreography showcased the dancers—especially the women— in a variety of seemingly impossible angles: spun across the floor on their sides, legs bent into two perfect attitudes; suspended between the legs of the men as they sunk into a deep fifth position plie; and arched like backward letter “C”s against their partners calves.  The first duet was exquisite while the second was playful and bubbly.

Delicate Balance by Jodie Gates was every bit the organized chaos that the program notes promised.  The full company, dressed in layered metallic tunics, flexed their feet and elbows for an energetic yet staid performance.  High points of the piece included the women of company dropping to the ground from a supported pirouette into a full plank and the final tableau, in which the company retreated leaving a pair of dancers onstage and finally a soloist illuminated in a single spot light.

Thanks to a grant from the Knight Arts Challenge, the evening also included BalletX’s new “eXpand the eXperience” initiative.  Conceived as a series of surprising “pop-performances” by local performing artists during intermission, audiences on Thursday night were treated to performances by the Center City Opera Theater and Martha Graham Cracker, whose antics provided the perfect counterpoint to a potentially stodgy night at the ballet (although it should be noted that there’s nothing stodgy about BalletX).

Despite the impressive pedigrees of both Liang and Gates, it was the work of Co-Artistic Director Matthew Keenan that stole the show.  Set to the music of indie-rock back Beirut, The Last Glass was sexy, surprising, bold and fun.  The work, which premiered in 2010, began with a handful of dancers scattered across the back of the stage.  Two, clad in hot pink pointe shoes and ruffled crinolines, shook their hips in time with the music like a pair of automatons while Colby Damon gyrated like a carnival dancer.  Chloe Felesina danced with wit and emotion but Willy Laury was—throughout the entire evening—the most expressive of the company.

Although the piece dragged a bit in the middle, the final movements were well worth the wait.  Five pairs of dances carved their way across the stage in a series of perfectly time plies and unexpected port de bras, almost always diametrically opposed to one another but in total unison.  Their movements were so precise and so rich that it was difficult to catch everything the first time through; fortunately they repeated the phrase, less one dancer, bringing The Last Glass to its bizarre but nonetheless powerful conclusion.

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