Fonte’s ‘Grace Action’ premieres

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Principal Dancers Lauren Fadeley and Ian Hussey rehearsing for the
World Premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s Grace Action
; photo credit Alexander Iziliaev

by Lew Whittington for The Dance Journal

Choreographer Nicolo Fonte was in a tangled configuration with Pennsylvania Ballet dancers Alexander Peters, Myara Pinero and Craig Wasserman at PB studios earlier this month, looking like a seasoned member of the troupe, rather than someone who retired from the stage 15 years ago. Instead of just half-stepping through it the dance phrase, he was demonstrates with full performance energy, grinning the whole time..

“”I always have fun in the studio.” Fonte said between rehearsals a week before the premiere of ‘Grace Action’ his newest ballet. Fonte talked about the working with Pennsylvania Ballet for the first time and working outside of his conventions to “discover” something new with these dancers.

For this session, dancers are moving around freely, working out some the ballet’s sections among themselves and ready for the run-through.   Fonte continues to make quick decisions and working through some choreographic kinks, and still assigning roles and for a the eventual cast of 12 and the alternates. The energy seems electric and they are ready to dig in.

Even though Fonte snuck into town in January to get a look at PB, he came in to work with them a month before the premiere, without any concrete notion of what he was going to do. It is his third new work this year for the much in-demand choreographer. The native New Yorker is now based in Portland, Oregon, is Resident Choreographer at Ballet West and is now based in Portland, Oregon, along with partner Kevin Irving, artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Fonte’s work is relatively new to Philly audiences. But he made a bold artistic statement here two years ago when he created ‘Beautiful Decay’ for BalletX, which had a sell out run. Several month later, Roy Kaiser, former artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet, contacted Fonte and told him even though he hadn’t seen the BalletX piece, the choreographer had been on his radar for a while.

Kaiser commissioned him for the 2015 season closer program of contemporary works, which ended up being the final bill devised by Kaiser, who retired last year. Fonte premiere shares the bill with choreographers William Forsythe’s ‘The Second Detail’ and Larry Keigwin’s ‘Canvas.‘ Current artistic director views this contemporary program as exemplar of where he wants to take PB aesthetically and as an ensemble company going forward.

“I decided on use music by Philip Glass and thought just what the world need another Glass ballet. But I thought, hopefully I can illuminate that music that hasn’t been done choreographically.” despite the creative pause, Fonte, and noted that Corella was “elated” that he was scoring it to Glass.

“The music has a lot of drive and it also has a lot of sweeping emotional content. His music changed once he started doing movie music. Some people call it overly sentimental but for me it doesn’t cross that line, but for me, it’s wonderfully emotional. I get swept up in it. A combination of being grand and intimate at once. All kinds of juxtaposition and oppositions that I am attracted to, the piece reflect that.”

He came to Philly in January just to see the dancers, but didn’t work with them, waiting to develop the piece from scratch in the weeks before the premiere. “Even though I didn’t really have an idea, I felt ready to create an idea with the dancers in the room. The potential for failure is greater, but I was really confident in doing it this way,” he intimated.

Recounting his first days Fonte said he quickly told the dancers he was going to move in a stream of consciousness manner, and they didn’t know how to respond right away. “But if I start ‘choreographing’ on you, I’m already bored,” he explained, “It was for me it was exciting because it felt like I was choreographing my way into something that was already there.”

He wanted to “discover” the piece with them and told them the first day to “Copy me, then I’m going to watch you, then I’m going to start shaping it. To see if there is any content in that movement that I can manipulate and develop it. I’m going to be abstract and… blah, blah, blah …and see what happens. It was like a dance mad scene for the first days, but yes, everyone was on their toes,” Fonte observed and that meant literally for the women since the ballet is “a point piece, which I am very comfortable choreographing.”

He said that ‘Beautiful Decay’ was such a great experience even with some last minute creative panic. It featured solos for Philadelphia dance legends Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck,   “It was such a labor of love for me, but I wasn‘t sure that it was all going to come together until I sat in the audience and felt it with them. After the first act on opening night, I just ran out into the street, that I couldn’t bear it if the audience didn’t have a positive reaction. Because I poured everything that piece,” he recalls. “I finally went back in the backstage area and I ran into Manfred and he told me “Oh my God, did you hear that applause. ”

Fonte’s strengths with dance narrative arc in dance and well as the impulse for experimentation was a potent mix for BalletX. However abstract Fonte wants everything to make choreographic sense and have an “internal logic” and to connect with audiences instantly. “I’m actually anti-contemporary that way. I do like structure and a certain (performance) rigor,” Fonte observes.

Fonte said developing ‘Grace Action’ coincided with “an exciting time in this company. My work is based on classical technique anyway, so in the end, it’s not ultimately foreign to them, but I want to challenge the dancers and myself, and I think this whole program does that in a very healthy way.“

Keigwin, Fonte, & Forsythe | June 11-15 at the Merriam Theater |

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photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev

About Lewis J. 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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