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Review – BalletX Winter Series 2016

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photo by Alexander Iziliaev

by Kat Ricter for The Dance Journal

If there’s one thing that always impresses me about BalletX, Philadelphia’s home-grown contemporary ballet company, it’s the fact that Founder and Artistic/Executive Director Christine Cox is always trying something new. It’s not enough that the 10-year old company has commissioned 58 world premiers in its short history, including several evening-length ballets. Or that they’ve become regulars at the Joyce Theater in NY and the resident company at the Vail International Dance Festival in Colorado. No. There’s the series of pop-up performances throughout the city; the multi-school outreach program that brought dance to over 200 third and fourth graders this year; and now, for the first time ever, a fellowship that pairs an up-and-coming choreographer with a world renowned mentor.

This year, the honor went to Yin Yue, a Chinese-born New York-based choreographer who beat out 50 other applicants for the chance to work with Trey McIntyre. I don’t know that her selection had anything to do with the need to address the conspicuous lack of female choreographers in the ballet world, but I like to hope that it did. (BalletX, unlike most classical ballet companies, often presents the work of women, so this wouldn’t be the first time). But it’s fair to say that Yue won the fellowship on her own merit, given the unique blend of Classical Chinese dance with traditional folk dance forms from Mongolia and Tibet (a combination she calls “FoCo” or folk contemporary).

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One Heartbeat Above One Shadow Below
by Yin Yue
Dancers: Gary W. Jeter II, Chloe Felisina (in red top), Richard Villaverde, Zachary Kapeluck, Daniel Moyo
photo by Alexander Iziliaev

I wish I had seen more of this on Thursday night; the beginning of her piece, “One Heartbeat Above One Shadow Below” was full of pulsing passion, with dancers leaping towards the audience before the curtain had finished rising. But it devolved into too literal a pantomime of dancer Richard Villaverde’s death (complete with dancers calling for help and miming CPR). The costumes (black and gray pants with black and red tops) seemed like an afterthought but the dramatic lighting and haunting score, a percussive soundscape created by Juliane Jones and Doug Beiden, set off the exquisite partnering work between Villaverde and Caili Quan. They never stopped moving, spinning instead from one lift into another, and the ferocious male trio that followed hinted at Yue’s true potential, as did the Chinese dragon-like lines she created with the dancer’s bodies at the end of the work.

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Big Ones by Trey McIntyre
Dancers: Zachary Kapeluck, Richard Villaverde
photo by Alexander Iziliaev

As a huge fan of Amy Winehouse, I was most looking forward to the work of Yue’s mentor, choreographer Trey McIntyre. This, perhaps, is why “Big Ones” seemed to never quite take off for me. Clad in patent leather unitards and black bunny ears (think steampunk dominatrix, not Playboy), the dancers created a number of loosely related vignettes to Winehouse’s most popular hits. The work seemed to finally find its groove with “Valerie,” a quirky and entirely un-sexy duet performed by Chloe Fessina and Zachary Kapeluck, who strutted towards her with an intentionally goofy Charleston.

“You Know I’m No Good” showed the men of the company at their most powerful, coming perhaps the closest to the essence of the artist who inspired the piece, but it was the program’s opener, an expanded version of Matthew Neenan’s “Show Me,” that drove straight to the heart of BalletX.

Company co-founder Matthew Neenan created the ballet for the Vail International Dance Festival last year. Set to a wide variety of music (ranging from Beethoven to Lev Zhurbin) all performed by Brooklyn Rider, it featured Neenan’s signature gestures; they straddle the line somewhere between pantomime and port de bras, infusing the movement with an energy that is both recognizable and mysterious. The work, which featured all ten of company’s dancers, revolved around duets of dancers, but they weren’t the traditional male/female pairings of classical ballet, nor an intentional rejection of the heteronormative trope; they were just dancers sharing their weight, creating their own little worlds within the larger crowd.

It was both beautiful and joyous, even rollicking at times, but it also showed a more mature and measured side of Neenan. It’s no surprise that he’s become such a figure in the ballet world, and not just within Philadelphia, and with Cox at the helm, steering the BalletX from one new initiative to the next, who knows what emerging new choreographers will follow in his footsteps.

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