Review: Renewing The Spirit With BalletX Winter Series

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal | photos by Bill Hebert

BalletX opened its Winter Series on Friday evening at The Wilma Theater with a triple bill of vibrant new works. In a panel discussion before the show, one of the choreographers, Jo Strømgren, wondered why, no matter where he goes, there are so often “three guys” on the program? “Where are the women? Why is it so difficult for them to get through?”  BalletX didn’t answer that pertinent question with this line up, but did present a rousing concert that will run for seven more performances through next Sunday, February 19.

Matthew Neenan’s Credo, set to music by Hayden and Kevin Puts, made its east coast premiere (following its initial showing last summer in Vail). Neenan is the co-founder of BalletX and also choreographer in residence at the Pennsylvania Ballet. With the richly satisfying Credo, Neenan’s fluency in moving dancers in ever-evolving patterns, groupings, and juxtapositions enraptures the senses so fully that time is suspended, and the dance comes to a close before it hardly seems to have begun.

Neenan was inspired to make Credo by his recent travels in India. Fortunately, the dance motifs steer clear of cultural misappropriation, rather generating an abstract sense of crowds of people moving in unison, seamlessly attuned to one another. This harmony is interrupted by moments of awkwardness and distress, as individuals carve out a bit of personal space amidst the teeming chaos. BalletX’s ten dancers perform with passion and mastery, giving exquisite attention to the expressive gesture of a foot or the isolated tap of a finger. Gary W. Jeter II and Roderick Phifer are standouts in a central duet.

The colorful costumes by Reid & Harriet Design feature off-the-shoulder transparent scarves that emphasize the swirling motion of the crowd. Situated onstage, a wonderful chamber ensemble (made up of Curtis and Yale alumni) anchors the dance in the way that only live musicians can. As Credo draws to a close, the strains of the strings grow quieter, the dancers settle into a humming energy, and a hushed benediction washes over this unnamed, pulsing city.

On The Mysterious Properties Of Light is former BalletX dancer R. Colby Damon’s first choreographic work for a major contemporary dance company. Damon brings a fresh, comic sensibility to the task. The action takes place on a stark, quantum plane, and the dancers behave as photons under varying conditions. Flashes of inventive movement and a flair for dramatic staging are evidence that BalletX has rightly chosen Damon as a talent to nurture.

The Letter, choreographed by acclaimed Norwegian choreographer Jo Strømgren, is a lunatic spoof on hipster art making. This is Strømgren’s first commissioned work for BalletX, although his own modern dance company has appeared several times at FringeArts in recent years.

An off-stage narrator reads a letter to his grandpa. It seems he has brought the wrong box of records with him to the big city, but reckons he’ll try to make use of his grandpa’s old-time folk music in his quest to compose his first serious dance. The dancers he’s going to work with are straight out of a Jim Jarmusch movie. Decked-out in long black-haired wigs, tight black pants, and leather vests (diabolically designed by Martha Chamberlain), they are impossible to tell apart.

There’s much silliness between sets as the narrator muses on his progress. Each time the phonograph needle drops on a new record, however, the group breaks into loose and funky dancing. Pairs and trios form units that operate in spatial and rhythmic counterpoint, bringing out the depth in the folk/blues music of Josh White and C.W. Stoneking. Strømgren’s choreography swings with serious sophistication.

At last, the tight pants are peeled off, wigs are cast aside, and everyone is suddenly in their underwear. The Letter’s crowning number is all bare flesh – an irony-free celebration of pure pleasure.

Final notes:

The lighting for all three of the works on the program is by veteran designer Mark Stanley, moonlighting from the New York City Ballet.

BalletX’s diverse dancers shine throughout the evening’s ensemble works. They exude individual personality and are a Philadelphia treasure not-to-be-missed.

There’s a lot of tension in the air these days. Go see BalletX Winter Series – it will renew your spirit!


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