BalletX unleashes power – Breaks it down, builds it up

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal | photo credit Bill Hebert

BalletX opened its Summer Series Wednesday night at the Prince Theater with powerful world premieres by Matthew Neenan and Jodie Gates, as well as the revival of an earlier piece by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.  The company continues to dazzle the Philadelphia dance world with innovative work that both challenges and satisfies.

The highly stylized Castrati, which Lopez Ochoa created for BalletX in 2011, offers a tantalizing appetizer before the more heavy-weight works that follow. It takes us into the world of 18th century castrated male opera singers – in fact they are the last living seven of their kind.

Costumed in elaborate gold and sparkly theatrical attire, their faces heavily made up, and disguised in masquerade masks, the dancers execute frustrated movements, take elaborate bows, engage in a group freak-out, and amusingly discover new pelvic movements. These odd creatures exhibit splendidly controlled, acrobatic behavior. They are performers with a prescribed role to play, and there is a feeling of sadness as we see them wondering about what it would be like to break out from behind their facade.

Let Mortal Tongues Awake, choreographed by BalletX co-founder Neenan, presents a post-disaster wasteland, where a cast of the dancing dead cavorts in a series of disjointed duets. Clothed in business-wear shredded into tatters, they sprout strange bulking growths on their limbs and torsos. Rebecca Kanach’s costumes distort the dancers’ body parts – transforming them into mutants.

Out of this shambles, a Broadway-like chorus gathers steam, and the mindless hoofers traipse after one another like zombies, dangling arms and waggling fingers. They may be half-dead, but still the show must go on.  The comic timing of Neenan’s choreography is pure genius.

“Let mortal tongues awake,” a line from My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, takes on symbolic meaning in the piece’s final section: The entire cast, stripped down to unfashionable underwear and with their mouths literally muzzled, dance to the eerie remains of America’s patriotic song. The ending nails the national political mood on the head.  Thankfully, BalletX allows us to laugh about it.

While Mortal Tongues depicts fractured relationships, the evening’s second premiere, Beautiful Once, is all about making connections. With this new ballet, Gates, who has worked with BalletX several times in past years, endows the company with a vehicle to fully express its strength and beauty.

The curtain rises to reveal a beam of light streaming down from above. The dancers, attractively clad in shades of gray with red accents (costumes designed by Martha Chamberlain), circle and acknowledge one another. They move fluidly and harmoniously against long, lush musical chords composed by Ryan Lott.

With the women in pointe shoes, the ballet focuses on duets where the dancers swirl around each other, break apart, and then look for an opening to fuse back together. The music and movement are layered with contrasting percussive accents, and Gates’ intricately devised steps are executed with speed, precision, and clarity by the company’s dancers.

BalletX excels at portraying quirky characters, as in the first two dances, but in Beautiful Once the artists display their natural personalities, and the result is fresh and uplifting.

BalletX Summer Series 2017, July 12-16 at The Prince Theater | http://princetheater.org/events/balletx-summer-series-2017/

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