by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal | photos by Bob Sweeney | (L to R) Dancers Daniel Mayo, Skyler Lubin, Gary W. Jeter II
To most, the word “ballet” brings to mind a lithe, young ballerina in a tutu and pointe shoes fluttering across the stage. Luckily for Philadelphia, this isn’t the case with BalletX. Later this month, the contemporary ballet company will present Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay, an evening-length work that premiered to critical claim in 2013. Then, the lead roles were performed by veteran dancers Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck, co-founders of Group Motion Dance. This time around, Herrmann and Fischbeck will trade off with Brenda Dixon Gottschild and Hellmut Gottschild.
She’s a renowned dance scholar and author of Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts and The Black Dancing Body: a Geography from Coon to Cool. He studied under Mary Wigman (yes, that Mary Wigman, the German pioneer of modern dance without whom no dance history course is ever complete).
In rehearsal at the Performance Garage, he sports an old t-shirt from his troupe, Zero Moving Dance Company, and follows dancer Zachary Kapeluck through a series of slow gestures. When Associate Artistic Director Tara Keating instructs him to pause, he asks with his characteristic self-deprecating humor, “Am I supposed to just stand there like a dead poll?”
“No,” Keating replies, “like an icon.”
Such is the crux of Fonte’s work. Mimi Len’s set, Martha Chamberlain’s costumes, and Drew Billau’s lighting design are all stunning and the music (a combination of Vivaldi, Max Richter, and Ólafur Arnalds) provides the perfect soundtrack to a ballet that’s all about the aging process. Still, in speaking to the Gottchilds after their rehearsal, I had to ask: How did that phone call go? What did you say when Christine Cox called you and said she wanted you to be the “senior” dancers?
“I thought she was calling with a writing assignment,” Brenda confesses, “then I was floored.” Hellmut was less enthusiastic, asking, “Why should I play an old person? I am one.” In the end, though, he gave into his wife’s excitement, adding to the long list of reasons that she calls him her “reluctant hero.”
The pair met when they were both teaching at Temple and were married in 1991. Both have extensive if divergent, backgrounds in ballet and modern dance but their performance careers have only occasionally overlapped, with Brenda focusing more on academic research.
Onstage, she circles upwards and he discreetly points to his left, signaling the correct way to turn. In a later moment, they hold each other’s wrists and sink backward away from one another. Sporting braids, a headscarf, and blue eyeliner, she nods and smiles, laughing at her own mistake.
“I’m directionally challenged,” she admits, but Hellmut is quick to add that of the two of them, she’s better at remembering the choreography. “I never had to pick up other people’s work,” he explains and even though he compares himself rather unfavorably to the much younger Kapeluck and jokes that they should call the piece “Ugly Decay,” there’s an overall atmosphere of warmth and good humor throughout the rehearsal process. At one point, Hellmut pretends to run away from a cast of invisible dancers; at another, he peers over the edge of the stage as if at the edge of a cliff.
In between scheduled rehearsals, the couple pushes back the furniture in their Chestnut Hill living room to practice. Much of the work is improvised and the choreographed sections can be difficult to count but Brenda notes how Fonte’s movements are geared towards the company. “It’s about going deeper instead of challenging ourselves beyond the range of our potential. There’s nothing superficial, and very little pyrotechnics.”
In the final run of the afternoon, she takes Keating’s coaching to heart: to slow down. After all, as Hellmut says, “We fill it better at our age.” As the pair enters the stage for the last time, she traces her finger down his spine and pauses for just a moment on his waistband as if to say, “not yet.” He looks ready to pounce, but she is relaxed; together, they bring Fonte’s vision to life in all of its beauty.
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