by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Bill Hebert
There are few dance companies who I would trust to present a mash up of ballet and the music of Spanish Harlem. (What can I say? I teach dance anthropology. I can’t stop talking about cultural appropriation, and my tolerance for BS—to say nothing of the oft-racist “character” dances that permeated 19th century ballet—is lower than most.) But BalletX is one of the few companies I would trust to give it a shot, especially with choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie at the helm.
Moultrie’s choreography credits range from the Mrs. Carter World Tour (yes, thats Beyoncé) to the Dance Theatre of Harlem and a recent commission from American Repertory Theatre for Witness Uganda. For BalletX’s Spring Series, which runs from March 7-18 at the Wilma Theatre, Moultrie will premier Vivir, a celebration of Latin and Afro-Caribbean music.
First, of course, is the dancing. In an open rehearsal in January at the Performance Garage, it was sensational, with particular kudos owed to company veteran Gary Jeter. “I’ve watched him for years,” Moultrie told the audience. “We’d never met but he should be on the cover of so, so many magazines.” Performed to a slow Spanish ballad, Jeter’s solo avoids clichés: he hinges backwards, hands outstretched like a Vaudevillian jazz dancer before lowering himself down to the floor in a flamenco-esque spiral. The reference is oblique, just enough to give us a hint of Spanish Harlem without descending into brown face caricature.
As playful duet performed by two female dances takes its cue from salsa, but the basic steps are broken down into isolations and flat footed hip circles. It’s not so much, “let’s add a sexy little step here to spice things up,” as it is an appreciation of and respect for the social dances that constitute the very fiber of so many minority communities in the US.
In discussing his choreographic process, Moultrie explained how he went about determining which Latin dance moves would “work” on classically trained ballet dancers. “If someone from that culture would go, ‘Oh, that’s nice,'” he explained, “then it’s authentic, then it feels right.” In one particularly hip-centric sequence, dancer Francesca Forcella was the only one to make the cut and even I found my half-Puerto Rican self agreeing that she had passed Moultrie’s litmus test.
If you’re expecting red skirts and Chiquita Banana style hair-dos, you’ll be sorely disappointed (thank goodness). Instead, Moultrie conducted research at the Raices Latin Music Museum, taking inspiration from their collection of rare musical instruments, sheet music, recordings, and photographs documenting the history of Latin, Afro-Caribbean music in New York City. “I wanted to bring some diversity to the company’s rep,” he said, recalling his initial conversation Artistic and Executive Director Christine Cox. “I asked her ‘Do you have something to Latin music?’ She said ‘No’ and I said ‘Then that’s it.'”
Vivir will share the bill with The Boogeyman, another world premiere by Trey McIntyre set to the music of Motown. Audiences will also get the chance to see a revival of Matthew Neenan’s 2014 work, Increasing, which premiered at Vail Dance Festival and featured New York City Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in the original cast.
BalletX Spring Series
Wilma Theater, Philadelphia
Tickets & Information: https://www.balletx.org/seasons/spring-series-2018/
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