by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Vikki Sloviter
The Wilma Theater was packed on Wednesday as BalletX presented three world premieres on the opening night of their Fall Concert Series (running through December 9). The company’s fresh and spirited dancers excelled in the diverse styles represented by the program’s three international choreographers. BalletX continues to commission new work from innovative dance makers, emphatically positioning Philadelphia on the cutting edge of contemporary ballet.
A transparent curtain stretches across the stage, like the line of the horizon, in Dutch choreographer Wubkje Kuindersma’s sea and sky ballet Yonder. Francesca Forcella, wearing a dark blue dress, dances a lustrous solo out front as a group of dancers are arrayed horizontally behind the curtain. As the piece develops, individuals cross back and forth across the dividing line. The ensemble often moves in unison, like an undertow following behind Forcella. In a repeated motif, the dancers vulnerably open their chests upward, as if offering up their hearts. The music, by Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, sounds like a storm surge as the dancers vigorously curve their torsos forward to break like lines of waves. Yonder ends with a contrasting section set to a version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” (sung by Antony and the Johnsons). The song choice is predictable, yet the sense of idealism is touching as the dancers hold on to one another and look out an imaginary point far past the audience.
The second dance on the program, The Last Lifeboat, is a poetic reimagining of a sixteen-year-old girl’s courageous escape from the sinking Titanic. It’s the true story of Irish-born choreographer Marguerite Donlon’s Grand Aunt Kate, who made it to safety thanks to the heroism of her young friend James. The emotionally persuasive musical score by Dirk Haubrich weaves in Kate’s own voice from a recording of an interview with the BBC. The stage design is sparse yet highly evocative. Mist pours in from the side wings and overhead, suggesting water filling the ship. Three vertical wooden pieces create the illusion of the ship’s deck – they tip sideways when the ship sinks.
Chloe Perkes and Zachary Kapeluck give stand out performances as Kate and James. Their extended duets are not a love story, but an existential struggle. (She does kiss him, however, just before he disappears beneath the deck, leaving her holding his hat.) The rest of the company serves as a Greek chorus, underscoring the Titanic disaster’s tragic loss of life. They seem resigned to their fate and put each other’s hands over their faces. The group urges James forward into heroic action as the music clatters ominously. The details remain abstract, and we don’t actually see Kate get on the last lifeboat, yet the ballet resonates as a testament to the human will to survive.
The evening concluded with Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto’s high concept farce Napoleon/Napoleon. Soto conceived not only the choreography but the lighting, costume, and set design for the piece, and the elements pack a stylistic power punch. The BalletX company of dancers are dressed in identical long military coats (constructed by Stephen Smith), tucking a hand inside their jackets a la Napoleon. They puff up their chests and march in formal step, but they’re not as powerful as they think they are. Soon, they’re riding tricycles and shouting incomprehensibly like mini-tyrants. They’re revealed to be truly ridiculous when they turn upside down to expose frilly black ruffles and fleshy bare thighs beneath their coats. The soundtrack ranges from Vivaldi’s “Mandolin Concerto” to Chavela Vargas’ “Macorina”, and in Soto’s “more is more” style, Napoleon/Napoleon is a blow-out parade of egomaniacal childishness. All hail the Emperor!