BalletX warms things up on a cold March night with it’s Spring Series

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Vikki Sloviter

BalletX warmed things up on a cold March night for the opening of their current season with works by Polish choreographer Katarzyna Skarpetowska, Memphis-based choreographer Lil Buck and the third BalletX premiere by Nicolo Fonte, whose Beautiful Decay has become one of the company’s signature ballets. Artistic Director Christine Cox continues to bring in new choreography to BalletX repertory that expands and challenge the dancers and the audience.

Katarzyna Skarpetowska’s ballet Off the Canvas is inspired by Cy Twombly’s Bacchus paintings, cited for their sense of movement within the brushstrokes of abstract shapes.  Like the arc of red lines in the paintings, the ballet has intertwined sinuous choreography that is similarly overlapping.  The music is a mix Vivaldi cello concerti and mystical electronica (and distorted sonics) by Adrian Klumpes.

The movements of the dancers in space, creating a similarly abstract dancescape. The not new territory on the dance stage, but Skarpetowska’s taut balletic template, displays particular invention in trio partnering featuring dynamic lift sequences that keep evolving. The men and women segregated in sequences or sweeping into each other’s territory and partnering off.

The women swirl on pointe and in a tight circle. Their pointe work is distinctive, with several extensions with legs bending and port de bra at askew angles. The men vault through amorphous clusters with each other, sometimes aggressively. Certainly not new territory on the dance stage, but the choreographer displays particular invention in trio partnering featuring dynamic lift sequences that keep evolving.  A central, more meditative solo danced by Roderick Phifer, laced with powerful turn variations and dramatic jumps. This ballet has a solid inner drive reflective of the baroque music, but it was the static interludes that inspired some of the quieter and equally interesting moments.  Skarpetowska is a graduate of the Juilliard School, a former dancer with Lar Lubovitch Company and BalletX’s 2019’s Choreographic Fellowship awardee.

The surprise in this concert is Lil Buck’s Express, even for this troupe of ballet dancers. The Memphis based choreographer is a renowned soloist for his street dance style Memphis ‘jookin’ and fusion idioms of Brooklyn flex and ‘wave’ movement techniques.  Lil Buck solos have brought worldwide attention with his virtuoso performances with cellist YoYo Ma accompanying his solo to Saint-Saens The Swan to working with stars including Baryshnikov and Madonna. Lil Buck’s invertebrate limb illusions and dance contortionism are indeed hypnotic, but much more than ‘wow’ factor tricks.

BalletX premiered Express at the 2018 Vail International Dance Festival and now performing its East Coast premiere. The intricacies of Buck’s more signature style would understandably be harder for ballet dancers as it is the opposite of much of balletic techniques, but BalletX rises to the challenge.

It’s Alright (Why You Gotta) kicked things off with a percussive ensemble, then a dance story to the blues burner classic St. James Infirmary about tragic love and hard living in New Orleans, depicted by the five BalletX women, lifeless on the floor, and the men dance freaking out in Buck’s paroxysm of movement.  The narrative choreography is thin, and the transitional phrasing hazy. And then the full-on dance party breaks out to Jon Batiste and Stay Human’s track Express Yourself (Say Yes), the dance party kicks in with spontaneous vocalizing, street solos – the men vaulting some punch front flips, Francesca Forcella throwing down some break moves and Caili Quan clearly in the groove with this material. An at ease-ballet, without being knocked out of the park, as conceived and performed, but it is tons of fun.

Nicolo Fonte’s Steep Drop, Euphoric scored to music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso, is both cryptic and evocative – a movement Rorschach (dance) test, but with a dramatic emotional punch however it is interpreted by viewers.

Actually, it took a while to get there.  The first two scenes struck as choreographically crowded, even erratic around the edges. Fonte’s propulsive phrasing is technically demanding, and these dancers will continue to refine their work, meanwhile, the ensemble attack is present and passionate. Another Fonte signature of the ballet is a showcase for strong duet partnering as the other dancers reappear in the final section.

The core of the ballet comes in an arresting solo by Chloe Perkes – first lifted high by the other dancers, then in a solo, a symbolic ‘drop’ as she dances on over an unfurled scroll. She steps powerfully to full arabesque, and dances with radiant carriage and line, steeled pointe work, and supple phrasing, in a word, electrifying. Perkes was on the injury list recovering from shoulder surgery and, great to see her back on the Wilma stage in Fonte’s premiere.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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