BalletX’s Christmas in Space

Zachary Kapeluck and Andie Yorita in rehearsal with choreographer Jo Strømgren

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal | photo credit Vikki Sloviter

One doesn’t generally expect to find a collection of astronaut helmets in the rehearsal studio of a ballet company. But at BalletX’s new Washington Avenue headquarters, the audaciously but not inaccurately named “Center for World Premiere Choreography,” space suits abound, thanks to Norwegian choreographer Jo Strømgren and costume designer Martha Chamberlain.

Strømgren’s newest work, The Moon, will premiere next month as part of BalletX’s 2019 Fall Series, alongside Matthew Neenan’s Twelve Bells. Both works are inspired in part by the Christmas holiday, which seems an odd choice for Christine Cox’s brand of contemporary ballet (which is about as far from The Nutcracker as one can get). Strømgren explained how he developed the concept for his newest ballet with what can only be described as a typically Scandinavian sense of sarcasm and humor.

“When people present ideas, I always think ‘Oh God, how boring.'” But Cox wanted a Christmas themed ballet and for Strømgren—who has created over 150 works in countries all around the world— the most interesting way to do this was to draw inspiration from the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

And so The Moon centers around two astronauts, played by Andrea Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck, who are stuck on a vessel that’s leaving Earth with no hope of making it home time for Christmas. According to Strømgren, “When there’s no hope, that’s when you start being honest about things.”

In rehearsal, the dancers lunge and unfurl into deep, second positions plies. The creative process is slow, the music quiet. “There’s a bit of pressure to wow” Strømgren explained, noting a difference in this regard between American and European audiences. “I hope they can sit down in the chairs and not expect to be entertained, which I think is quite typical in America. This is more contemplative, associative.”

Strømgren came to ballet by way of flamenco, which he encountered as a student studying abroad on Madrid. “In Europe, they have strong traditions of artistic families and so on, so I’m very American in that sense [because] I don’t have any artistic relatives. I didn’t have any ambitions in dance. Ballet—I thought, ‘Do grownups do this?'”

Now, almost 30 years later, he is back in Philadelphia to set a new work on the dancers of BalletX. “Most of them are shark meat. That’s not a condescending term for dancers. They get to use their instrument regardless of the character.” Beneath the skylights of the rehearsal studio, these instruments slowly bring The Moon to life, following Strømgren’s lead as he uses his own body to sketch out each sequence: a ballchange, a lunge into a saut de basque turn.

He views choreography as a type of alchemy. “Let’s try some special space suits, a projection of something sci fi, and a slow, slow jazz. And the Christmas theme. These things don’t fit together but that’s the challenge: can we make them fit together? It’s like a math equation but if you plan too much, it’s boring to watch.”

Catch The Moon in addition to Neenan’s Twelve Bells at the Wilma Theatre Dec 4-Dec 15.

About Kat Richter

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both dance and cultural anthropology. She is also the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble, Philadelphia's premiere all-female tap company. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and The Journal of Research in Dance Education.

As a professional dancer, Richter began her apprenticeship with the New Jersey Tap Ensemble at the age of 9 and was promoted to Principal Dancer while still in high school. In 2005, she received a scholarship to Oxford University and returned to the UK in 2009. She holds a BA in Dance and History from Goucher College and an MA in Dance Anthropology from Roehampton University. A proud Philadelphia transplant, she blogs at www.fieldworkinstilettos.com

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