BalletX adapts, evolves, meets the moment head-on

BalletX dancers Roderick Phifer, Stanley Glover perform in "The Under Way" (working title) by Rena Butler Screenshot

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

“We need to keep creating,” urged Christine Cox, Director of BalletX, in a Zoom panel discussion interspersed with the virtual premieres of four short dance films by the Philadelphia dance company. “We need to keep dancing.” BalletX was set to perform live at the Guggenheim museum in New York last Sunday as part of its Works and Process series. When the COVID-19 stay-at- home order was issued in March, however, the Guggenheim commissioned video works from the company instead.

The four pieces, all made by women choreographers, speak directly to the unprecedented times we’re in right now. Seen in progressive order, they take the viewer deeper and deeper into what’s happening in our unsettled world. Although the word “ballet” is built-into the company’s name, these works feature naturalistic movement – there’s no wall separating studied dance technique from raw physical expression. The films are available for viewing here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJ08rQmWB63RFC3avQF-nDsneUXLrUd4X

The first film in the line-up, 100 Days, choreographed by BalletX’s own Caili Quan, gives a sweet peek into what it’s like to be cooped up with a restless dancer. Reduced to dancing in her kitchen with a teakettle for a partner, Chloe Perkes goes a little stir-crazy, much to the amusement of her real-life husband/quarantine partner (and non-dancer), Ammon Perkes. The pair may be stuck at home, but they still have each other – as well as a playful Billy Joel song- to make the situation better.

Two individual dancers, isolated in their own separate living spaces, dance through their loneliness in …it’s okay too. Feel. The poetic work, created by Hope Boykin (recently retired after 20 years dancing with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater), features BalletX’s newest dancers, Ashley Simpson and Savannah Green. Boykin is heard reading alongside the black and white images of the dancers – her words offering reassurance. “It’s really okay,” she avows, “not to like the here right now.”

In Penny Saunders Brown Eyes, another couple, Andrea Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck, have decamped to a dance studio, but the setting is more claustrophobic than if they were confined at home. They execute an intricate duet, edgy and filmed in black and white, hinting at violence lurking just below the surface. Restricted to a corner of the studio, their looming shadows and reflections in the mirror create a menacing atmosphere. Saunders is developing a larger work, together with musical composer Michael Wall, from the seed shown here.

The action finally moves outdoors in The Under Way, but the sense of anxiety only grows stronger in the outside world. Rena Butler created this hair-raising film as a prelude to a larger piece she is making for BalletX about the Underground Railroad. She started collaborating on the work with dancers Stanley Glover and Roderick Phifer in early May, and by the end of the month the protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers were sweeping the country. Accompanied by the music of Darryl Hoffman, Glover and Phifer absorb unseen physical assaults with their bodies. They hold their hands up in a plea for mercy. They run frantically in place, collapsing with their panicked effort. The film records the dancers’ electrifying confrontation of the Frank Rizzo statue, only five days before it was at long last removed – an indelible image.

Due to the need for social distancing, the performers and creators of all four films worked alone or in pairs already sheltered together. The dancers video recorded the first two pieces of themselves at home; while BalletX Associate Artistic Director Tara Keating filmed the last two pieces from a safe distance. The choreographers also managed to pull off their own video editing (with the exception of Brown Eyes, edited by Pablo Piantino).

With their regular season cancelled, BalletX is finding ways to move forward despite the restrictions on live performance. “We’re still making work…we need art,” said Cox – after explaining that the company will present a virtual season in the coming months. BalletX will be making more dance films to be broadcast far and wide on the web. Although it’s an artistic transformation driven by outside forces, it’s also an opportunity, as the ever-positive Cox enthused, “to take this company to the world.”

About Jane Fries

Originally from the west coast, Jane Fries pursued undergraduate studies in dance at San Diego State University, where she got her start writing about dance for the student newspaper. After an escapade as a correspondent for Dance Magazine in the south of France, she went on to earn her MA in dance from Mills College in Oakland, California. Jane's subsequent explorations in non-theatrical dance forms led her to take up the practice of yoga. She has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1996, and has had the great pleasure to study Iyengar yoga with Joan White. Jane's writing reflects her background in dance history and interest in documentation and preservation.

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1 Comment

  1. Loved watching these works from across the country “live” on Sunday night. Fries does an excellent job placing these pieces into our world as she is “decamped” at her kitchen table.

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