A January Treat: More Dance Films From BalletX

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

“It was the most liberating thing to dance in a mud pit,” said dancer Blake Krapels, describing his adventures shooting the dance film Heal. “I recommend it to everybody.” The film is one of three new additions to the “BalletX Beyond” subscription-based streaming platform that were screened at a Virtual Premier event on Wednesday, January 20th. The Zoom event was hosted by BalletX director Christine Cox, and included interviews with the choreographers and several of the featured dancers.  

BalletX commissioned three guest choreographers to create this new trio of daring and notably dance-filled films. All three of the works were filmed by current Philadelphia resident Daniel Madoff, a former Merce Cunningham Company dancer. Following his professional dance career, he has reinvented himself as film producer, director and editor – working on both dance and non-dance related projects. His collaboration with BalletX, however, is most assuredly informed by his background as a dancer.

Madoff’s camera work brings us in close contact with the dancers. He’s an active yet unobtrusive participant: organically changing viewpoints without calling attention to himself; searching out camera angles that make the dancers leap out from the screen. Viewers get an intimate view of BalletX’s beautiful movers that is uniquely possible via the medium of dance on camera.

Dancer: Shawn Cusseaux, Skyler Lubin
Choreography: Manuel Vignoulle’s Heal
Image by Daniel Madoff

The five-and-a-half-minute film, Heal (where we see Krapels, covered from head to toe in mud, thrashing enthusiastically in the muck), was choreographed by Manuel Vignoulle. The film shifts back and forth between outdoor solo scenes of Krapels and Roderick Phifer (wrapped up in bandages like a mummy), and a duet featuring Skyler Lubin and Shawn Cusseaux. The pair, clad in flesh-covered skivvies, meld together in an astonishingly acrobatic partnering sequence – initially labored but achieving harmony in the end.  “I like the physical challenge,” said Vignoulle about his difficult choreography in the discussion before the screening, “because you have no other choice but being present.”

Dancer: Stanley Glover
Choreography: Tsai Hsi Hung’s Two X Two
Image by Andrea Yorita

Another brief film, Tsai Hsi Hung’s Two X Two, captures the yin and yang energy of two BalletX favorites, Phifer and Stanley Glover. The piece was filmed in a historic, wood-paneled reading room at the Franklin Institute, where we happen upon the pair, elegantly attired in ceremonial jackets (designed by Mark Eric), engaged in a gentlemanly, yet fierce, battle. A challenge is issued. A stand-off is achieved. In her remarks preceding the Two X Two screening, Hung divulged that when she makes a dance she starts by making a drawing, so that “the whole piece looks like a painting – I follow the image.”

Dancer: Shawn Cusseaux, Skyler Lubin
Choreography: Manuel Vignoulle’s Heal
Image by Daniel Madoff

The third new film, Thaw, choreographed by former Dance Theater of Harlem and Ballet Frankfurt dancer Francesca Harper, was filmed entirely in the studio at the BalletX Dance Center. Ashley Simpson, a new company member in her first season with BalletX, has a featured role in Thaw. She explained in the Zoom discussion that Harper had been her teacher at the Ailey/Fordham University BFA program. Simpson and Harper were equally delighted to work together on this project, and Simpson praised her former teacher for “bringing so much love to the dancers.”

Thaw is longer than the other two films, and takes its time getting going. Seven dancers manipulate lighting props, line up to dance against a wall, and use their cell phones to film one another. In the last section, Simpson and Krapels make a personal connection – dancing a lovely duet set to the piano music of Arcoiris Sandoval overlaid with a poem by Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

The three short films received their premiere screenings on January 20th, but are accessible anytime with a subscription to BalletX Beyond. There are two different plans, each providing access to the whole season’s ten short films and other special viewing opportunities. The “Plus” plan features access to rotating ballets from the BalletX archives – an opportunity for audiences to catch up on pieces they may have missed from earlier seasons.

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