by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo by Vikki Sloviter
A cool breeze and swaying trees were the backdrops to BalletX’s opening night summer programming at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, where they performed in front of an audience for the first time in 16 months. A celebratory air could be felt among a diverse crowd throughout the open-air venue, as the company finally got to perform in public to mark its 15th anniversary.
The Mann is much larger than the company’s home turf at the Wilma Theater, so they were not sure what to expect in the way of a turnout. It spoke to the strength of this company that the main seating of the Mann filled with an audience of 900 ticketholders in the first of four performances over three days, including many dance luminaries, former BalletX dancers, and guests from Pennsylvania Ballet, just rechristened The Philadelphia Ballet.
BalletX artistic director Christine Cox greeted the audience and introduced premieres by choreographers Hope Boykin, Dwight Rhoden, and company co-founder Matthew Neenan. All three dancemakers were in attendance to take bows with their casts.
The selections of ballets showcased the versatility of BalletX in distinct ways with each choreographer eliciting the technical artistry and muscle representative of the company.
The concert opened with In the Distance with original music by jazz composer Ali Jackson. Boykin is a dancer-choreographer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who started her professional career at Philadanco. Boykin cast the full company for this ballet- Shawn Cusseaux, Jonah Delgado, Francesca Forcella, Stanley Glover, Savannah Green, Zachary Kapeluck, Blake Krapels, Skyler Lubin, Ashley Simpson, Richard Villaverde, and Andrea Yorita.
It opens with the dancers entering in a halting balletic line only to exit the other side, with Kapeluck dropping back for a brief solo. Andrea Yorita soon joins Kapeluck for a duet, culminating with the other dancers scrambling back onstage to perform Boykin’s raucous, expressive mosaic of disparate movement. Boykin unleashing a formidable mix of dance idioms, from intricate pointe work, leaps and turns to breakout solos that strike as self-portraits in motion. This mosaic of dancers is ignited by the driving chromatic forest of drums, cymbals, vibes, and sticks of Jackson’s sound field.
The fast-moving sections give way to a meditative finale with Stanley Glover leading the ensemble in a pulsing Africanist processional of quiet beauty, accompanied by an allegorical speech about perseverance.
Next came Matt Neenan’s Mapping Out the Sky set to instrumental versions of Broadway tunes by Stephen Sondheim. The dancers dressed in black and white vertical striped dance leotards, designed by Christine Darch, looking like dancing keys of a piano, starting with tunes from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George inversions, riffing with pianist pointillism, ala George Seurat, by composers Steve Reich and Nico Muhly.
Neenan animated the embodied musical notes into pure dance physicality of musical dynamics from precision-flowing unison arpeggios to pauses that freeze the ensemble in sculpted poses. Neenan choreographs Sondheim ballads Johanna and Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd with pure neoclassic movement, which by now seems atypical of him. Still, ballet’s classical lyrical line is always packed in his creative toolbox.
Dwight Rhoden is a former Ailey dancer and co-founder with Desmond Richardson of Complexions. He is currently in residence with BalletX for their choreographic mentorship project. His ballet We The People is ostensibly about intimacy and shared humanity through times of adversity. It opens to the jazz manifesto also also also and and and by Moses Sumney, but then Rhoden chooses classical music and opera in a choreographic template embracing classical ballet and contemporary idioms.
The centerpiece passage was scored to Matt Haimovitz’s Suite for Cello Solo no. 4 in E-flat major with the basso sonorities fueling Rhoden’s series of duets, led by Skyler Lubin and Richard Villaverde, who danced with intimacy and radiant artistry.
The men then took the stage in a dramatic sequence of intricate lifts. Not to be outdone, the women followed them for thrilling quicksilver pointe configurations. The demands highlighted the dancers’ stamina in a two-hour program of premiere ballets.
Rhoden said this piece was about people banding together through adversity. A magical moment came as the troupe danced to Luciano Pavarotti’s dramatic Italian aria Caruso about the great tenor’s life, with the lyric about the “moon emerging from the cloud.”
As the audience exited the Mann Center and, as usual, were rushing to the parking lot, many stopped in their tracks to look up as a spectacular super-moon looming over the Philly skyline. It was a gorgeous sight to top off a dance night to remember.
BalletX will be going back on the road and, based on this performance, are as ready as ever for performance runs in August at Vail Dance Festival in Colorado and Ballet Sun Valley in Idaho. In September, they will be back in Philadelphia for a revival of Sunset, o639 by Matthew Neenan.