photo credit: Whitney Browne

BalletX serves up Flamenco-inspired world premiere

In her pre-performance remarks aton the opening night of BalletX’s Fall Series at the Wilma on Wednesday night, Artistic and Executive Director Christine Cox said that she and Mathew Neenan founded BalletX in 2005 because they wanted ballet to be different. Eighteen years later, the company continues to celebrate diversity in both dancers and choreographers—and goes beyond traditional male/female roles that are the historical foundation of the ballet genre.

Another innovation the company has recently been leaning into is the presentation of introductory films before each piece on its programs. The short films give a behind-the-scenes look at the works and an opportunity to hear from the choreographers and dancers. It’s an engaging method for drawing audiences deeper into the creative process.

The company’s Fall Series features the world premiere of Neenan’s Siete—his twenty-fifth ballet for the company. In addition to his plentiful work with BalletX, Neenan danced with and served as Choreographer in Residence for the Pennsylvania Ballet for many years and has created numerous works for ballet companies throughout the United States. He has a wide range of styles as a choreographer—and Siete joins the echelon of his musically responsive, pure dance pieces.

Siete is set to music by classical guitarist Michael Poll, who occupies a prominent position on stage—providing enormous vitality to the performance through his live accompaniment.

The piece opens with seven dancers, outfitted in elegant black trousers and sheer red blouses (designed by Christine Darch), arranged on stage with their backs to the audience. They draw swirling designs on the floor with their feet and seem to cradle the music in the palms of their hands. There’s no question that Siete is a communion between Poll and the dancers. Red fringe draped from the dancers’ shoulders accentuates their sensual shoulder shrugs. Michael Korsch’s dimly suffused red lighting heightens the sense of mysterious anticipation about what’s to come.

Neenan’s choreography is influenced by Flamenco, particularly in his attention to rhythm—but it’s also playfully idiosyncratic. In his inventive response to Poll’s music, Neenan contrasts large-scale movement with intimate accents and flourishes. Several sections stand out in the piece’s premiere performance: a mischievous duet for Ashley Simpson and Jared Kelly featuring sly smiles and boisterous hops; a virtuosic solo for Francesca Forcella in which she directly acknowledges guitarist Poll and dances in partnership with him; and a dramatic ensemble section where the guitar drops out and the dancers create their own percussive music with stamping feet. There are many layers to savor, and Siete promises to yield new pleasures with more opportunities to experience Neenan’s latest work of poetry in motion.

The program also features the Philadelphia premiere of Jamar Roberts’ Eros & Psyche (co-commissioned by the 2023 Vail Dance Festival). The piece is set to Philip Glass’s Etude No. 8 and Piano Quintet ‘Annunciation’ Part 1. Splendidly, the music is performed live on stage by a pianist and  string quartet composed of local musicians. All of the dancers are clad in sublime iridescent blue and purple leotards (again by Darch). As the central couple, Forcella and Jerard Palazo represent the dual nature of the head and the heart. They take turns supporting each other as they intertwine limbs and fluidly meld their mobile torsos. The complementary pair is set off by an ensemble of nine dancers who fill the stage with glorious scooping and sliding movement. Roberts expressed their dynamic succinctly in the introductory film: “Now that looks like dancing!”

Rounding out the bill is Jennifer Archibald’s Exalt (from 2022), set to the steady pulsing beats of electronic house music. The work fuses movement from club dancing with traditional ballet. Costume designer Olivia Mason outfits the men in shiny black skirts and boots and the women in black leotards. Interestingly, it is the only work on the program with dancers in pointe shoes. With its mash-up of styles—between mannered control and ecstatic abandon—Exalt grows sweatier and funkier as it proceeds. One dancer in particular, Jared Kelly, revels in the contrast between restrained and free movement and effectively steals the show.

BalletX’s Fall Series continues at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia through October 29th.

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