I can still remember the first time I saw BalletX. It was almost 5 years ago, and I had just moved to Philadelphia. As a relatively inexperienced dance critic at the time, I was shocked—even disappointed—to find (as I wrote in one of those early reviews) that “pointe shoes were conspicuously absent.”
Five years on for me and ten years on for Philadelphia’s home grown contemporary ballet company, which marked its ascent into double digits with a retrospective and a world premiere by Kevin O’Day, I’ve gotten over my disappointment. Like so many others who packed the house at the Wilma this past weekend, I’ve come to look forward to discovering whatever Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan have dreamed up next.
Ten years crammed into ten heavily truncated ballets made for a whirlwind tour that left me feeling overloaded before the first act had even reached it conclusion. And that was before the speeches. But there were some true gems in there: Neenan’s life affirming The Last Glass (2010) in which dancers Chloe Felesina and Gary W. Jeter II never fail to impress. I was sad to see only a few minutes of the piece, but happy the program allowed for my favorite section. Neenan takes his motley crew of characters across the stage in a long line of pairs, each couple building on the work of the previous. It makes me want to both laugh and cry every time I see it, and this past Thursday was no exception.
Also worth mention was Gran Partita by Jorma Elo, which premiered in 2014. Although not my favorite, the work strikes me as one of the most classical in the company’s repertoire and you have to appreciate the versatility a dancer needs to pull off a seemingly endless cascade of buoyant leaps and lifts in one piece (Elo’s), after they’ve been toe tapping and hinting with deadpan hysterics at the less glamorous side of human sexuality.
I missed Colby Damon’s presence in the hauntingly bizarre Castrati, created by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in 2011, but was delighted to catch her 2008 premiere, Still@Life. In a clever play on words, the dancers tossed a green apple back and forth, often dancing with it clenched between their teeth. Andrea Yorita’s sprightliness was matched by Richard Villaverde’s strong extensions and footwork and I was able to gain a better appreciation of Ochoa’s deft treatment of baroque themes, refined at times and piquant at others. Indeed, it is a testament to the company that they so often present the work of female choreographers, especially when this unfortunate and self-perpetuating gender imbalance continues to stymie so much of the ballet world.
The second act began with an improvised solo performed by Chloe Felesina. Curtis Institute of Music alumna Wendy Sutter played an original composition by John King for O’Day’s world premiere and over the course of the work, the dancers stripped down from full-length, shimmery metallic skirts to white leotards.
After feasting on such an impressive smorgasbord of BalletX’s first ten years, I found the work to be draining at times, with clichéd motifs of hands held over mouths and little change in dynamic. But the company gave it their all, earning a standing ovation for their shear dedication and athleticism if nothing more. (And who knows; in a different context, the work might have read completely differently. I’d certainly be willing to give it another shot.)
It goes without saying that Cox and Neenan have much to celebrate and given the track record of ingenuity and envelope pushing that BalletX has established, I for one am looking forward to seeing what the next ten years will bring.
[Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street] April 20-24,.2016; balletx.org.