FALL SERIES (BalletX): Stellar ballet

Photo by Vikki Sloviter Photography

It might be billed as BalletX’s “Fall Series,” but the two-piece program onstage at the Wilma Theater through December 15 is delightfully and unexpectedly a holiday show.

Artistic director Christine Cox asked the choreographers—company cofounder and resident choreographer at Pennsylvania Ballet Matthew Neenan and cross-genre Norwegian creator Jo Strømgren—to “play around with the holidays.” The result is far from the traditions of The Nutcracker or the saccharine feel-good one expects from festive fare. Instead, we get space travel and seasonal depression, beautifully and expressively danced by an impressive corps de ballet.

Photo by Bill Hebert

Neenan’s Twelve Bells explores the less talked-about aspects of holiday times in a series of short pieces set to lovely live music by Rosie Langabeer (piano, vocals) and Tara Middleton (xylophone, vocals) accompanied by bassist Josh Machiz. Langabeer sings about the struggle to “get through December” and attending “a very special day… for somebody… else.” Dancers parade across the floor, all false smiles and empty shopping bags. We’re seeing how the joy of others and expectation of togetherness can feel so alienating to the lonely at this time of year.

The work culminates in a holiday party, if your holiday party was populated by beautiful, unreasonably athletic folk who moved like they were given the gift of dance by Santa himself. Bells become drinking cups (Richard Villaverde even incorporates elements of drunkenness into his movements) and then become bells again, the ringing highlighting the steps of Neenan’s choreography. Twelve Bells is an excellent, communicative work by a fine choreographer.

Better known to me as a playwright, Strømgren sprinkles his world premiere piece, The Moon, with snippets of dialog from two astronauts. The theatrical elements are thin—trying to get back home for the holidays despite depleted oxygen and uncertain relationships on earth—but the conceit complements and contrasts the choreography.

At times, the dancers enact the feelings of the travelers drifting in space, their movements communicating more that the dancer-actors can with words. At times, the projected images of stars and travel across space contrast with the grounded movements of the dancers.

BalletX’s Fall Series is a soothing spirit for the wintertime blues, both because it lifts us through the beauty of its choreography and dance and because it understands that sometimes people need lifting at this time of year.

[BalletX at the Wilma Theater] December 4-15, 2019; balletx.org

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.