The Right Moves: BalletX’s Summer Series at the Wilma Theater

BalletXPerhaps it was a natural cultural chauvinism that kept me away from ballet for so long, even as my sister danced her way through elementary school and my mother eagerly anticipated the next season of the Royal Ballet, and later the Pennsylvania Ballet Company. But just as avant garde operas at the Curtis Institute of Music have led me to reevaluate that art form, contemporary choreography by such Philadelphia companies as Koresh Dance Studio and BalletX have brought out the inner dance fan in me. BalletX’s Summer Series, staged July 23-26 at the Wilma Theater, is a fine exemplar of the possibility and beauty of modern ballet.

Part of my problem with traditional ballet has always been its inadequacy as a medium for storytelling. The beauty of individual moves and extended routines can be distractingly lost in the struggle to conform to a story. The inherently fragmentary and incomplete narrative of dance is the subject of the first piece in the BalletX’s performance. In Scenes View 2 by choreographer Jorma Elo, the dancers begin by stretching out each step, whispering disjointed stage settings (“Scene 1, a military post near a cigarette factory”) as they mark their moves as if learning the piece. Eventually the choreography breaks into a break-beat-informed movement dichotomously set to Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for Solo Violin. Compared with the later pieces in the performance the dancing in Elo’s piece, which premiered at the 2006 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, is somewhat heavy on the ground even for modern ballet, but it successfully communicates touching narrative hints without trying to tell a story.

BalletThe highlight of the evening is the second piece, Broke Apart, which also premiered at the 2006 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. In the choreography by BalletX’s co-artistic director Matthew Neenan, four simple props (sections of a ballet handrail) become a tight enclosure from which to escape, doorways through which to gracefully pass, symbolic barriers to overcome, or handy objects on which to unleash animal aggression. The dancing is athletic and light, perfectly set to five evocative mid-tempo songs by modern female artists (indie hipster harpist Joanna Newsom and dynastic chanteuse Martha Wainwright, among others). The performers, most of whom are on loan from the Philadelphia Ballet, are uniformly excellent (how they move like that in tight jeans is a complete mystery to me!), but the playful gymnastics of Jermel Johnson and the courageous grace of Amy Aldridge are particularly worthy of praise.

The featured piece of the series, the world premiere of Le Baiser Inevitable (“The Inevitable Kiss”), does not disappoint. This compelling piece, choreographed by former Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Jodie Gates and masterfully lit by lighting artist Drew Billau, builds superbly from a solo dance by Laura Feig into an energetic ensemble routine.

The bulk of the piece is set to Maruice Ravel’s Boléro (you know it: it’s one of those classical compositions that everyone has heard), a piece full of rising drama and tension that Gates almost meets. Too often, paired ballet dancers can seem to be dancing with each other, instead of dancing together (contrast with salsa, Spanish bolero, or other Latin dances). In Le Baiser Inevitable, the dancers engage in closely communicated interactions, with a physicality at times pushing the boundaries of control. Dancer Matthew Prescott stands out here, his long limbs communicating a physical intensity that left him noticeably drained by performance’s end.

Although the repetitive drive of Boléro perhaps calls for more motifs and for more emotional drama, Gates and the other choreographers of the night have succeeded in creating pieces that are accessible and entertaining yet still challenging. I thank BalletX for continuing to enlighten this Philistine of dance in the beauty and potential of the form. Forget your images of a child’s recital or a slog through your mother’s Nutcracker. This is ballet for our times.

What you need to know:
BalletX Summer 09
July 23-26, 2009
Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.
Tickets $20-$30, Call 215-546-7824
www.balletx.org

Published by Philly2Philly.

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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.