On Saturday we went to see BalletX at the Ohio Theatre. They describe themselves as “Philadelphia’s premiere contemporary ballet” but, having seen them in concert, we find that description altogether too tame. Think rather that the “X” in BalletX stands for “extreme” as in extreme sports or “experimental” as it did in the X-15 and other experimental rocket planes of the last century, planes that captured the imagination as they set records for speed and altitude– if they didn’t crash and burn.
The first piece on the program, Steep Drop, Euphoric, begins at a pitch near madness and – improbably – manages not to crash and burn but instead maintains and builds upon that ambitious beginning throughout its 25-minute duration.
Objectively speaking, there’s not much happening in the first few minutes of Steep Drop, Euphoric. Just a solo dancer and some violin chords. Where did all that intense feeling come from? Credit the music, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaxkiZDM7cE) the violin cadenza from Ezio Bosso’s Symphony No. 1 Oceans. And credit the dancer, Chloe Perkes, and the choreographer, Nicolo Fonte.
As the piece progresses, duets and the ensemble maintain the excitement with fast and fluid partnering until half way through the dance a decrescendo signals a pause. Again, we see Perkes dancing solo but this time in an intense white light that also illuminates a scenic element, a roll of dance linoleum that has been partially unrolled and suspended from the flies to form a literal steep drop.
Again dancing to violin chords, Perkes rolls on the floor and unrolls the dance linoleum the rest of the way. Two men and two women enter and pace along the dance linoleum in a neat formation. Two more men enter and, as they dance, lift the end of the linoleum off the stage floor for a moment. Perkes rolls herself up in the linoleum and then the ensemble gathers into a tight formation and briefly poses as if for a group photo or modeling for a sculptural frieze to decorate a mausoleum fittingly positioned at the foot of the perilous drop.
We thought that was the end but two of the women, one in pink and one in green, usher in more dancing by the ensemble. There follows a succession of short duets, the last one watched by all the other dancers who sit downstage right in a trope used frequently in Paul Taylor’s dances.
Finale. Applause as the ten dancers bow. Asked about Steep Drop, Euphoric during the post-concert Q&A, Perkes said that choreographer Fonte has worked with BalletX several times and “knows us really well.” She explained that in Steep Drop, Euphoric, Fonte is “trying to express what it is to be human.”
As we stood up to stretch during the first intermission, we turned to chat with two women sitting behind us. They had been whispering excitedly to each other throughout Steep Drop, Euphoric. “There he is!” “That’s him!” It emerged that they were two of dancer Zachary Kapeluck’s many fans from Pittsburgh in the theater that night. “Today’s his birthday,” they added.
The next dance, Express, was choreographed on BalletX by Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, a street dancer who specializes in a style called jookin. He’s become widely known for his collaborations with ballet companies, most notably at the Vail Dance Festival where this dance premiered last year.
The 15-minute Express is set to 3 songs by Jon Batiste and Stay Human; the middle song, St James Infirmary, is easiest to talk about because it’s so well known. It’s also the most ambitious choreography in Express in that it addresses the dramatic narrative and strong feelings presented by the song.
Early in St James Infirmary, the 5 women briefly lie supine and the 5 men dance among them.
I went down
To Saint James Infirmary
And I saw my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table yeah
As the song ends, the men lift the women overhead and carry them off stage, giving the dance a joyful ending that’s not present in the lyrics.
Conventional ballet steps in Express are strung together with some very unconventional tremors, falls, and eccentric walks. We wondered what Lil Buck himself would have looked like doing the steps he originated, but we had to acknowledge that the BalletX dancers made Express look good, even though all the women were in pointe shoes.
Asked about Express during the Q&A, the BalletX dancers talked about their personal connection with hip-hop, but we would also remind our readers that BalletX is based in Philadelphia, a city with a rich history in hip-hop and many African-American dancers, dance teachers, and choreographers. Rennie Harris Puremovement, for instance, is based in Philadelphia.
The last piece in the program, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOY_–Oj9Qg) The Last Glass, achieves an urgency and energy comparable to Steep Drop Euphoric but, as the title suggests, it’s more about the summer’s last, best party coming to an end. One last glass. One for the road. Or, as one of Beirut’s songs has it, “Un dernier verre pour la route.”
Last Glass repeatedly contrasts the lively ensemble, often in a line upstage, versus a melancholy individual, often Ms. Perkes, dancing downstage. This contrast comes across particularly strongly in the beginning of Last Glass when the (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKP0oe1jrgE) raucous brass and percussion of Beirut’s La Banlieue is playing.
In Last Glass, Perkes, wearing bloomers, is easily distinguished from the other women, who wear dresses. She deservedly gets the lioness’s share of featured dancing – just look at her beautiful thoracic extension and fluid arabesque and attitude lines in these (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOY_–Oj9Qg) video excerpts! But the other 4 women of BalletX are dancing very well, too, whether they’re in unison with the ensemble or in one of the many, varied heterosexual duets in Last Glass. Catch the rough and tumble Apache dance excerpted from 2:19 to 2:32 in the video.
The movement in Last Glass looked balletic and to us that’s a good thing. Whereas watching the slashing, whipping choreography in Steep Drop, Euphoric we wondered, at first, if the BalletX dancers actually had any ballet chops. But, as Steep Drop, Euphoric continued two of the women — Skyler Lubin and Andrea Yorita – showed their excellent pointe work and 3 of the men in the company nailed unison pirouettes and arabesque turns. Yes, the BalletX dancers definitely have ballet chops but there’s some reticence about showing them. During the Q&A Christine Cox, BalletX’s Artistic & Executive Director and Co-Founder, expressed reservations about ballet’s emphasis on the static and vertical. What’s this about?
Consider with us the geography and history of BalletX. They perform literally across the street from Pennsylvania Ballet, a large and venerable regional ballet company where Cox herself danced for 13 years. Matthew Neenan, choreographer of Last Glass and Co-Founder of BalletX, also danced with Pennsylvania Ballet and served as their Choreographer in Residence. So it’s no wonder BalletX feels a need to differentiate itself.
As we walked out through the Ohio Theatre lobby, a group of Kapeluck’s fans were singing “happy birthday dear Zachary.” The BalletX dancers were hanging out with audience members. Their next performance was not until 3 nights later at Vail where incidentally the tickets cost twice what they did at Playhouse Square. We thank our lucky stars for DanceCleveland, their American Dance Festival collaborators, and the generous support of the Cleveland Foundation, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Ohio Arts Council, and many others.
We watched BalletX at Ohio Theatre on Saturday 7/27/2019.
Unless otherwise credited, all photos courtesy BalletX.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas