The curtain rises, but only partway. A pair of feet enters from the right. Other feet arrive, 10 pairs, eventually, men’s legs marked by black garters just below the knee. Toes scratch legs, their disembodied character giving them independent life. A smile grows in me, on me, as I realize what fun I am having.
Twenty feet tiptoe and jump, cavorting, teasing, trading places. As the curtain falls, I think “dayenu” – a Hebrew word from the Passover seder that means, “It would have been enough.” The spirit, the ingenuity, the verve would have satisfied. Happily, though, the program was longer.
BalletX continues to amuse its growing and faithful audiences and subscribers. “We want to make dance accessible to people,” says Christine Cox, the company’s executive director, co-founder, and co-artistic director. “We want to make a conversation in the community that ballet can be many things. We want to be a platform for ballet to grow.”
Fun with feathers
The performance begins with the company premiere of “Slump,” by choreographer Joshua Peugh, a wide-ranging piece that opens with a male dancer spitting out a mouthful of white feathers. The audience laughs. Movements are simultaneously strenuous and fluid, harsh and delicate, serious and amusing. Floppy. Flumpy. Slumpy.
“Josh had us laughing from the beginning,” says Cox. Peugh, who grew up with a musical father and grandfather in Texas, danced for several years in a Korean ballet company. He loves BalletX. “The dancers have different shapes and different styles,” he says, “and they are all very open to receiving direction.” With “Slump,” he wants to “open the minds and hearts of the audience. We’re creating for the audience, after all, not for ourselves.”
From the audience’s reaction, it seems he has succeeded.
Since “Slump” uses eight of the company’s ten dancers, BalletX requested a pas de deux for the remaining two. “Valentine’s Day,” the gentle, loving embodiment of romantic amour, is the sole piece in the program in which the ballerina dances en pointe.
The third piece was “Delicate Balance,” by California-based Jodie Gates, a dance that focuses on balance and lack of balance. Nothing ever centers on the stage, and dancers, whether partnered or solo, seem nearly off-kilter until their sinewy muscles or protective partners save them. It’s technically challenging for the performers and is part of BalletX’s repertoire.
Last on the program was the world premiere of James Gregg’s “Head in the Clouds,” which he calls “an exploration of our journey as we go in and out of love.” Its seven sections, beginning with the low curtain, feature music as diverse as Vivaldi and Nat King Cole. I love the moment when a male dancer tickles a woman’s foot. It’s a common human behavior, enlarged for the stage.
Gregg, an Oklahoma native now choreographing in Montreal, calls his work “raw emotion combined with classical ballet technique.” He created this dance “on the company.” In dance lingo, that means that he came to Philadelphia, met the troupe, and choreographed a dance based on their bodies, styles, and incredible energies.
Diversity in dance
Cox, an enthusiastic advocate for her nine-year-old company, says, “We give choreographers free rein. We want diversity in dance, and we want to see what dancers can do.” That diversity comes from and leads to “what we feel as human beings. If the dance is inspiring to the choreographer, then it inspires audiences, too.
“Audiences don’t know where they’ll go next with us,” she adds. “They trust us to take them somewhere. We do pieces that will move people to tears, or to have something to talk about, or it’s theatrical, or it’s like they’re going to a party. We are flexible. We focus on choreography and on contemporary ballet.
“We want to expand the vocabulary of classical dance for all audiences. I want to make sure that ballet stays in BalletX.”
Choreographer Peugh agrees: “I hope audiences can connect. Art is pretty useless if people immediately forget about what they have seen. Ultimately I hope my dance connects people on a human level.”
Ten pairs of knees and feet below the burgundy curtain. It would have been enough. Fortunately, there was more.