BalletX’s Winter Series 2017 featuring Jo Strømgren, R. Colby Damon, Matthew Neenan

Traveling trio

When you attend a BalletX performance, you expect dance that explores the uncommon. The company blends unexpected musical choices with innovative movement that never gets in the way of the connection between dancers and dance. This February, BalletX did it again, with two new ballets and an East Coast premiere. 

Richard Villaverde and Chloe Felesina in Matthew Neenan's 'Credo.' (Photo by Bill Hebert)

Joyful chaos

The evening opened with BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan’s Credo, which takes its name from Kevin Puts’s string quartet by the same name. BalletX premiered it at last year’s Vail Dance Festival; this was the East Coast’s first look. The piece opened with a fairly buttoned-up Haydn string quartet (op. 76, no. 1) played onstage by Curtis and Yale grads. The dancing was coherent, and the costumes (by Reid and Harriet Design) were jumpsuits shimmering with color, covered on one side of the body by half a filmy tunic for lightness and movement.

Neenan said Credo was inspired by a trip to India—the crowds, the noise, the chaos, but also the symmetry of its architecture and the architectural curves of its written language. Gradually, he said in a preshow Q-and-A session, he found a colorful, exuberant order in his surroundings. That experience breathed vivid life into the choreography of the second part of the dance—made up of brief, interlocking pas des deux. The most striking was by company member Gary W. Jeter II and guest dancer Roderick Phifer, though all were remarkable. 

Each pas de deux took place in front of and through the company, which together formed sculptural architecture of gods in bas-relief, or -- with linked arms and angled bodies -- the illusion of elegant script. The dancing was intense and connected, solemn and joyful at the same time. The first part of the ballet was perfectly adequate, but suffered a little in comparison to Neenan’s own brilliant work in the second.

Bright New Light

R. Colby Damon’s dancing has been one of the great joys of watching BalletX over the years, so I was disappointed not to see him on stage, but excited to learn of his new role as choreographer.  To judge from his new work, On the Mysterious Properties of Light, Mr. Damon has a very bright future ahead. This was easily my favorite piece in a night of excellent dancing.

Damon said, also in the Q-and-A session, that the piece was inspired by the science of light. The ballet combines Mark Stanley’s lighting design with an eclectic mix of music, ranging from the droning minimalism of Harold Budd’s “Oak of the Golden Dreams” to the Kronos Quartet’s collaborations on Chinese and Afghan music to Tuvan throat singing. The lighting is used to good effect, in particular during the opening, with dancers appearing out of the mist along a horizontal cone of light that brightens and darkens with the rise and fall of the dancers’ arms. Chloe Felesina performs a serpent-like dance in a circle of light evocative of a snake charmer’s basket, set to the music of Homayun Sakhi’s “Rangin Kaman.”

But the highlight of the piece was a lecture on quantum entanglement, danced and recited, like poetry, by Zachary Kapeluck with no musical accompaniment. Kapeluck danced with and around the company, shedding light on human entanglement.

Death Metal Blues

BalletX ended with Jo Strømgren’s The Letter. The letter in question, written by Strømgren, was read by John Zak, a fictional young choreographer writing home about leaving the farm for the big city. Alas! He took with him the wrong music—his grandfather’s blues albums (American bluesman Josh White and contemporary Australian C.W. Stoneking). On the road, we learn, he gave a death-metal band a ride and they left behind their torn black jeans and jackets and their long black wigs. 

Our intrepid choreographer used the materials at hand and set his contemporary dance to old-style blues, dressed in Martha Chamberlain’s wonderfully grungy death-metal costumes.  As the dance progressed, the dancers shed first their wigs, then their pants, until they were dancing in costumes that approximated underwear. The dancers were game and there were no weak links, but The Letter struggled a bit at first with too many ideas vying for our attention, growing stronger until the last act, when the dancers seemed to fly free. 

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