As a company built on new works, BalletX has always seen its mission as collaboration: choreographers partner with the dancers and designers, and even the composers who sometimes share the stage. With theaters closed, the company has expanded that collaborating community to include cinematographers for its ongoing BalletX Beyond series. Its latest premiere offers three short works as different in their film style as they are different choreographically.
The films are short, so the premiere Zoom event presented a chat with each choreographer, followed by their film. Audiences can access the films directly on the BalletX Beyond website, but it is worthwhile to watch the recorded event for the discussion and for a surprise dance treat or two that pops up from the studio.
Lost love in black and white
According to choreographer Mariana Oliveira, Saudade is Brazilian Portuguese for nostalgia, a concept engrained in the immigrant experience. Oliveira knew she wanted the bossa nova music of Antônio Carlos Jobim to reflect her cultural roots, but for the visual language of nostalgia she looked to black-and-white films to tell the story of a man looking back on his lost love.
Oliveira set the duet at Stoneleigh Natural Gardens, the former mansion home of the Haas family, who remain active in the local arts scene. The dance opens on a shadowed Zachary Kapeluck as he wanders up the broad staircase, runs a hand along the carved wood mantel in the library, and opens a book. A woman’s hand touches his shoulder, then Andrea Yorita appears in a red coat, striking against the bleak monochrome.
Filmmaker Eliot deBruyn pushed the contrast, so the grounds and the house take on an otherworldly air. A series of lifts in the garden gave the sense of trying to hold on as Yorita strove to break free, but with the cooled emotions of distance. Like time, the blown-out contrast obliterates the details. The moody style reminded me of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast. As in that film, the duet is actually a trio, with the house itself as the third partner, telling the story of memory and loss. The film offers a satisfyingly complete vignette with a run time under seven minutes.
Bring the sunshine
Robert Fairchild’s The Cycle, filmed at Longwood Gardens, gives us an awakening. It begins with intimate views of the garden—a flower, sunlight through trees—to the wistful sounds of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight. In a conservatory, Roderick Phifer and Stanley Glover, wearing brown tuxedo pants and formal tailcoats, lie on a floor in about an inch of water and surrounded by lush plants. They reach for each other, a movement that almost recalls God creating Adam on the Sistine Chapel.
The piece moves back and forth, from the men in the conservatory, who rise, swaying like reeds, to the grounds where dancers emerge from the grass or from amongst the trees. The women, in formal dresses from Marchesa, raise their arms like flowers drawn to the sun of a new day. Cinematographer Giacomo Bellini gives the scene texture with light passing among the leaves. We get only glimpses of the dancers’ bodies, obscured by the exuberant growth of Longwood Gardens, but our hearts lift on those outstretched arms, until they are drawn close in painful decay and fall again. It’s a piece about the cycle of life, delicate and serene: something to revisit when you need a lift of the spirits. At a runtime of only five minutes, however, it felt more like the beginning of a longer work. I’d love to see where it could go.
Dancing with murals
Amy Hall Garner’s New Heights clocks in at around six minutes, but she managed to pack in double the dancing of the more measured companion pieces on the program. Fusing modern ballet and street dance, the piece explodes onto the parking lots of Philadelphia. My favorite section was a group number in front of Isaac Lin’s mural, Start from Here, a shower of colorful strokes, calligraphy waiting to happen.
Garner said that she saw the city’s murals as another dancer, and filmmakers deBruyn and Nathaniel Brown ably caught that synergy, reflecting the energy of the art back to the dancers. During the discussion, Garner and artistic director Christine Cox let the audience in on a secret: dancer Chloe Perkes was pregnant during filming. It was important to Garner that Perkes have this dance to share with her child later.
Image description: Two Black male dancers, Stanley Glover and Roderick Phifer, strike similar poses inside a giant botanical conservatory, standing with their backs arched and their hands rising over their heads. They stand in very shallow water and wear black pants and black formal tailcoats over bare torsos.
Image description: Two dancers, Chloe Perkes (a white woman) and Shawn Cusseaux (a Black man) stand in profile, reaching toward each other and bending at the hips. They are in front of a mural that evokes black calligraphy strokes on pastel shades of blue, pink, and yellow.
What, When, Where
BalletX Beyond presents Mariana Oliveira’s Saudade, Robbie Fairchild’s The Cycle, and Amy Hall Garner’s New Heights. Available to stream through August 2021 with a BalletX subscription. Subscription options available here.