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Three choreographers, two world premieres

BalletX presents 2017 Summer Series by Matthew Neenan, Jodie Gates, and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa

4 minute read
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's 'Castrati,' with, L to R, Francesca Forcella, Richard Villaverde, Gary W. Jeter II, and Zachary Kapeluck. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's 'Castrati,' with, L to R, Francesca Forcella, Richard Villaverde, Gary W. Jeter II, and Zachary Kapeluck. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)

While the Wilma Theater revamps, BalletX takes its Summer Series 2017 to the Prince Theater, going a bit feral while away from home. With two world premieres, by Matthew Neenan and Jodie Gates, and a reprise of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s 2011 Castrati, you could read this deliciously wicked program many ways. Given the current political climate, I parse it allegorically.

A boy's (gelded) life

Not hard, beginning with Castrati, Ochoa’s brilliant study of the mechanics of the boychild’s body, once gelded to prevent his voice deepening at puberty. At the height of the craze, Italy castrated as many as 4,000 boys annually in the service of art. Poor families often gave up boys as young as eight in hopes they’d grow rich if their sons became stars. Some did reach that pinnacle, but most wound up in choirs, banned from marrying.

The subjects of the dance are no less the anguish of the castrati than the effects on their bodies. Surgical procedures often have unwanted consequences. One method of anesthetizing the children was to press down on the carotid artery. Quite a few of them were brain-damaged or died from the procedure — not unlike little girls bleeding out from clitoridectomies. Those who lived suffered psychologically and physically. With no testosterone, the boys’ bone joints developed abnormally. Nonetheless, the younger the victims, the more they endured cervical vertebrae erosion, causing elongated limbs as gangly and as ungovernable as their disfigured genitalia.

Alternately in groups and splayed around the sparse stage, the dancers jerked their heads and joints like uncocked roosters, setting down talon-like feet tentatively, as if seeking firm ground. They limped along, arms slung around shoulders like soldiers carrying off their wounded. To David Van Bouwel’s original, creaky score they teetered, often falling. But then, to Nicola Antonio Porpora and George Frideric Handel, they danced like the angels their voices evoked.

Matthew Neenan's 'Let Mortal Tongues Awake,' featuring dancer Roderick Phifer. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)
Matthew Neenan's 'Let Mortal Tongues Awake,' featuring dancer Roderick Phifer. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)

Aviad Arik Herman sheathed the cast in gorgeous gold lamé with swingy lace jackets and half masks reminiscent of those found in Persian-era Kalmakareh caves. A few stiffened bodices suggested the expanded ribcages of rigorously trained castrati. Drew Billiau’s fluorescent strip lighting exposed these mutilated, unhinged creatures savagely, as if seen in a laboratory. Ochoa’s choreographic schema — an imagined gathering of the seven last castrati — captured their surgically induced, marionette-like movement with vivid poignancy.

Two world premieres

Matthew Neenan, cofounder of BalletX, took advantage of the Prince Theater stage to experiment with site-specific choreography and let fly his most literal political work to date. In Let Mortal Tongues Awake, Daniel Mayo and Caili Quan faced off, shouting oppressively from high up in balconies across the Prince stage. Senior company members Chloe Perkes (née Felesina) and Zachary Kapeluk stood in shadow beneath them. Rebeccah Kanach costumed them in zombie rags with lumpy protuberances on their bodies. Megan Dickinson, still filling in for the injured Skyler Lubin, wore a set of big buns, bumping them out with exaggeration.

Although each choreographer worked independently, the program’s flow was uncannily curated. This was another version of grosteque physiques, and during the singing of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” that sounded as it was if warbled underwater, I could have easily replaced the lyrics with W.E.B. Du Bois’s version:

My country ‘tis of thee,
Late land of slavery,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my father’s pride
Slept where my mother died,
From every mountain side
Let freedom ring.

While this work may not stand the test of time as others of Neenan’s have, it evoked a deserved standing ovation. The dancers stripped themselves of their costumes as if stripping off willful ignorance and emerging from a not-quite-over nightmare, as all wore black muzzles over their mouths. Mayo, the most James Cagney-like among them, broke from pure ballet into a Yankee Doodle tap routine. Roderick Phifer and Gray W. Jeter II danced brief solos articulating the unspeakableness of our times.

Jodie Gates’s Beautiful Once is her third world premiere with the company. She used original music by Ryan Lott, lead singer of indie-rock band Son Lux, that ranged from lyrical to jazzy to minimalist. Gates had the women dance en pointe,on every surface of the shoe—side, top, bottom—to “make friends” with it. In their cantilevered backward bends, they were saved from falling by male partners balancing them and pulling them back upright by a toe or ankle. By the end, the 10 made a chain of healing embraces. We may not have yet emerged from our collective bad dream, but this program offered us some relief and, perhaps, hope.

What, When, Where

Summer Series 2017 at the Prince. Let Mortal Tongues Awake, by Matthew Neenan; Beautiful Once, by Jodie Gates; Castrati, by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. BalletX. Through July 16, 2017, at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 422-4580 or

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