Become a Friend of BSR Today!

Support the conversation around Philadelphia's arts and culture community. We’re dedicated to providing you—and the entire Philly region—professional arts coverage without a paywall.

Dancing in the dying light

BalletX presents Fall Series 2017 with Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay’

4 minute read
Gary W. Jeter II follows the movements of Hellmut Fricke-Gottschild. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)
Gary W. Jeter II follows the movements of Hellmut Fricke-Gottschild. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)

BalletX flexed its artistic muscles by opening two different series this season. The company opens its own season with Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay at the newly renovated Wilma Theater. (The once-trendy exposed ductwork is gone, and the lobby is now Good Karma bar and café. Most important to theatergoers, the seats have been reupholstered!) In October, BalletX also opened the visiting dance series at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, where we saw them as others do: on the road.

It seems fitting, as the days shorten and we head into the many festivals of light, that we take a moment to ponder the passage of time, the fading of life’s energy in winter. Inspired by Mark Golebiowski’s 3D photographs of dying flowers, Fonte explores this temporal movement by building his full-length ballet around a pair of dancers in their later years.

Two older couples, passing the time

In Wednesday’s opener, Group Motion cofounders Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck performed the elder roles. Thursday, they were performed by Temple dance professor emerita Brenda Dixon-Gottschild and Zero Moving Dance Company founder Hellmut Fricke-Gottschild. The couples will alternate throughout the run.

Fonte set Beautiful Decay in two parts. The first, to Vivaldi’s Concerto Largo in G Minor and Four Seasons, opened with a series of industrial, translucent doorways (designed by MacArthur fellow Mimi Lien) to represent the mirrored halls of Versailles. Gary W. Jeter II, in a gold velvet doublet and dance shorts, with the exaggerated posture of a renaissance courtier, danced counterpoint to the older woman, who expressed herself with arm movements. She stood in one of the “rooms” defined by the doorways that crossed the stage.

A joyous explosion of youth followed in more of costume designer Martha Chamberlain’s velvet and brocade, which blended the Versailles inspiration with the colors of Golebiowski’s flowers.

Dancers leapt, flew, and slid across the stage, always in one direction because, Fonte told us, time only moves forward. Sometimes the doorways were just passages across the space. At other times, they seemed more like shadowboxes framing duets and trios as if they were flowers on display.

The senior couples, in costumes that echoed the second act’s more modern past, flowed across the stage like time itself passing in front of the frenetic youth. Occasionally, they joined the dance, sometimes leading it, sometimes being drawn in by it. The company followed them with closely related movements that contrasted lithe strength with grace and wisdom.

Rememberance of things past

It was interesting to compare the two senior dance casts. On opening night, Herrmann was a commanding presence. Even with her more constrained movements, I could not look away. Fischbeck seemed to command the younger dancers who followed him, making his memories dance for him.

In lift: Skyler Lubin; standing, L to R: Daniel Mayo, Gary W. Jeter II, Roderick Phifer. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)
In lift: Skyler Lubin; standing, L to R: Daniel Mayo, Gary W. Jeter II, Roderick Phifer. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)

By contrast, Dixon-Gottschild and Fricke-Gottschild presented a dreamier perspective. Dixon-Gottschild seemed to gather us in, as if we were all part of her memories. Fricke-Gottschild seemed almost haunted by the memories crowding around him. My favorite dance, though, highlighted the five women of the company, who attacked the Vivaldi with sass and glee.

After intermission, we returned to find the doorways gone, leaving just one confined space left, and modern music: Max Richter’s “Vivaldi Recomposed: Spring 1 Remix” and Ólafur Arnalds’s “For Now I Am Winter.”

When the curtain opened, the men wore black suits and white t-shirts. The women wore soft flowered dresses in faded colors. As the dance progressed, the men lost their jackets and the women returned in white t-shirts, black shorts, socks, and later, pointe shoes.

The senior cast had a smaller part in this act, which seemed to move back and forth in time, between suits and tees, socks and toe shoes. The pace was less frenetic, so it was easier to focus on specific dances, including one that climaxed with Skyler Lubin held aloft by Gary W. Jeter II, Roderick Phifer, and Daniel Mayo.

But one section could have been pulled from the headlines: in it, the men of the company, wearing suits, harrassed Caili Quan as she struggled to flee them. It was an uncomfortable moment.

It seemed as if we were looking at two different ballets reflecting on time. They worked well together, however, and added up to a profoundly moving meditation on life and loss.

What, When, Where

Beautiful Decay. By Nicolo Fonte. BalletX. from November 29 to December 10, 2017, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. 215.546.7824 or

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation