BalletX has built a reputation for new works, so we knew that the 15th season would pull out all the stops. Then the pandemic put everything on hold. Undaunted, artistic and executive director Christine Cox moved the company online. But she had to find a way to create new works while maintaining social distancing. Only dancers who lived together could dance together, and dance over Zoom has its limits. The four works premiered this week, the first installment of BalletX Beyond, a new subscription plan that will premiere new works through next August, address the challenge head-on.
The digital frontier
Choreographer Penny Saunders’s Ricochet puts the frontier back in digital frontier. It opens with a cinematic panorama of the countryside framed like an old TV set. A radio broadcasts country music and snippets of old westerns, setting us firmly in the ’50s of the boy wearing a cowboy hat (Cox’s son, Warren Miller), playing with little plastic cowboys.
A column of male dancers—the boy’s imaginary cowboys—enters a grassy meadow, their legs splayed as if they are riding horses. Camera angles mask the distance between them, and costume designer Martha Chamberlain gives us plenty of cowboy hats, flannel shirts, and tooled boots. Cinematographer and director of photography Quinn Wharton captures the feel of the prairie with scenes shot in natural spaces around the city. A dance in front of Saint Malachi’s Church, to “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” would look at home in the musical Oklahoma!
But in a Zoom preview, Saunders said she wanted to open up the myth of the West. She set the women in a corral with the call of an auction in the background, hearkening back to mail-order brides. A duet with Stanley Glover and Roderick Phifer is wrenchingly beautiful as it depicts the struggle with slavery, or the chain gang. It’s a standout, guaranteed to make you cry.
How will we reply?
Choreographer Rena Butler’s jumping-off point for The Under Way (a working title) was the Underground Railroad. The piece begins with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (read by Bob Neufeld for Librivox). Imagine people living underground, he says, chained so that they can only see each other as the shadows on the wall. On screen, the dancers cling to the walls in tortured postures.
Plato asks: when the people underground are shown reality and told that everything they have known is an illusion, how will they reply? With dancers filmed at home, a sense of claustrophobia permeates the piece. Even dancers filmed outdoors covered their faces with their shirts, seeming to scream for escape.
When shown the truth that makes our own reality an illusion, Butler asks, “How will we reply?” She answers with Blake Krapels in a cozy living room. He recites a litany of things he can do as a white man—ask a law-enforcement officer a question, sleep, breathe—that have led to Black people’s deaths at the hands of police. Krapels steps into the sunlight, but we are left with the memory of the dancers in Plato’s caves.
BalletX fans know Caili Quan as a dancer, but in Love letter, she shows us her choreographic chops. Set to the music of the islands, from Harry Belafonte to her aunt Flora Baza Quan, Love letter explores mahålang, a word the Indigenous people of the Mariana Islands use to express the complicated emotions of missing something—for Quan, her home in Guam. The piece is a breath of fresh air throughout, but Francesca Forcella’s solo on the beach at Sea Isle City is a standout. Shifting from ethereal to sensual, she floats in costume designer Christine Darch’s gossamer blue skirt and snug white top. Some of the dances set a low wall between the dancers and the audience, a symbol of the separation from home, perhaps, but I found myself craning my neck in vain to see more of the dancers’ feet.
The delights of digital
My own love letter goes to choreographer Loughlan Prior. His Scribbles is just seven minutes long, but it delightfully exploits the qualities of digital art in black and white. A single dancer (Glover) in a darkened space scribbles white lines with an imaginary piece of chalk. He dances, spinning out the lines that become the outline of Andrea Yorita, another dancer. Zachary Kapeluck becomes the sketch of a dancer again. The lines dance, the dancers make lines in the air. Gareth Wiecko’s original music propels us into Glynn Urquhart’s animated scribbles, applied to each fame by hand. For a few short minutes we are transported outside of the world.
Pared down to these most basic elements, Glover shines. He seems to flow into the most elegantly stretched extensions, every gesture and movement purposeful and instilled with contained emotion. He is one of the most brilliant dancers on the scene right now and I cherish every one of his performances.
Image description: In a black-and-white photo, two male dancers are on a pier with a giant ship behind them. They stand in a similar pose on one leg with their arms outstretched.
Image description: In a black-and-white photo, a man in a white long-sleeve shirt seems to draw a looping white chalk line in the air.
What, When, Where
BalletX presents dance world premieres on video with the BalletX Beyond series from September 23, 2020, through August 2021. The first installment features Penny Saunders’s Ricochet; Rena Butler’s The Under Way; Caili Quan’s Love letter, and Loughlan Prior’s Scribbles. Subscription options available here.