On June 14, BalletX premiered the Virtual Works & Process Series, four short dance films commissioned last December thanks to Works & Process at the Guggenheim. These were originally scheduled to debut at the Guggenheim in New York City, but like most artists these days, the dancers had to find a new setting. So they filmed the pieces outdoors or in the confined spaces of their sometimes tiny studio apartments. These were shot, edited, and completed for a Zoom session within the last month.
Four choreographers made films less than five minutes long. Watching them, I realized I would have to write about them not just in a dance context, but filmically, and, within our current plight as a society under grave duress, write with more urgency than usual on the sociological and political overtones.
Before Rizzo’s goodbye
The Under Way, Rena Butler’s film, had BalletXers Stanley Glover Jr. and Roderick Phifer dancing defiantly before the Frank Rizzo statue before it was removed earlier this month.
They dance to a Darryl Hoffman score that begins with halting breaths, using many gestures of submission we are now too familiar with: hands up, elbow bumps, forearms in defensive mode across their faces. They pull their t-shirts up over their heads as if suffocating themselves, struggling to escape from them. At home, they smack their hands over their temples in disbelief or despair, run as if their lives depended on it.
Former PA Ballet and BalletX star Tara Keating did the videography and Butler edited the segment. It must have left some good vibrations for the protestors that were to come, and for the abrupt removal of the statue, which did so much damage to the psyches of Philadelphians of color and to all who were horrified by what it stood for: racism, brutality, fear, domination, and the demolition of democratic values.
Barre in the kitchen
Caili Quan, retiring from her years as a major BalletX ensemble member to pursue a choreographic career, gave a farewell gift to the company with 100 Days, a bittersweet piece for BalletX veteran Chloe Perkes. It explores the domestic quotidian boredom imposed on us by the quarantine. With her husband, nondancer Ammon Perkes, looking on, Perkes dances in their living room/studio. She does barre work on her kitchen island while making tea and sanitizing the counter. It’s a playful dance affirming their togetherness, despite the annoying interruptions on each other, done with a slightly comedic what-can-you-do resignation.
A noirish duet between Andrea Yorita and husband Zachary Kapeluck, Penny Saunders’s Brown Eyes is the most stylized of the four pieces. Pablo Piantino edits Keating’s footage with triple images in shadow and mirror reflections as well as image overlays. Yorita and Kapeluck, long the spine of BalletX, dance their isolation to a score by Michael Wall that begins breathily before it becomes an insistent percussive beat.
Kapeluck stalks Yorita’s immobile body like a tiger studying its prey, then pushes the air between them to shove Yorita away. They lunge, connect, disconnect, wallow in and struggle against their solitude. Finally they reconnect, mirroring each other’s moves or turning in opposite directions. As they slow dance, Kapeluck looks emotionlessly at the camera and lets Yorita slip from his arms to the floor. At another time, this would have been about relationships, but it takes on a sense of frustration in the present moment.
In stark contrast to these three duets, ...it’s okay too. Feel by Hope Boykin deals with the loneliness of two uncoupled dancers, Savannah Green and Ashley Simpson, new to BalletX this season. Even though they appear as if together in split screen, they have not been hugged, not been lifted, not caught in the arms of a strong partner after a death-defying leap. The narration, written by Boyken, says this is not to make us feel sorry for her. “It’s to let you know how you feel isn’t different from the way your neighbors down the hall feel … It’s really okay not to like the here and now.” Yes, unfortunately so.