Sizzling summer dance trio

BalletX ‘Summer Series’ 2018: Penny Saunders, Matthew Neenan, Andrew McNicol (second review)

4 minute read
McNicol's "Requiem" matched the grandeur of Mozart's music. (Photo by Candice DeTore.)
McNicol's "Requiem" matched the grandeur of Mozart's music. (Photo by Candice DeTore.)

In a question-and-answer session before BalletX’s Summer Series, Andrew McNicol, the company’s 2018 choreographic fellow, said that he knew using Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor would be a big risk. Having the support of company co-founder and choreographer Matthew Neenan gave him the confidence to take that risk.

Requiem in D Minor is a glorious piece of music, but I wondered if its sweeping power might overwhelm the small company. I did not have to worry.

McNicol’s “Requiem” opened on a pile of dancers: women in costume designer Marc Eric’s short, flowing grey dresses and men in stretchy grey pants and tees with varied necklines. One dancer rose and was drawn back, then another. Michael Korsch’s lighting unobtrusively guided the eye as the lead couple, Francesca Forcella and new company member Stanley Glover, emerged in white to become the emotional thread of grief and loss woven throughout.

The dancers filled the stage, living the music so completely that the movement seemed like music itself, intimate and grand by turns. In a duet, Glover and Zachary Kapeluck fought and came together again in an expression of overwhelming sadness. The piece ended with Glover rising above the other dancers in a ray of light: acceptance, peace, reverence.

The BalletX Choreographic Fellowship seems to be making a tradition of young choreographers creating fine pieces about death. The young have an advantage in this, because they have not yet learned to close off the frightening emotions from others, and the mentorship provides a safe space to explore them. But next year, can we have something happy?

All Our Pasts Are Up to Fate

Rosie Langabeer made a welcome return to BalletX, creating new music with choreographer Penny Saunders. “Rock-a-Bye,” with set design by You-Shin Chen, costumes by Martha Chamberlain and lighting by Michael Korsch, perfectly merged music and dance to present a story of connection, mother to daughter to mother.

"Rock-a-Bye" felt like "a sock hop on pointe shoes." (Photo by Candice DeTore.)
"Rock-a-Bye" felt like "a sock hop on pointe shoes." (Photo by Candice DeTore.)

For “Rock-a-Bye,” a kitchen became the background, with the musicians — Langabeer, Gregg Mervine, and Tara Middleton — sitting at a long table in front of a hutch hung with pots and pans. At the other end of the table, lit by a single overhead kitchen light, was a chair with the mother, Chloe Perkes.

The dance, performed in front of the table, often felt like a sock hop on pointe shoes, while Fate (Caili Quan, dressed in black) moved unnoted among the dancers in their ‘50s-style jeans and shorts and capris and shirts. I wondered if Fate was some future daughter visiting her familial past.

At the end of the piece, Andrea Yorita took the chair at the table and we saw the three women — Perkes, Yorita, and Quan, as a continuum in the flow of the lives we had been watching. Slowly, Yorita rested her head on the table, assuming the burden of the women who went before her.

Christine Cox said she wanted BalletX to reflect more of its balletic roots, so it is worth noting that both “Requiem” and “Rock-a-Bye” were strong additions to the modern repertoire performed en pointe.

"Rock-a-Bye" felt like "a sock hop on pointe shoes." (Photo by Candice DeTore.)
"Rock-a-Bye" felt like "a sock hop on pointe shoes." (Photo by Candice DeTore.)

High Concept With Chairs

I have loved Matthew Neenan’s choreography for a long time. “Sunset, o639 Hours” (2014) is one of my all-time favorite ballets, and “Credo” (2017) was a joyful exploration of his travels in India, capturing the crowds and the iconic architecture in dance.

At his best, Neenan draws us past the stage, into vibrant, living experience. Unfortunately, “Situated” gave us a different Neenan style — a piece so high-concept it never really descended from the intellect to the heart.

Before the performance, Neenan said the inspiration for “Situated” began with chairs. Eight dancers wore what appeared to be Reid and Harriet Design’s version of pajamas. Cuffed at wrist and ankle and in a variety of colors — pink, blue, green, orange — the dancers partnered the sort of armless chairs one might find in a hotel conference room.

There was some lovely movement — Caili Quan leaping light as air from chair to chair — and some funny moments, as when the company sat in a circle facing outward over the backs of their chairs, with their legs extended like those of small children.

In the work’s most clever moment, the dancers retrieved their chairs from a precarious pile that, like a game of Jenga, maintained its structural integrity to the last chair. Less successful were the explosive utterances of random languages. We didn’t know what the dancers were saying, or why, so the element of cross-cultural communication seemed lost, and some of the movements, like the jiggling, left me scratching my head.

Martha Koeneman, longtime Pennsylvania Ballet pianist, provided musical accompaniment, a selection of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. While beautifully played, the solemn tone of the music seemed at odds with the more humorous choreography.

To read Melissa Strong's review, click here.

What, When, Where

Summer Series. "Requiem," by Andrew McNicol; "Situated," by Matthew Neenan; "Rock-a-Bye," by Penny Saunders, music by Rosie Langabeer. BalletX. July 11-22, 2018, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. 215-545-7824 or​

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