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Dancing from the heart
BalletX presents its 2022 Summer Series
BalletX’s 2022 Summer Series offered a delightful program loosely organized around themes of love and connection. Dance luminaries Tiler Peck of New York City Ballet, Jamar Roberts of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Gustavo Ramirez Sansano of TITOYAYA in Spain choreographed the three world premieres. Opening night marked the company’s first indoor performance at the Wilma Theater since December 2019, but BalletX has remained creative and productive in the interim.
As artistic and executive director Christine Cox noted, the company performed at the Mann Center and created 27 dance films during the past few years. It also bid farewell to some dancers and welcomed others. The three works highlighted the strengths of the current lineup, from newer members to familiar faces. The company’s novel forms of engagement—exemplified by BalletX Beyond, a pandemic-era virtual subscription to films, features, and behind-the-scenes content—proved an asset to live performances as well. Short documentaries by resident filmmaker Elliot deBruyn preceded each dance, providing informative and entertaining introductions to the work, with commentary from the dancers and choreographers.
In the documentary for Umoja, Peck explained that she based the choreography on the title, which is the Swahili word for “unity.” The dance resulted from a partnership between BalletX and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and it was performed by the whole company to composer Valerie Coleman’s Umoja [Anthem of Unity]. Continuous movement reflected the joy of togetherness, beginning with a striking, dimly lit tableau of bodies coming to life. They initiated a piece full of constant motion, smooth grace, and flowing vignettes in which dancers formed pairs, trios, groups, and various movement scenes.
In one eye-catching sequence, three couples formed and danced in tandem, performing the same movement, though not always synchronously. The image spoke of the distinction between unity and sameness, and how difference does not preclude harmonious togetherness. Delight seemed to register on the dancers’ faces, particularly Ashley Simpson and Jonah Delgado, adding to Umoja’s joyousness. Andrea Yorita stood out for bringing such lithe, wholehearted grace to Peck’s choreography that she appeared to flow like liquid. Elegant arm flourishes and seamlessly shifting formations contributed to the dance’s theme and visual appeal.
Before the next dance, deBruyn’s documentary explored the choreographer’s vision for and the dancers’ takes on Honey, which is set to music by Don Shirley, the Jamaican American composer and classical and jazz pianist. Roberts characterized the piece as a nonlinear, episodic journey through human relationships. Three couples portray various stages and experiences of love, and Simpson (half of Honey’s second couple) remarked that the dance “felt true” to her, and that Roberts’s choreography made her feel seen. Anyone who has ever felt attraction, frustration, rejection, or attunement surely would agree. Honey exemplifies dance’s unique power to convey ideas and emotions, sometimes with greater clarity and precision than words. Roberts’s evocative, yet restrained, use of gesture combined with luscious costumes by Mark Eric and terrific performances from the dancers for a beautifully stirring experience.
The first couple, Yorita and Shawn Cusseaux, reflected the fiery passion of new love and its rollercoaster of highs and lows. After their eyes met, she made an aggressive approach and they began a dance of pushing, pulling, and vying for control. Cusseaux and Yorita drew each other close, spun apart, and then touched palms as they reunited.
The next couple, Simpson and Jared Kelly, depicted a more established relationship, one fraught with power struggles. Simpson repeated a frenzied arm movement with increasing intensity until Kelly intervened, but then she pushed his hand away. These brief moments suggested the experience of caring for someone who is struggling or unwell and the potentially unhealthy dynamics that can result. A caress gave way to locked arms, a tug of war, and a different struggle as Kelly's character fought to escape the relationship.
Roberts characterized the third couple, Delgado and Francesca Forcella, as “aspirational love” that “has stood the test of time.” The sequence demonstrated these qualities through the pair mirroring each other’s movements and taking turns soloing, as well as the effective partnering of two well-matched dancers. However, I noticed that the female half of the pair conveyed support and encouragement—a touch here, a nudge there—that her male partner did not reciprocate. Most people do not consider inequality desirable or aspirational for their relationships.
Sansano’s Love Parade took a lighter approach to matters of the heart, bringing the Summer Series to a rousing conclusion. Yet this dance did not ignore the complexities raised by Honey. As Sansano observed in the documentary for Love Parade, “a good relationship is one [in which] you’re still you—you don’t lose yourself.” He added in the program notes that growing social acceptance of different and/or new ways of loving is worth celebrating. Love Parade captured the joys of all kinds of relationships that lift up the people in them. A stage scattered with pink petals, bright 70s-inspired costumes by Mark Eric, and music by Bert Kaempfert, the German orchestra leader/composer best known for “Strangers in the Night” and “Danke Schoen,” added to the fun.
Zachary Kapeluck played a role akin to a wrestling announcer as he used a microphone to introduce dancers in opposite corners of the stage. Later, Kelly seemed to embody Cupid as he performed a solo with no music but his own percussive breathing before the other dancers appeared and fell in line behind him. Simpson and Kapeluck sang bits of Kaempfert’s “L.O.V.E.” into the microphone, Delgado blew a kiss to Kapeluck, and Skyler Lubin slid through the petals to make puppy-dog eyes at Savannah Green. As it depicted the enthusiastic formation and amicable dissolution of heterosexual, homosexual, and pansexual duos and trios, Love Parade challenged traditional notions and lauded affection in all its manifestations.
Altogether, this cohesive Summer Series celebrated unity, togetherness, and love in various forms. All three dances offered visual interest and striking images as they harnessed the dancers’ talents in different ways. The company’s innovations in documentary film enhanced BalletX’s joyful return to indoor live performance.
What, When, Where
BalletX 2022 Summer Series. Choreography by Tiler Peck, Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, and Jamar Roberts. BalletX, presented by the Wilma Theater. $25-$70. July 13-17, 2022 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 545-7824 or balletx.org.
As of June 2022, the Wilma requires patrons to stay masked during performances. A requirement for proof of Covid-19 vaccination is advertised, but not enforced.
The Wilma Theater is a fully accessible venue with wheelchair seating reserved through the box office. Assisted listening devices are available at all performances.
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