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Now in its 18th season, BalletX has been expanding its reach with performances at the Mann Center, Bryn Mawr College, and New York’s Joyce Theater, in addition to the Wilma. Meanwhile, the dancers dazzle as BalletX welcomes new faces and continues exploring the frontiers of contemporary ballet. The company’s commitment to new work can result in uneven programs, and this is true of its latest Fall Series. Jamar Roberts’s gorgeous Eros & Psyche and Jennifer Archibald’s excellent Exalt outshine Matthew Neenan’s Siete. Two out of three is still a win, and inconsistency is a fair trade for breathtaking performances enhanced with live music and Archibald’s surprisingly effective pairing of ballet with house music and dance.
Eros & Psyche
I reviewed Roberts’s Honey at BalletX in 2022, which made me anticipate Eros & Psyche. The dance draws inspiration from the ancient Greek myth about a human woman and the god of love overcoming obstacles that threaten their romance. Psyche’s name represents the soul, and Roberts characterizes Eros & Psyche as “inspired by the characteristics of the two.” Love or desire merges with soul or spirit to embody the “rhapsodic feeling” of their union.
Compositions by Philip Glass performed live add more layers to the concept as the music and movement combine in a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Grant Loehnig (piano), Maria Im (violin), Gared Crawford (violin), Kathryn Dark (viola), Branson Yeast (cello), and Alexandr Kislitsyn (violin) join the dancers on the stage. The choreography flows with elegant backbends and shifting formations as Eros and Psyche fall for each other, separate, and reunite. Sumptuous lighting by Michael Korsch and the cool tones of Christine Darch’s costumes add to the beauty and complexity of the choreography and dancing. Eros & Psyche is not flawless—timing and balance seem off in a few places—but it contains some of the most exquisite moments of dance I have seen this year.
Short documentaries by resident filmmaker Daniel Madoff precede each work, giving the audience a peek at the process, and Neenan—who co-founded BalletX with artistic and executive director Christine Cox—provides even more insight into dance-making. In the film for Siete, he describes his inspiration as the dancers and the music. Through physical exploration of music with dancers, “the form creates a concept.”
Siete is the number seven in Spanish, and Neenan enjoys “working with odd numbers” that “can push us beyond symmetry to create a stimulating unbalance.” The piece evokes a Spanish aesthetic through its title, classical guitar music played live by Michael Poll, and costumes (also by Darch) pairing black pants with red stripes and sheer red tops with fringe swinging from one sleeve. Siete is layered and well-danced (Eli Alford and Annika Kuo's duet is a highlight), but the piece is too long. Drawn-out slow sequences juxtapose ones with a quicker pace in ways more puzzling than interesting.
Archibald’s Exalt brings the program to a close with thumping beats and virtuoso dancing. In the short documentary before the dance, she explains that Exalt is rooted in the love of movement. “I just paint on the dancers,” Archibald says of her choreographic process. The rousing results demonstrate the power of introducing house music to ballet. House is a form of electronic music that emerged in 1980s Chicago and continues around the world today. Steady, repetitive beats make house music popular in club culture, and the genre influences popular artists ranging from Janet Jackson to Calvin Harris.
Exalt begins with the suggestion of house music emerging from the primordial divine. A voice intones, “Let there be house!” as the beat comes in. Dancers take turns moving alone and in groups of two, three, four, and five as their movement, formation, and tempo shift along with the beat. Jared Kelly is mesmerizing as he dances with muscular grace. An elegant sequence for a trio of female dancers gives way to a strong duet for Kuo and Simpson, then a quartet of male dancers. Jerard Palazo’s deep backbend takes his body all the way to the floor, mirroring the break that follows the rhythmic building of house music. All 10 dancers form pairs in the terrific section that precedes Exalt’s dramatic final image of a single dancer collapsing to the floor, spent but uplifted, chest heaving to the beat.
“Art is our highest level of communication,” Cox noted before the show began. After this performance, viewers will agree. Bookended by fast-paced, engrossing dances, BalletX’s Fall Series is another series worth rooting for as autumn sports take the city by storm. The program’s three dances redefine ballet, especially Archibald’s. Performed with female dancers on pointe, Exalt succeeds in exalting both house and ballet and finding vibrant beauty in the places where they meet. In every case, the roster of dancers rises to the occasion. The program is not a perfect game, but it is a great one.
What, When, Where
BalletX Fall Series. $18-$65. October 18-29, 2023, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 545-7824 or balletx.org.
The Wilma is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
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