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BalletX’s Summer Series at the Wilma offers a range of delights in Sidd: A Hero’s Journey, a full-length narrative ballet created by Nicolo Fonte, the resident choreographer for Ballet West in Salt Lake City. Some are familiar treats, like masterful dancing, lush costumes by Mark Eric, and a company that consistently appears larger than its size. Others are novel, including the artistic collaboration between the choreographer and dramaturg Nancy Meckler, a display of Eric’s costume designs in the Wilma’s lobby, and two different casts. Sidd also marks a memorable final performance for Andrea Yorita after more than a decade with BalletX.
Based on Herman Hesse’s classic 1922 novel Siddhartha, the ballet tells the story of a young man’s quest for self-discovery and enlightenment. The German author drew from Indian philosophy, religion, and sacred texts, and a modular set designed by Michael Korsch represents the Eightfold Path that forms the foundation of practicing the Buddha’s teachings. Fonte noted that he and Korsch “both wanted something that could create different environments on stage to enhance the idea of a journey.” As the dancers move the set to reflect changes in Sidd’s life, it becomes “the 13th member of the cast.”
A dancing ego
Through the universal language of dance, Sidd explores universally human themes, such as the need to accept change before finding peace. It is not necessary to read Siddhartha to follow Sidd, thanks to program notes providing key plot points in each scene and costumes that immediately identify characters. The dancers’ acting combines with their movement and Fonte’s choreography to convey reactions, emotions, and inner struggles. Meanwhile, mostly instrumental music by a range of artists, including Thomas Adès, Bryce Dessner, Dobrinka Tabakova, and the Silk Road Ensemble, provides a sonic backdrop that supports the ballet’s themes without distracting from the narrative or the dancing.
Sidd guides the audience through his physically and emotionally demanding journey, and Shawn Cusseaux shines in the role. He partners especially well with Ashley Simpson (Sidd’s friend Govinda) and Yorita (the personification of Sidd’s ego). The ballet introduces Sidd as a promising young adult celebrated by his family but tormented by his ego. Pantomime and facial expressions convey that only Sidd can see his ego as it shadows him and mirrors his movements. He touches it to see if it is real, and Cusseaux portrays Sidd’s surprise and disgust when his ego touches him in return. In this way, Sidd visually portrays the distinction between the self and the ego, a concept central to some mindfulness practices.
The ego contributes to Sidd’s development by leading him to reject his family’s ways in order to forge his own path. As Sidd’s father, guest dancer Peter Weil portrays initial disapproval giving way to support through barrel turns, body language, and gesture. Cusseaux and Simpson’s partnering depicts two friends’ struggle to understand each other’s perspective. At the same time, their balances imbue Sidd’s farewell with images of the interdependence that underpins deep, meaningful relationships.
A full-circle journey
Like many young people, Sidd first chooses a life completely different from his family’s. He rejects the material world and joins faithful followers of the Buddha, but Sidd’s ego reappears while he meditates. Buddha (Skyler Lubin) looks on as they face off, and Cusseaux and Yorita bring fierce energy to their struggle for control full of pushing and pulling, spins and balances, and changes in tempo and level. When Sidd later seeks fulfillment in romantic love and wealth, the set is transformed into a casino complete with oversized dice, playing cards, and poker chips. His ego delights in these developments, climbing to the top of the pyramid-shaped set, tossing money in the air, and shadowing Sidd as he dances with the alluring courtesan Kamala (Francesca Forcella).
Sidd and his ego shake hands, but their truce is temporary. Disgusted with his new life, Sidd attempts suicide by drowning. Blue-clad dancers fill the stage with movement to mimic the river, tossing Sidd among the waves before pulling him under for a dramatic ending to the first act. The shorter, yet equally intense, second act sees a revived Sidd dreaming of Kamala and reunited with Govinda. Sidd’s poignant encounter with his and Kamala’s son—a puppet created by Sebastienne Mundheim and skillfully manipulated by dancer Eli Alford—brings his journey full circle. The son’s reaction to Sidd’s touch parallels the way Sidd responded to his ego earlier, and the son becomes the father who must now let go of his own child.
The beauty of mature ballet
Throughout Sidd, a ferryman (Jared Kelly) provides foreshadowing and guidance. Imagined here as a nonbinary spiritual guide in flowing blue pleats, this character and the ballet’s nontraditional casting reinforce that its themes transcend gender. The work ends with a reconciliation, not between Sidd and his father, son, partner, or spiritual leader, but with his ego. At the end of the journey, their roles reverse: Sidd now appears relaxed while his ego is lost and frantic. Cusseaux and Yorita’s final dance together reflects the peace and beauty of self-acceptance.
From the infectious enthusiasm of artistic and executive director Christine Cox’s pre-show remarks to the standing ovation following the final tableau, Sidd: A Hero’s Journey is an engrossing and moving trip through timeless themes. Sidd feels especially relevant after the changes of the past few years, which prompted many to take stock of their lives or search for greater purpose and meaning. And mature ballet for adults is especially welcome now when so much post-Covid-19 arts programming aims to appeal to families and/or rehashes popular movies and music. “Self-transformation and spiritual awakening can happen anywhere and everywhere,” Fonte pointed out, and Sidd demonstrates this with help from a winning creative team and BalletX’s excellent dancing.
What, When, Where
Sidd: A Hero’s Journey. Choreography by Nicolo Fonte. BalletX. $25-$70. July 12-23, 2023 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 545-7824 or balletx.org.
The Wilma is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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