Dancing in the bubble

BalletX presents Tsai Hsi Hung, Manuel Vignoulle, and Francesca Harper

4 minute read
Carrying each other through illness and sorrow: Shawn Cusseaux and Skyler Lubin in Manuel Vignoulle’s ‘Heal.’ (Photo by Daniel Madoff.)
Carrying each other through illness and sorrow: Shawn Cusseaux and Skyler Lubin in Manuel Vignoulle’s ‘Heal.’ (Photo by Daniel Madoff.)

BalletX continues to weather the pandemic with its subscription series of short dance films, and the third installment, featuring new works by choreographers Tsai Hsi Hung, Manuel Vignoulle, and Francesca Harper, is now live. A January 20 premiere event via Zoom introduced the choreographers and the dances. Zoom has its glitches—we were in the dark at one point. But it’s as close as we can get to each other these days, and affords some amazing opportunities for the dance community.

Choreographers from around the world, like Vignoulle, who introduced his piece, Heal, from Indonesia, create dances for BalletX from hundreds or thousands of miles away. And the Internet has introduced the company to audiences from 20 states, and to countries as far away as New Zealand. Subscribers may view the recorded premiere event for the interviews with the choreographers, but this doesn’t do the dance films justice. To experience them as they should be seen, you have to click the individual links.

A gripping interaction

In Hung’s duet, Two X Two, Stanley Glover and Roderick Phifer—the dragon and the tiger, Hung said—face off and circle each other in a dance of courtly aggression. Hung stages the performance in one small part of the Franklin Institute’s Pepper Hall. Tall windows bracketed by built-in mahogany bookcases give the piece the feel of a drawing room, in which the two dancers, wearing formal coats slashed with triangular cutouts limned in red, gracefully stalk each other and grapple with Shakespearean intensity. The music, composer Luca D’Alberto’s Consequences, hints at the baroque while it ratchets up the tension. As usual, Glover and Phifer match technique with intensity and connection for a glorious vignette.

Two X Two is the most cinematic of this trio of films. Kudos to Daniel Madoff’s camera work and Mark Eric’s intriguing costumes. At just over five minutes, the piece gives the audience one complete and gripping interaction that suggests a greater narrative, leaving room for our imaginations to build that story. In a time of grim reality, it was easy to love this escape into a fantasy that took us to another place and time.

Bondage and bright moments

The rest of the trio is more painful. Vignoulle’s Heal opens with brief flashes of three images: Roderick Phifer bound in white bandages, Blake Krapels struggling to escape a darkened corner, and Shawn Cusseaux and Skyler Lubin lying in autumn leaves. The dance moves from one to the other as Phifer unwraps his bandages and Krapels escapes to the woods, where he wallows in the mud as if he is escaping the morass. Both men, in their separate spaces, strip off shirts and bandages. Cusseaux and Lubin are equally angst ridden, focused on low lifts as the partners seem to carry each other through illness and sorrow. The music is dirge-like: “Otche Nash” (“Our Father” in Slovenian Russian), and the melancholy “Ninna nanna de contrabbandiere” (“Smuggler’s Lullaby”).

Harper’s introspective THAW is also somber. The work, set in BalletX’s bare studio, again gives us images of bondage—in this case, Andrea Yorita wrapped in coils of lighted tubing. But Thaw offers bright moments as well. Each of the seven dancers has a brief solo that shows them at their best. The duet, danced by Ashley Simpson and Blake Krapels to the poem “Violets,” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, was lovely.

Bubble dance

Before BalletX commissioned this installment of dance films, the only dancers who performed in close contact were those who already lived together, so I was surprised to see the company unmasked and dancing indoors with a variety of partners. Company spokesperson Josh Olmstead let me know that BalletX had set up a bubble: dancers agreed to restrict contact outside their household, mask and social distance, and limit travel. The bubble worked, he said. The dancers stayed healthy, and we had the pleasure of watching them dance together again.

As we have seen in the sports world, the bubble takes discipline. But for companies willing to take the plunge into digital programming, it has offered a way to get back to the studio and the stage—or the park, mansion, or mud pit.

Image description: A photo of dancers Shawn Cusseaux, a Black man, and Skyler Lubin, a white woman, wearing minimal costumes that match their skin, in a summery-looking outdoor scene with trees and tall grass. The dancers are back-to-back, with the woman, bending at the waist, carrying the man on her back. The man’s face and chest tilt toward the sky.

What, When, Where

BalletX presents Tsai Hsi Hung’s Two X Two, Manuel Vignoulle’s Heal, and Francesca Harper’s THAW. Available to stream through August 2021 with a BalletX subscription, available through BalletX Beyond.

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