A welcome collaboration

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presents BalletX with pianist Michelle Cann

4 minute read
Cann, a Black woman, poses with one hand on her hip, wearing a flowing black and floral-printed wrap shirt.

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) is well-known for presenting chamber ensembles and solo artists in the city, but this January, it presented a collaboration with BalletX (teaming up for only the second time) and piano virtuoso Michelle Cann, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The evening opened with Cann alone at center stage of the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater for Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F sharp Minor, her fingers gliding over the keys in the Andante as if musing over the music. During Mendelssohn’s day, the German arts community was obsessed with Scottish culture, and folk airs wind through the first part of the Fantasy, filtered through the composer’s Germanic musical tradition. The piece ended in a martial presto that evoked images of ancient battlefields.

Situated and Songs Without Words

After a brief pause to move the piano to the wings, BalletX took the stage with Matthew Neenan’s Situated, set to six of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, played by Cann. This piece is not one of my favorites, but I did find more in it this time. The Reid and Harriet costumes still left the unfortunate impression of children’s pastel pajamas, which suited some of the more surreal bits but worked against moments of really beautiful choreography.

Each of the eight dancers partnered with a chair that they danced around and over, showing off a lovely stretch of a leg. They gathered around an imaginary table, lifted their arms as if holding a drink while they shouted out their toasts in a variety of languages, and sat in a row to mimic a subway train with dancers bouncing in place, some with their hands spread as if reading a newspaper.

An extended duet, lyrical and compassionately danced by Eli Alford and Jerard Palazo, was the highlight of the piece. They met and offered comfort, stretched in yearning extensions. The duet took us over the chairs again, in a handstand, in a chair tilted over on its side. The lyricism of the music and the dancing brought the emotion the piece otherwise lacked. Fortunately, the Jenga tower of chairs from the piece’s 2018 premiere has disappeared, replaced by a low pile that still had to be deconstructed at the finale but left more of an impression of props dropped in the corner than a parlor game.

Worth hearing again

After the intermission, Cann returned to center stage for Piano Suite, composed for her by Michael Liebowitz, who introduced the piece. He explained that in the prelude no two notes are played together, and the music is constructed out of arpeggios. The toccata was deliberately written to be fast and difficult because he knew she would rise to the challenge. The postlude, in contrast to the prelude, was composed with no single notes—each chord played as a single sound. I was not expecting much from a piece essentially made as a puzzle, but the prelude in particular was lovely; dreamlike in the way the arpeggios seemed to circle around each other rather than rise or fall. The toccata was, indeed, fast, but the postlude brought the tempo down, the chords tolling like a bell. It was a short piece, but well worth hearing again.

Honey and longing

Cann’s piano shifted to the wings for choreographer Jamar Roberts’s Honey, set to Don Shirley’s arrangements for piano of four standards. The piece opened to six dancers in Mark Eric’s glittering costumes, four in black jumpsuits and two in silver shorts and skirts, in a dance of held poses to Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean.” But the main focus was on three duets that the program notes described as representing the three stages of a relationship, from the passion of youth through the manipulative dynamics of a later stage, until reaching an aspirational love.

Seen from the knees up, Kelly & Simpson, in sparkly black costumes, lean back together, arms passionately intertwined.
Jared Kelly and Ashley Simpson of BalletX in Jamar Roberts’s ‘Honey.' (Photo by Whitney Browne.)

Itzkan Barbosa and Alford led the way with long, stretched moves. Alford bent his legs and when Barbosa leapt to his thighs, he rose in an ecstatic lift. The second duet may have been my favorite. It opened with Ashley Simpson carried on one arm by Jared Kelly, her leg angled behind her like a challenge. In one intricate sequence, Kelly made a circle of his arms that opened up as Simpson passed through it. He folded backward onto the floor and she leapt on his back. Their conflict was gorgeously danced, but ultimately, they were each left alone.

For the last duet, cellist Chase Park joined Cann for Richard Rodgers’s mournful “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific. Francesca Forcella and Palazo danced a touching duet of longing and intertwined arms, where even the breaths they took seemed to matter.

When introducing the performance, PCMS artistic director Miles Cohen said that he hoped to present more BalletX collaborations in years to come. I hope they consider a musical trio or quartet in the future, as BalletX has a broader range of pieces set to music that can be adapted more easily to such an arrangement. That takes money, of course, so it is up to the donors.

At top: Pianist Michelle Cann. (Photo by Steven Mareazi Willis.)

What, When, Where

Works by Matthew Neenan and Jamar Roberts, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and BalletX. Michelle Cann, piano. Chase Park, cello. $30. January 6 and 7, 2024, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’s Perelman Theater, 300 South Broad Street. (215) 569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.


Kimmel Cultural Campus venues are ADA-compliant. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online by calling patron services at (215) 893-1999 or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, patron services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.

Masks are not required in Kimmel Cultural Campus venues.

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