The Wilma Theater, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 28 - December 9, 2018
The versatility and adventurousness of BalletX’s dancers and its leading lady, artistic and executive director, Christine Cox, are matchless. Cox has just helmed the company into its new studio. Built from the ground up over the last year, the Center for World Premiere Choreography went live last month in South Philadelphia, where hundreds of the city’s dancers live.
Cox’s 2018/2019 season at the Wilma Theater promises seven world premieres. Programming and commissioning new works is risky. You never know what a choreographer is going to give you in a commission, so placing your money even on a known talent doesn’t always work as hoped. But placing all your bets on an entire program is even riskier. Last week’s Fall 2018 season opener however, gave us three winning world premieres that ranged from seamless beauty to heartache and then spoofing hilarity. What an exhilarating evening from three stellar international artists—from the Netherlands, Wubkje Kuindersma; Ireland, Marguerite Donlon and Spain, Cayetano Soto.
Over its ten-year existence, I’ve reviewed dozens of world premieres set on the company by many gifted choreographers. BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan, Jodie Gates, Nicolo Fonte, Penny Saunders, Mauro Astolfi, Trey McIntyre, Jorma Elo, and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa head the list of most memorable ballets for me.
A contemporary repertory ballet (that does not have to perform a classic story ballet every year) needs dancers who can deliver high-caliber performances for choreographers of diverse palettes. Most of this cast has been dancing together for some time and welcomed back Richard Villaverde and newcomer Blake Krapels. Each brought their own personalities to the three works.
Dutch choreographer Kuindersma turned the ten member cast in her “Yonder, a skype ballet” into a delicate blue wave. The Skype part is merely nominal as our government, once again, prevented an artist coming to our shores to work. And so, Kuindersma and the company began the ballet via Skype until her visa was approved.
In sparkly royal blue, Francesca Forcella floats out in slow lunges and arabesque penchés like a diving sea sprite. The others, Stanley Glover, Zachary Kapeluck, Krapels, Skyler Lubin, Chloe Perkes, Roderick Phifer, Caili Quan, Villaverde, and Andrea Yorita, all in soft ballet slippers and clad in Christine Darch’s gradients of sea foam blues, stand behind a black scrim. Krapels emerges through it to partner Forcella who curtsies to him. She seems to feign imbalance as he leads her behind the scrim. In the last section, to Antony and the Johnson’s cover of “Imagine,” Glover and Phifer pair up, also in deep penché and suave release-technique lunges. Glover moves like an étoile, his musculature all smoothly well-oiled and full of artistic grace. But the entire cast rained beauty on this pure ballet. The fluid arm-over-arm groupings melted one dancer into another repeatedly, like waves softly lapping at our shores.
“The Last Lifeboat” is Marguerite Donlon’s dance theater paean to her grand aunt, Kate Gilnagh. She was given the last seat in the last lifeboat on the Titanic. Perkes dances Gilnagh, partnered by Kapeluck, as James Farrell, her doomed friend who pushed her onto the boat. Dirk Haubrich created a soundscape that evoked the pitch and fathoms of the frigid ocean and the ship breaking apart into it.
Perkes is ethereal as ever and still perfectly believable as the 16-year-old survivor and Kapeluck leads her about in their duets with a gentlemanly mastery resigned to his fate. He is one dancer with multifaceted acting ability as he shows here and in his comedic role in Soto’s work. She’s in pantaloons corseted through her midriff and he’s in soft grey flannel pants, shirt, vest and cap by Mark Eric. Mark Stanley’s shadowy lighting puts us in the atmosphere of the sinking ship and the hopelessness felt by many of the passengers who at first come out in long black coats. Donlon has them dance a beat or two of Irish step dance. When they return in flesh-toned body slips, they are already like ghosts of themselves as their hands slip away from each other or cradle another’s head in the crook of an arm. A sob rose in my throat at Villaverde’s and Lubin’s desperate farewells in their stirring pas de deux.
“Napoleon/Napoleon” choreographer Cayetano Soto hails from Barcelona and we’ve seen his wickedly delightful works on the company before. His “Schachmatt,” (checkmate) seen on BalletX in 2017 is one of my all time favorite ballets. As a horse racing and equestrian show lover, the dancers in their little velveteen show helmets and knee-socks bowled me over.
He floored me again with his first world premiere on BalletX. “Napoleon/Napoleon” is a ballet buffo reminiscent of Francis Picabia’s 1924 DaDa ballet “Relâche.” Like Picabia, Soto makes risible use of wheels—here little red tricycles madly ridden about like Bump’Em cars by the entire cast. Soto designed the lighting and set design as well as the costumes “built” by Stephen Smith. They looked uproariously and pompously imperial, playfully sabotaged by black and white frilly under slips that flopped above their black knee-high socks.
It begins to Aram Khachaturian’s grand waltz, Masquerade, which was the last production of Moscow’s Vakhtangov theater before the Germans invaded Russia. Throughout, Soto finds sly ways to comment on history and link it to contemporary perils. The dancers waltz, the men sling the women Can-Can style over their backs, they slo-mo breaststroke as if swimming through mud. “Tengo Una Debilidad,” by the prolific Spanish/Cuban singer Antonio Machin has Yorita and Kapeluck, Villaverde and Forcella tangled in debilitating tangos. There was nothing weak about this ballet, nor the entire evening. They do it all again this week beginning Wednesday evening.