Philadelphia’s 17-year young BalletX has gifted the city with more than 100 world premiere contemporary ballets and then taken them on the road around the nation. Known for commissioning emerging and established choreographers from many countries, it has had some great successes. Among them, Rena Butler’s breathless “The Under Way,” which Covid relegated to film, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s staggeringly original “Castrati,” Tobin Del Cuore’s marvelous “Beside Myself,” and numerous delights from its co-founder and long-time resident choreographer for the Philadelphia Ballet, Matthew Neenan. Not to mention choreographers of the stature of Nicolo Fonte, Kevin O’Day, and the inimitable Jodie Gates with three commissions.
BalletX’s mission to empower choreographers (especially women) and give their audience base new works is an admirable one, and has largely proven a wonderful endeavor. Even in last week’s heat wave, the masked audience sat packed next to each other for the company’s grand return to its home base, the Wilma Theater. It’s 300 seats provide excellent sightlines wherever you are. So even at the back of the house I could tell who the individual dancers were, their facial expressions, and dancing chops. There were a few new dancers who brought a new spark to the company. Ashley Simpson, Ben Schwarz and Jonah Delgado each put in sensational solos that show a new cut in the flow of the 10-member company. But enough of the veterans remain to keep their style nicely afloat.
The much-anticipated world premiere, “Umoja,” by New York City Ballet Principal, Tyler Peck opened the evening after a lengthy video of her thoughts on the work. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned the Valerie Coleman score, subtitled “Anthem for Unity,” and premiered it under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s dancey baton in 2019. Umoja means unity in Swahili and Peck chose it because wanted her choreography to convey community solidarity.
The curtain rose on an assemblage of the company huddled together before the women rose en pointe to bourrée in a circle around the men. The Americana-style music nodded to Bernstein and Copeland with a riff or two of Stravinsky. The dancing sometimes mimicked the pizzicato notes and at other times turned lyrical and in synch. Triplicate duets brought to mind “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “West Side Story.” The dancers rose vertically to jubilant crescendos or descended to deep knee bends. I coveted Martha Chamberlain’s sexy little bluish mesh dresses for the women, with Skyler Lubin looking like a butterfly flitting among her compadres.
The company tours it July 27 to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY, accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra and again at the Kimmel Center for the orchestra’s opening night, September 28.
The most coherent work on the program, Jamar Roberts’ “Honey” used piano recordings by Don Shirley, with Mark Eric’s darkly-polished costumes and honey-colored cones of light by Michael Korsch. Korsch lit all three premieres with his usual aplomb. It also rendered various styles of relationships between couples. But Ashley Simpson’s buzzed solo in that golden funnel of light gave the sizzle to the hot summer piece.
“Love Parade’s” choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano founded Titoyaya Dansa of Valencia, Spain in 2006. Known for its drama, speed and avoidance of stereotypical concepts his earlier company, Luna Negra Dance Theater, premiered his “CARMEN.maquia” in Chicago 2012. A sophisticated, sexy work with stark angular choreography, his new work for BalletX contrasted with summer larkiness. It missed the mark of his spoken intention in his pre-performance video to capture the electric moments of two people falling in love.
Mark Eric’s retro street clothes created a comfortable atmosphere. But the outdated music, which ended with Bert Kaempfert’s “Danke Schoen,” lacked seduction or passion. Some Rufus Wainwright or k.d. lang might have signaled the longing of gay romances. The closest we saw to a suggestion of sexual attraction was a dejected Skyler Lubin sitting on the floor as a cross-dressed Savannah Green pecked the crown of her head. Zachary Kapeluck, the most suave and versatile of the company’s veterans, did a turn as emcee on a mic that kept inching its way down to him. Jonah Delgado’s sinuous solo was the high point in this work about the phenomenon of being lovestruck. Fun, but not so much for thou and thee.