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Daring, Enigmatic, and Beautiful, Again

Nearly spring and time for lightheartedness or hopefulness, and two of the three women choreographers in BalletX’s spring program gave us some sense of new beginnings. But the show ended with a reminder that we still face challenges ahead: Jennifer Archibald’s “Maslows Peak,” is loosely based on William Golding’s 1950’s novel of anarchy, Lord of the Flies.

Performance

BalletX's spring program: “Maslow's Peak” / “Two People in Love Never Shake Hands” / “Beautiful Once”

Place

The Wilma Theater, Philadelphia, PA, March 8, 2024

Words

Merilyn Jackson

BalletX in “Maslow’s Peak” by Jennifer Archibald. Photograph by Whitney Browne

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The Toronto native choreographs dance that blends hip-hop and ballet. She’s also an acting lecturer at the Yale School of Drama and guest faculty lecturer developing the hip hop dance curriculum at Columbia/Barnard College. For next season, BalletX commissioned it as a new full-length ballet. But Archibald gave us a fly on the wall peek at a section curiously billed as a world premiere at the company’s base theater, Philadelphia’s Wilma last weekend. This small section suggested she was twining with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of (human) Needs, building it from the bottom—the physiological—not the peak, which would be self-actualization or transcendence. I assume those will follow in the full work.

It included several BalletX apprentices expanding the troupe to 15 dancers, the most I recall seeing with this company. All in black long-sleeved, high-necked tops and open-fronted skirts along with knee pads and ankle socks, costumer Emily Morgan gave them an insectile look. Alyssandra Docherty’s uplighting further punched up that impression. Mournful ambient music by Federico Albanese, Armand Amar and Sweden’s Forndom, Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain’s percussive Dances With Wood bring the dancers from groping explorations low to the floor to more frantic  movements with duos and trios exchanging lifts, legs kicking back so feet rub together like a fly’s. All of them looking fierce, with hands on knees as they scuttle forward. This exploration of primitive creatures emerging as one, but still looking like each for themselves, looks like it will swell to individual fulfillment when completed. Francesca Forcella, Savannah Green, Lanie Jackson, Ashley Simpson, and Skyler Lubin appear to be the lead dancers.

Peter Weil, Skyler Lubin in “Maslow’s Peak” by Jennifer Archibald. Photograph by Whitney Browne

All the while Archibald has been creating her own work, she’s been mentoring this year’s BalletX Choreographic Fellowship program recipient, Nicola Wills. The South Australian choreographer, now based in Belgium as demi-soloist at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, gave us the world premiere of her resulting work, “Two People in Love Never Shake Hands.” The OBV presents in both Antwerp and Ghent which are a little more than a two-hour drive to Tanztheater Wuppertal where the Pina Bausch founded company still performs her work and is a mandatory pilgrimage for any dancers who can make it. Whether or not Wills did, Bauschian influences appeared from the outset with a parade of beautiful women in body skimming satin gowns (by Christine Darch) and men in sport jackets. They processed forward upstage at the opening scene in what I took to be a paean to Bausch’s famous Seasons March dance. They briefly repeated the march later, now reminding me of a wedding march that deliquesced into duets, as if to say we’re moving on.

Upstage left, Maria Im, Alexandr Kislitsyn, Caleb Paxton, Branson Yeast performed music by Ab Ovo, Sol and Luna, Shepherd by Joep Beving and an original composition by Adam Vincent Clarke. Not long after they became visually apparent—lighting designer Alyssandra Docherty kept them in the dark until bringing up the lights a bit—white silks fell down from the flies obscuring them. It wasn’t clear when they left the stage but when the silks were drawn back up, the musicians were gone and we were listening to recorded music that seemed to be fading away. 

Jonathan Montepara, Annika Kuo, Lanie Jackson, Jared Kelly in “Two People in Love Never Shake Hands” by Nicola Wills. Photograph by Whitney Browne

Clad in black from head to toe, Lanie Jackson and Jared Kelly appear as shadows behind the couples who seem unaware of them. They rearrange the couples’ arms if correcting them. They play cards at a table downstage right and dance a tormented duet that made me wonder if the shades were longing to become flesh and blood. But until they strip to flesh-toned undergarments it never seemed to be in the cards for them. 

They’re at a  party but it’s hard to say what the party’s theme is. A man wanders through the revelers with a bouquet of roses, clearly looking for a willing recipient of this display of love. But the duets don’t coalesce into committed couples. The dancers approach each other only to be rejected with a push by a hand, a turned back or changing partners. No matter how roughly treated they come back to try again until two of them shake hands before taking leave of each other—all ominous, psychological foreplay. To me it felt like the beginning of an as yet to be realized composition, a wonderfully danced yet enigmatic work that left me as baffled and delighted as much of the audience was. 

Savannah Green in “Beautiful Once” by Jodie Gates. Photograph by Whitney Browne

Jodie Gates has clearly tweaked her romantic en pointe ballet, “Beautiful Once” to deepen its meaning for our current times. Back when it premiered in 2017, she seemed to want to give us beauty to assuage the shock of the 2016 presidential results.

After all the fallout of pandemic, wars, inflation, and the threat of going backwards, she’s deepened the relationships between the couples. Now they offer more comfort and support to each other’s anguish, while maintaining the sensual lifts and embraces of the original ballet. Francesca Forcella opens dancing alone in a spot, her backbends transcendental, until each dancer appears in his own spot. The lighting, all by Michael Korsch, widens until the spots dissolve into each other creating a community. Beauty may only be skin deep, but love and kinship form our strength in challenging times. 

This program, each by a woman from different countries, showed how well we humans can navigate through our darkest, most uncertain hours. And that’s what I think made the audience jump to a standing ovation.

Merilyn Jackson


Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.

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