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Passion and Personality

In just 17 years, artistic director Christine Cox has taken BalletX from a summer pickup project to a formidable choreographic factory. The small Philadelphia ensemble has produced 120 world premieres by nearly 70 choreographers in that short amount of time, lending it an outsized reputation. But when the 14 artists of BalletX graced the Joyce Theater stage this past week, they overshadowed the choreography with their virtuosity, versatility, and youthful vitality. Their presence carried what was otherwise a surprisingly staid evening of contemporary dance.

Performance

BalletX: “Honey,” “Credo,” “Exalt”

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, September 27, 2023

Words

Candice Thompson

Ashley Simpson and Jared Kelly in “Honey” by Jamar Roberts. Photograph by Whitney Browne

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The three works on the program—which featured New York premieres from Jamar Roberts and Jennifer Archibald, alongside a Matthew Neenan dance from Vail Dance Festival in 2016—felt conventional, and despite nods in the direction of Indian dance and an awkward attempt to mesh pointe work with house dance, were light on experimentation and innovation. Presumably such choreographic excitement lies in BalletX’s vast repertory, but it was unfortunately missing in the mix of dances curated for their New York season. In that void, the dancers’ unique personalities and buoyancy, particularly in allegro, captured my attention. 

The highlight of the evening came in the middle with Roberts’ 2022 work, “Honey.” Set to four Don Shirley songs for piano and cello, played live by Sophia Simsive and Zachary Mowitz respectively, three couples enacted various stages of love relationships. Itzkan Barbosa and Shawn Cusseaux embodied “the fierce passion of young love,” as described in a program note. Their combative and frenetic energy was sometimes contained, creating a simmering intensity; other times, it exploded out into pushes and swipes. Physically well-matched, Barbosa gave as well as she got; Cusseaux was left shaking, fists balled in pent up frustration. Their dynamic and fierce tussles eventually exhausted them into some kind of tender resignation. 

Ashley Simpson and Jared Kelly in “Honey” by Jamar Roberts. Photograph by Whitney Browne

Couple number two entered the space of that all-too-brief detente. Perched on Jared Kelly’s shoulder, Ashley Simpson gave the audience a knowing look that acknowledged she was on top and was going to enjoy her dominance. Their partnering took on sharper, more architectural shapes in the wake of Barbosa and Cusseaux’s chaotic match, with Simpson’s long limbs sculpting the space. But the sadism remained: Simpson threaded herself delicately through Kelly’s arms only to emerge swinging on the other side; her every entreaty devolving into movements that bit and snapped with greater cruelty. When Kelly walked away, leaving Simpson holding a side plank, there was a palpable sense of relief.  

Though the concept, with its ugly tropes of heterosexual relationships, began to feel so familiar as to be trite, the final vignette offered a reprieve from the violence and manipulation. In a sendup of “aspirational love,” Forcella and Palazo brought much-needed equanimity and calm. Moving at a slower pace, they mirrored each other with sweeping circular motions of the arms, back-to-back and side by side, in identical jumpsuits. The effect created two androgynous bodies, meeting each other in a harmonious middle ground.  

BalletX in “Credo” by Matthew Neenan. Photograph by Whitney Browne

As their connection built into a swoopy pas de deux, they remained fully locked into their companionship, dancing for each other rather than for us. When Palazzo collapsed to the ground, Forcella revived him with her generous presence. They knelt, facing upstage in a sacred final image that felt so fully realized as to contain the span of their relationship, beginning to end. 

Likewise, Matthew Neenan’s “Credo,” which opened the evening, had its moments. With a string quartet upstage, the dancers began moving as a kind of chorus, curling their spines into an exaggerated slouch, and moving through a series of telling gestures: a hand to face; two fingers pinched and tracing through the air; hand to mouth; and fingertip to brow. Their sheer jumpsuits, design by Reid & Harriet, fluttered with a kind of attached cape and hovered in-between toga and sari. With this vaguely exotic environment set, the dancers spiraled in and out of so many posed tableaux, leaning into Neenan’s dutiful musicality like so many dominoes falling into place. Fluid in their encounters with one another, sole dancers began moving through the group and altering it, like balls in a Rube Goldberg machine. 

Francesca Forcella and Jared Kelly in “Exalt” by Jennifer Archibald. Photograph by Whitney Browne

Throughout, much attention was paid to the craft of partnering and the dancers were equal to the challenge: Skylar Lubin reimagined a solo phrase with tender care in the arms of Ben Schwarz; Palazo floated Forcella in a series of circular lifts over his head that precipitated the ensemble rolling forward like waves from the wings.

The work was influenced by Neenan’s travels through India and that inspiration could be seen through certain hand shapes, lower slung postures and skips, walks on the heels, and the costumes. But ultimately, a contrived and overly emotive love triangle between Lubin, Schwarz, and Lanie Jackson overshadowed the larger stage craft of the ensemble work. And the melodramatic ending—with Jackson stumbling backward offstage, clutching her chest, a female lover so literally devastated with heartbreak—failed to generate the desired pathos.

By the time the curtain opened on Jennifer Archibald’s “Exalt,” I was hoping for a break from so much romance. Though the work began with a couple partnering in a smoky, stark light, something about the futuristic tones and chanting of the music gave me the sense that we were about to enter a very different world. This mysterious mood gave way to a greater surprise when Cusseaux entered and brought with him a complete vibe shift: suddenly we were in the club, with a loud beat, red light, and enough sass to elicit coos from the audience. For the next twenty minutes, the dancers lived in this mashup of ballet and house dancing, executing high velocity pirouettes and jetes, juxtaposed against slinky port de bras and more grounded sequences of club moves. 

Shawn Cusseaux in “Exalt” by Jennifer Archibald. Photograph by Whitney Browne

Like watching the Martha Graham Dance Company let loose in Hofesh Shechter’s rave of a dance “Cave,” it was fun to see these artists get down. But the men were able to relish the moment more naturally than the women, stuck as they were up on pointe trying to funk up bourrées and vamp while walking on pointe. The result was frequently cringey, and the technique of the pointe work suffered as much as the ambience in a hybrid task that was nearly impossible. Heels would certainly have been a better choice in the reach for glamour (a quality the pointe shoes were presumably aiming for) and allowed for more nuanced articulation and fun in Archibald’s breakaway grooves and spontaneous explosions of movement. We never quite made it to the “uncontrollable desire of house,” as a voice in one of the songs promised and yet, I remained impressed by the commitment and unflagging energy of the dancers in their effort to channel that spirit in ballet’s language of control: Forcella’s late-game diagonal of fouetté turns, a positive flurry of running overhead lifts by the entire cast in the final minutes, and Cusseaux’s daring back bend that dropped us off into the night.

 

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

comments

Merilyn Jackson

Great review, Candice. I love me my BalletX and its terrific dancers, but their business model of commissioning doesn’t always fit my palate. All too many of the choreographers they’ve chosen seem too timid to give the company’s loyal audience anything new to chew on. Much work of the last few years, save for exceptions like Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, have felt like rehashes of other work. Perhaps they might look at some repertoire by more innovative choreographers around the world and get the rights to premiere a sure thing now and then. Romance is alright, but I’d like sizzle and daring most nights. Good to see you on here since we last met at Duke.

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