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Bet the House on Ballet X

Nicolo Fonte’s choreography first appeared on my radar when Aspen Santa Fe Ballet gave his “In Hidden Seconds” its Philadelphia premier in 2010. Now resident choreographer at Salt Lake City’s Ballet West, many other companies seek his lyrical choreography. BalletX and Philadelphia Ballet have commissioned at least five works between them, giving Fonte a strong following among Philadelphia audiences.


BalletX: “Sidd: A Hero’s Journey” by Nicolo Fonte 


Wilma Theater, Philadelphia, PA, July 19-23, 2023


Merilyn Jackson

BalletX in “Sidd: A Hero's Journey” by Nicolo Fonte. Photograph by Vikki Sloviter

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His current commission from BalletX, “Sidd: A Hero’s Journey, premiered in Philadelphia last week to a full house at the Avenue of the Arts prestigious theater, the Wilma. I assume Fonte shortened the name to bring him into our contemporary world. The convoluted narrative had its world premiere in March at Colorado’s Vilar Performing Arts Center which co-commissioned the work.

Michael Korsch designed an ingeniously fabulous (I don’t exaggerate) moveable set of plateaus on wheeled legs of varying heights which become houses, pathways, bridges, a casino, and a boudoir. Fonte compares its eight steps and a pinnacle bridge to the Eightfold Path of Enlightenment in Buddhist teaching. Philadelphia artist Sebastienne Mundheim created a bunraku style puppet representing Sidd’s child. For this, I was grateful as bringing a real boy into this milieu would not have worked. Mundheim coached Eli Alford in manipulating the puppet just so he was unreal enough to fit the mythical aspects of the work. 

Skyler Lubin, Shawn Cusseaux, Peter Weil, Andrea Yorita in “Sidd: A Hero's Journey.” Photograph by Vikki Sloviter

A word about Siddhartha, a timeless classic, which, like Hesse’s similarly-themed 1927 Steppenwolf, was translated into English—both becoming unexpected bestsellers by the 1960s. They inspired numerous spin-offs as well as pop culture hit songs from Yes, Pete Townsend, even a band, Syd Arthur, and most exceptionally, the Canadian American psychedelic band that took its name from Steppenwolf and gave us the songs we grooved to like “Born to be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” Hesse’s books and those of similar genres were seminal to the pre-new age hippie movement, enjoying a large readership well into the 70s.

Of the thirteen terrific musical choices in Sidd that ranged from Thomas Ades, Powder her Face to The Silk Road Ensemble to a cello Concerto by Dobrinka Tabakova, oddly none were chosen to pay homage to Hesse’s sense of daring and his challenge to explore one’s deep psychic needs and a spiritual life outside of Western belief systems. Nor did they connect with the groovy aura of sex and drugs in the 1960s. They did, however, provide a driving hypnotic and often electronic beat.

Andrea Yorita, Shawn Cusseaux in “Sidd: A Hero's Journey” by Nicolo Fonte. Photograph by Vikki Sloviter

For this Siddhartha show, my carpet ride wasn’t as magical as I could have hoped. But there were many high points, so I’ll begin with the apotheosis of the story which connects Book One to Book Two. At the end of the first act, Sidd meets the courtesan Kamala, (Francesca Forcella) who teaches him (a virgin) the art of kissing and then, all the rest. Prior to Kamala, his closest friend and companion is Govinda (Ashley Simpson) who loved Siddhartha's “eye and sweet voice, his walk and the perfect decency of his movements.”* 

The night before he meets Kamala, he dreams he “embraced Govinda, wrapped his arms around him, and as he was pulling him close to his chest and kissed him, it was not Govinda any more, but a woman, and a full breast popped out of the woman's dress, at which Siddhartha lay and drank, sweetly and strongly tasted the milk from this breast. It tasted of woman and man, of sun and forest, of animal and flower, of every fruit, of every joyful desire. It intoxicated him and rendered him unconscious.”*

This lays the foundation for Fonte’s mixed gendered role plays. As well as Simpson’s role as the male Govinda, Andrea Yorita dances Sidd’s (male) Ego in a tortured push-pull relationship. This is her final run with the company before retiring after eleven years as one of the company’s most riveting dancer. Skyler Lubin dances roles as Sidd’s mother and then as a veiled and feminine Buddha. All the women, whether portraying male or female characters danced en pointe.

Kamala bids Sidd to become rich to win her love. This leads to a night of vice, dice, booze and licentiousness in a casino setting where the women wear modern dress and fascinators perched on their heads. Sidd is a big winner. Yorita returns, relishing the new riches as it fulfills her as Ego. But Sidd sees this is a shallow life and once again tries to fend her off, finally trying to end it all in the river. 

Eli Alford, Skyler Lubin, Ben Schwarz, Jerard Palazo, Shawn Cusseaux in “Sidd: A Hero's Journey” by Nicolo Fonte. Photograph by Vikki Sloviter

In Act 2, the River People provide another sublime part of this work, bringing it closer to fruition. All in shadowy veils in shades of blue, they sway in waves beneath the bridge, breathing life back into Sidd by standing over him while chanting the Om. Kamala returns to him in his dreams, pregnant with his child. 

Govinda finds Sidd meditating and stays by him as the River People bring him his son which Kamala has given up to him. But the child wants no more to be with Sidd than Sidd wanted to remain with his parents. The Ferryman convinces him to let the child go his own way, just as Sidd’s parents let him go. Sidd makes peace with Ego and all join together in tableau as the curtain falls.

Overall, character development was uneven. On opening night Shawn Cusseaux was not credible as Sidd. His dancing with Yorita was a contact-improv style and fine as ever, but neither brings their character to life. Perhaps they are too abstract to absorb? Further, the exposition of the story required showy miming that nearly overshadowed the classical ballet vocabulary, which sustained it, but not with much innovation.

Francesca Forcella, Ben Schwarz, Peter Weil in “Sidd: A Hero's Journey” by Nicolo Fonte. Photograph by Vikki Sloviter

But Jared Kelly as the Ferryman, Lubin, spectacularly bejeweled, (something I’d can’t imagine Buddha  wearing) and Forcella, in blood red and a spiky tiara, most successfully inhabited their characters. Forcella’s startling entrance woke the audience from the four previous, less dramatic scenes. Ben Schwarz and Peter Weil (guesting from Philadelphia Ballet) lift Forcella in a lofty arabesque for one of many exquisite moments with her on stage.

BalletX, now in its 18th year, is a commissioning company. Over the years they’ve funded 100 world premiere ballets by nearly 60 choreographers, four from Fonte. In Craps, a hard four is called a “ballerina” because it is two-two (tutu.) Gambling is always a high stakes game and no one always plays the winning card. With Fonte’s interpretation of Hesse’s Siddhartha, I’d say they have a draw.

*Excerpts from Siddhartha 

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, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, 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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