Posted by: strugglesome | November 24, 2010

Panic at the Disco: BalletX’s Fall Show at the Wilma Theater

Ah the ballet. So graceful, so elegant, so painful for the people who actually try to perform it. For all it’s beauty and serenity, ballet may in fact be one of the worst things you can do to your body (barring anything that happens as part of the Jackass franchise) as well as a physical technique that is so far from a natural way to move one’s body that the two don’t even live in the same district. All that aside, though, beautifully done ballet is inspirational, even if it’s not healthy. But here’s the thing about ballet, when you spend your entire life training your body to be able to do it, chances are you are going to have a hard time doing anything else with much success. It becomes your default mechanism, and, like a karate master trying to become a boxing champion, you are going to have some issues when you try to deviate from it. At least, that seems to be the situation BalletX is dealing with in their work, as exhibited in their fall offering at the Wilma Theater.

BalletX, whose artistic directors Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan both have long histories in the Pennsylvania Ballet, is attempting to blur the lines between ballet and, well, all other forms of dance by breaking all the balletic rules that govern the highly regulated form. However, sometimes there is a wide gap between intention and execution, and that is the unfortunate fate that befell BalletX’s three pieces exhibited in this show.  Because while I assume that the intention of these three dance pieces was an exciting experiment in boundary-pushing dance, the execution of the majority of these three pieces was more messy then mesmerizing, more chaos then coordinated, and more conventional then an experimental company has a right to be.

Let’s start with the first of the three pieces, Annabelle Lopex Ochoa’s extremely confused Still@Live. According to the program notes this piece is about the still lives and music of the Baroque era, specifically the sculpture of Michaelangelo. Setting aside the fact that calling Michelangelo a Baroque painter is the kind of thing that causes widespread hysterical laughter among the Art History set, this piece, an awkward rigid mishmash of ballet and moves that mock ballet, sending green apples rolling all over the stage (a choice I had thought was a reference to Rene Magritte until I realized I was, um,  overestimating it) . Ballet is an unapologetically presentational style (given it’s evolution from court mannerisms in 17th century France), and while it’s all well and good to make fun of that, if that is the soul and substance of an entire piece it does get a bit much. While there may be amusing moments in this number, watching a company of clearly talented dancers pretend ineptness in coordinating Capezio dance skirts is not exactly the most exciting thing to watch.

The next piece, a work by young choreographer Torbin Del Cuore, who has decked his artists in Star Trek style outfits (costume designer Martha Chamberlin) and added that oh so important dramatic side lighting that seems to haunt the dance world, is definitely the most daring of the works exhibited,  if a touch trite in it’s physical vocabulary. It seems that when ballet dancers want to break free of ballet they either dance ballet to metal and techno music, or they do moves that seem to them the opposite of ballet, that is, thug meets tap meets disco. It is clear in his piece that Del Cuore is consistently trying to create a new spectrum of movement for his dancers, and while that is interesting, it had sacrificed narrative and emotionally continuity in order to do so. But, hey, at least he’s taking some chances.

The last piece, Frequencies, a number choreographed by Neeman himself, is supposed to be a reverent and glowing rumination on biblical themes, specifically Jacob wrestling with the Angel. What it really is is a ridiculous completely nonsensical compilation of movement that is as disconnected as it is faintly blasphemous. When you get to the point that dancers are literally acting out the lyrics of the songs to which they are dancing, chances are you’ve gone a step too far. The story of Jacob and the Angel is among the most mystical and fascinating of the Old Testament, a story of faith that is tried, that struggles, and is found satisfactory in the eyes of the Lord. This piece, performed by dancers whose costumes make one wonder when exactly they escaped from that cult, has neither the gravitas nor depths to make it either interesting or a joy to watch.

Given how much expectational and arresting experimental dance there is currently happening in Philadelphia, it’s extremely odd that BalletX hasn’t found itself influenced by any of these other innovative dancers. After all, if you want help breaking the rules of conventional dance, you might as well ask the people who are doing it well, consistently and successfully. That being said, it’s only BalletX’s fifth birthday. So I suppose they still have plenty of time to decide what they want to do when they grow up.

More information on BalletX can be found here.


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