Ballet X Films

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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BalletX has been confronted with an industry shutdown of theaters and venues with a slate of specific limitations to work around to train, create, rehearse and perform dance and do it safely for all concerned. But the company hasn’t paused creating new works. Artistic director and executive director Christine Cox a platform to nurture new ballets, residencies and commissions with a new generation of vanguard and seasoned dancemakers.

 They are maintaining and even reaching new audiences through the production of BalletX Films with single ticket and subscription access digital on media platforms through their website.

 Vitally, BalletX’s realized that dance on film is a separate collaborative art that requires rethinking everything to transfer the same aesthetic and energy that the dancers conjure in a live performance.

Their current Winter series features three films by choreographers Tai Hai Hung, Manuel Vignoulle and Francesca Harper, has proved to be their best so far, artistically and production wise.

The dancers are performing in the film dancing without masks in these pieces, but were sequestered or ‘bubbled’ a method being used by sports teams, during the rehearsals, and filmed performances.

Tai Hai Hung’s ‘Two X Two’ a dance duel starring Roderick Phifer and Princess Grace Award winner Stanley Glover is set in a wood panel room ensconced in Philadelphia’s historic Franklin Institute. In this scenario it evokes an exclusive academy, the dancers costumed in long silk coats and the duet punctuated with ritualized gestures. They are locked in each other’s gaze as they circle each other in an antagonistic athletic duet. pugilistic attitude and some martial arts moves are laced with balletic turns, jumps and arabesques. Are they friends, adversaries, competitors, intimates or simply dance duelers?

In Manuel Vignoulle’s ‘Heal’ a neo-baroque chant underscores a trilogy of scenarios simultaneously. Dancers Shawn Cusseaux and Skyler Lubin in a hypnotic duet in a hillside where they tumble, collapse, and vault into elegant lift sequence conveying support, commitment and resolve. Meanwhile, on a rocky outcrop Roderick Phifer is prone in a black suit, writhing and unwrapping surgical gauze from his face and torso. Then, a flash cut to Blake Krapels, cowered in a corner of a mirrored cell, in corrosive postures and anguished backbends. Then, in another part of the forest, Krapels does the earthiest dance imaginable in a mud pit. All of these primal screams in dance, and their resolves, linger.

The longest of the films is Francesca Harper’s Thaw, with six dancers- Shawn Cubbeaux, Savannah Green, Blake Krapels, Chloe Perkes, Ashley Simpson, Richard Villaverde, Andrea Yorita- was filmed at BalletX studios in South Philadelphia. Harper created the work with the dancers via zoom, not easy, but the choreographer is already an accomplished in the dance-film genre. 

With themes of social activism, a pas deux of about a bi-racial couple and reaction to the events of references of the violent politics around the election. The ballet also evokes what dancers have faced in a year of pandemic and industry shutdown. Now a negotiation with a virtual world as the new normal stage in which to perform.

They use their mobiles as their images of their bodies float off of their screen in the air around them. In an effect that is so seamless effects that don’t upstage the dancers or deflate the energy of the performance. Credit Daniel Madoff, a former dancer with Merce Cunningham and now a filmmaker working in several genres filmed these works with a dancer-centric sensibility, and vitally, a masterful skill for editing, so crucial in filming dance.

They line up along the wall with no barre, they lock into mechanicals, but are automatons, their eyes blank. Yorita moves with an illuminated tech wire wrapped around her body. Chloe Perkes, many months pregnant, oscillates her body with in protective determination. They write words SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE. The music is metallic and dissonant; Yorita slashes her arms around in a primal dance out.

 The dancers pantomime protecting their faces with their hands up protectively from something unknown. The music becomes more propulsive and they break out in liberated expression. Richard Villaverde flies into some slam ballet phrases that etch a sharp ballet line as he presses against the wall. A voice over poem with piano accompaniment in an intimate & choreographically inventive love duet between Simpson and Krapels.

All three works evoke a cathartic dance in passionate ways and each with moments of a choreographic primal scream. Dance artists who display their art in the ways they have trained for, in the studio culture, the necessary lab and exchange of creative energy and over this extended period, without the alchemy of the energy of live performance with an audience. BalletX is proving that live, or virtual, they are ready for their close-ups and so much more.  


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