BalletX danced to a sold out house at the Wilma Theater July 11, the opening of a two-week run of their Summer Series of premieres- one by Matthew Neenan and new collaborations with choreographers Penny Saunders and Andrew McNicol. The run marks the final performances by two of longtime favorite dancers Gary W. Jeter II and Daniel Mayo. Joining the company and making their debuts are the newest members of the ten-member troupe- Anna Peabody and Stanley Glover.
BalletX artistic director Christine Cox has not only been a champion of commissioning new works (68 in a dozen years) and Cox has just opened the Center for World Premier Choreography to assure that her mission to present new voices in contemporary ballet will only expand.
McNicol is BalletX’s 2018 Choreographic Fellow, under the mentorship of Neenan. The young British choreographer has created works for The Royal Ballet of Flanders, The New Choreographic Institute and for the 2016 London Olympics. McNicol’s first work on BalletX is indeed ambitious just for the fact that it is scored to the majestic choral passages to Mozart’s Requiem.
The dancers are in motion as the curtain goes up on his ‘Requiem’ moving like a kinetic sculpture of connected bodies as Mozart’s Kyrie thunders in. The opening passage reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Orfeo & Eurydice, but very effective in focusing the humanist and metaphysical scope of McNicol’s themes.
McNicol’s choreography is as dramatic as the music, passages of expressive group movement laced with contemporary balletics, intricate pointe work and cathartic expression. A fine debut performance for Stanley Glover as the grief stricken central figure. Francesca Forcella crumbles in his arms, and they dance an intimate duet of death and transfiguration. Another pairing with Glover and Zachary Kapeluck, is almost pugilistic and just as dramatic. The other dancers move in and out of supporting duets and ensemble configurations. McNicol’s less crowded choreography, creating dynamic stage pictures and his evocative choreographic artistry.
In dramatic contrast is Matt Neenan’s ‘Situated’ a comedic romp scored to Felix Mendelssohn’s piano transcriptions of Song Without Words, performed onstage by virtuoso Pennsylvania Ballet pianist Martha Koeneman. Koeneman, a specialist in 20th century neoclassicism, is just as virtuosic with Mendelssohn’s lyricism. Meanwhile, Neenan animates a dancer playground for a cast of eight. First they are splayed over upended chairs, then scrambling them around and setting up various scenes de actione- a bouncy ride on a subway car one minute or acting out at a boozy dinner the next.
Suddenly the chairs are in a circle and Daniel Mayo starts to kneel, mount and kick around one of the chairs ends up mounting it tipping over like a cowboy riding off into the sunset. Meanwhile the rest of the dancers look like they are seated in a circle for what looks like group therapy. It is hard to latch on to where this choreographic ride is going. Witty in moments, but ponderous in others. The most inspired moments come as the eight dancers start speaking over each other in different languages- Forcella in Italian, Kapeluck in Ukrainian and Cali Quan in Chamorro, just to mention a few. Did I mention that they all were wearing pastel jammies?
‘Situated’ is dance buffa, and Neenan using intriguing minimalist phrases, in admirable contrast to his comic choreographic vocabulary of past works. The chairs suddenly end up in an abstract pile that the dancers, assembled and then taken apart like a house of cards. Meanwhile, whatever else is going on Koeneman makes Mendelssohn’s more than accompaniment for squirrelly musical chairs, however precariously arranged.
Penny Saunders is a Princess Grace Choreographic awardee and her collaboration with composer Rosie Langabeer on ‘Rock-A-Bye’ showcasing the dancers acting strengths and the company’s commitment to contemporary narrative dance.
Langabeer scored Neenan’s smash hit ‘Sunset o639 Hours’ an adventurous mix of New Zealand indigenous music, 30s cabaret and period ballads. That score worked magic with Neenan’s choreography and the same is true for Langabeer’s music in ‘Rock-A-Bye.’ The composer is onstage with percussionist Gregg Mervine and violinist Tara Middleton.
Langabeer is the silver voice balladeer and entrancing on 50s era steel guitar lullaby. Then a song, a duet with Middleton, about the emotional journey of motherhood, the joys and emotional pains of loving and letting go, with the haunting lyrics “Hey momma, where are all your children… “What you gave was not of your choosing…” as she marks the time passing in a once intimate family, growing apart.
Chloe Perkes portrays a mother coping with relationship struggles with her children. Saunders choreography can express a lot of narrative in minimal movement and the emotional nuances of these characters. Perkes’ just back from being out most of this season with an injury, makes a strong return in this part both in her technical artistry and portraying the character. Caili Quan dances the symbolic figure of Fate (on exquisite pointe) intervening on the family’s drama.
Saunders weighs down Rock-A-Bye with exposition at points, but mostly this is potent dance-theater. Set designer You-Shin Chen set of a kitchen area, long table with the musicians at one end and moveable patch of yard, works well in tandem with Michael Korsch’s lighting designs are particularly dynamic in collaboration with Saunders’ fine sense of stage composition throughout the ballet.