BalletX Beyond Premieres
September 23, 2020

Sigrid Payne DaVeiga

In an innovative launch, BalletX, Philadelphia’s premier contemporary ballet company, has indelibly crafted the emotional and physical limitations of social distancing and the impact of recent events surrounding racism in the United States to catapult the arts into the present with an amazingly lithe landing. BalletX opened their 2020-2021 Season on their new virtual platform, BalletX Beyond, with four impressive original works by choreographers from around the world. The innovative and forward-thinking approach to their season is a breath of fresh air in a climate that feels oppressively claustrophobic for development and sustainment of the arts. It is a model for sustainability and evolution that we should watch closely for inspiration and ongoing dialogue to promote continued development and progress of the arts.

BalletX has not painted rose-colored lenses on any of the portrayals of current events in their work. Rather, the company thoughtfully laid bare many of the struggles we are all facing, making use of small spaces, animation, dancers’ homes and open local landscapes to gut-punch the audience with a reminder of why humanity is so beautiful and that despite every struggle we face, we are powerful.

On opening night, the company hosted a heartfelt virtual event on Zoom for subscribers starting with dancer  Zachary Kapeluck teaching the audience how to make the evening’s signature cocktail, “Autumn Pas de Deux,” followed by Christine Cox, BalletX Artistic and Executive Director’s insightful interviews of the production’s choreographers. Once a production is released, a subscriber can view the pieces on the BalletX streaming platform in any order and as many times as they like for the entirety of the season. I can guarantee if tonight’s premieres portend the marvel of BalletX’s 2020-2021 season, your browser will be plenty busy unpacking the material within each piece like a multilayered gift you can open over and over.

The four premiere pieces are placed in a specific order for a reason, and I would recommend watching them that way. The first selection is Scribble by Loughlan Prior, an award-winning choreographer working in New Zealand. He is the Choreographer in Residence at the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the Artistic Director of Prior Visual, a project-based film collective. Prior described the process of choreographing for the dancers, Stanley Glover, Andrea Yorita, and Kapeluck by reading about them and watching them online, which was an entirely new experience.

The piece was set in the studio at BalletX in a manufactured black box, and afterwards animation hand-drawn by Glynn Urquhart frame by frame was superimposed on and around the dancers, creating extensions of their movement and landscapes that seem to interact with them. The piece opens in still and quiet but is surprisingly dynamic, as Glover’s resting face is simply outlined by a white scribble. The movements and extensions of the dancers become larger and larger, and in perfectly matched musical moments they shrink to a small central space to be surrounded by pulsating minimalist landscapes created by the scribbles.

Stanley Glover in “Scribble” by Loughlan Prior
Director of Photography: Daniel Madoff

In a beautiful moment, Kapeluck swirls something between his hands, and the white scribbles that magically formulate transform into the beautiful fluid movement and human being, Yorita. The smallest details are the most captivating, like a spark of scribble flying off the tip of Yorita’s toe as her gorgeous extension travels through the crisp black space. This approximately 7-minute piece sets the tone for the entire production as the dancers create the landscape and the interpretation of themselves in the visual space. It’s as if BalletX is explicitly telling us, we ourselves are the art and the magic comes from within us, and just like that, we are captivated.

Ricochet, choreographed by Penny Saunders, is the second selection. Saunders described how her piece is intended to present our complicated relationship with the archetype of the American Cowboy. The piece moves from moments of joviality to poignancy and suggestions of violence, and is filmed in the beautiful landscapes of the Belmont Stables and St. Malachi Church.

The men of BalletX create an impressive formation and synchronous stepwise dance reminiscent of a line dance through a path in the field. Their physical architecture and grace are sublime. A cowboy’s complicated relationship with women as lovers and mothers is presented as well. Saunders’ insightful song selection includes Patsy Ann Bruce’s Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.

At one point, the female dancers are strewn across a field at the Belmont Stables in simple yet effective costumes of denim shorts, black tank tops and cowboy hats, designed by Martha Chamberlain. Smoke appears to be rising from the field where they lie and begin to writhe, as we hear a running advertisement with the voice of the infamous Marlboro man advertising cigarettes.

Shawn Cusseaux dances a full-throttled solo in denim, neck handkerchief, and cowboy hat to Charley Pride’s Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ which tells us that his friends “wonder how does a man get to be this way?” His musculature and power are somehow even more clear through the costume of the American cowboy as he jumps and leaps through the grass.

Roderick Phifer and Stanley Glover dance a moving piece in an open field that is at once sorrowful and strong. In a precious commentary, Warren Miller dances the part of a young boy, initially playing with figurines of cowboys.  He embodies the passage at the end, mirroring Blake Krapels’ passionate solo, much like a young child emulating a hero as Sharon Vaughn’s lyric (performed by Phosphorescent) plays, “My heroes have always been cowboys / And they still are it seems.”

Warren Miller and Blake Krapels in “Ricochet” by Penny Saunders
Director of Photography: Quinn Wharton

The choreography is set on the extraordinary talent of the BalletX dancers, who effectively engender the nuance of suggestion around the history of Americana’s obsession with cowboys and how perhaps, our perception of these heroes has not always been complete. Ricochet ends with Charley Pride’s The Easy Part’s Over, which states, “the easy part’s over now. It’s time to cry. The easiest part of all was saying goodbye.” This line is the effective bridge to the hardest part of this evening’s journey, The Under Way (working title).

Rena Butler, the recipient of the Princess Grace Award for Choreography in 2019, choreographed the third and most compelling work in this series, The Under Way (working title). In this evening’s interview, Butler described how her piece was originally intended to be inspired by the Underground Railroad and set on stage, but given current events she pivoted to set the work in our current reality intentionally and through the filter of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Butler’s intentions and final execution of The Under Way (working title) are brilliant. Butler’s choreography and collaboration with the filmmakers and dancers as cinematographers from their own spaces created an authenticity to the piece that could never have been duplicated on stage. The intentionality of every prop, movement, and setting is incredible given that everyone involved was working with what they had around them.

The Under Way (working title) opens on snapshot images of dancers in their own homes in varied spaces motionless in various contortions at first, and then loosely interpreting the spoken words of Socrates, narrating the Allegory of the Cave. The narration revolves around our perception of our understanding based on our experience as captives chained in a cave where all we can see are shadows cast by a burning fire.

There is something chilling in watching the dancers incoherently mouth words in response to this conversation with Socrates, as if they are reasoning through this process, when they are, in fact, the victims to which he refers. A couple of the dancers’ feline friends make their way into some of the videos, making the experience even more authentic.

The footage seamlessly shifts into the space occupied by dancers Andrea Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck, where they perform some impressive lifts and fluid partnering which makes its way up the walls and around the furniture in their kitchen. At a certain point, the camera shifts perspective and as the viewer, you are no longer certain if it is your perception that changed or if the dancers actually turned sideways. On the screen, the phrase flashes, “Consider this: If you turn your head now are you part of the problem?”

In another intriguing moment, there is the shadow of a dancer in the dark surrounded by what appear to be stars. At first a beautiful female voice is reciting what seems to be the names of stars, but as the camera shifts closer, a map of constellations appears to be drawn, names appear next to the stars and the audible names of the stars change to recitations of the names of those killed in acts of racist police violence in recent years. The dancer’s shadow is still moving, but is now captive in a string of white lights, not at all surrounded by stars. Breonna Taylor’s name is in capital letters today, September 23, amongst these lights on the screen, coinciding with the day that protests across the United States ignited following the grand jury decision to not charge Louisville police officers with her murder.

The Under Way (working title) shifts to focus on Shawn Cusseaux dancing in the grass by the bridge in Fairmount Park, as names of those victims of racist police violence continue to be recited and then fade out. There are passersby who seem to pay no attention. His dance is rich, fluid, and poignant and ultimately culminates in a painful pounding on his chest, screaming then taking wrenching deep breaths and falling to the ground as the lighting effects make the ground a flashing bright red as if he has been violently murdered.

Shawn Cusseaux in “The Under Way (working title)” by Rena Butler
Director of Photography: Tshay Williams

Roderick Phifer and Stanley Glover dance an electric and resounding piece of choreography in front of the statue of Frank Rizzo, former Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor of Philadelphia whose third term slogan was “Vote White.” Their piece quickly shifts back and forth from a scene in an indoor apartment to the space in front of the Rizzo statue, surrounded by barricades, where Phifer and Glover appear to be frantically running and struggling.

Ultimately, their outstretched faces and mouths covered by the shirts that have been pulled over their heads are a stark and chilling reminder of the images seen this past year of black men with their heads covered in fabric as a common part of the horrific and overt violent acts of racism by law enforcement in the United States. A voice reminds us as the frame shifts that this racism that is part of our everyday lives is a “corruption, a distortion, a profound neurosis.”

In finality, the camera shifts to a quiet apartment where dancer Blake Krapels interacts with his furniture, his window, in a calm space and a voice recites all of the things “I can” do, for example, “I can go birding, I can go jogging, I can sell CDs, I can have a disabled vehicle, I can walk home from the corner store, I can ask a cop a question…” The list changes slightly and is repeated and recited more quickly again and again. Krapels moves faster and faster and while he appears safe in the enclosed space of his home, his movements also seem strangled and stifled.

His jumps and leaps to hold onto the wall or window become frantic, at one point, even pounding on his head. Eventually he comes to rest on the couch, taking audibly deep, calming breaths and the voice recites, “Most importantly, I can breathe,” another incantation of the horror central to racist acts of police brutality committed in the United States and now witnessed by people around the world. Shockingly at the end of this final scene, Krapels gets up and walks out the door of his apartment into the bright light of day without any hesitation; the last thing we hear is the sound of his house alarm system activating.

Truly, Butler’s piece is one of the most brave and compelling pieces of art created this year. She paints a picture of the anxiety we face with being trapped inside our “caves”, which can be of our own making, in a time when the horrible reality of the racist infrastructure of our society cannot be denied. The last precise moment of this piece baits the question, even if we are allowed to freely walk into our lives again after the 2020 pandemic ends, will any of us ever really be free until we face the reality of the shadows and perceptions we are victim to?

The fourth and final piece this evening, Love Letter, choreographed by Caili Quan, is a closing message of celebration and optimism. Quan opens this strikingly beautiful piece with a description of the word “Mahalong,” which means “a yearning; to long for, to miss someone, something or some place.” Poignantly we hear a voice saying, “I long for everything I did in my life,” which I think is a sentiment every single one of us can relate to right now.

Francesca Forcella in “Love Letter” by Caili Quan
Director of Photography: Elliot deBruyn

These words are tied to the sounds of the sea, lightning flashing in the overhanging sky and the initially questioning movement of dancer Francesca Forcella on the seashore. Simultaneously, images of the city of Philadelphia and its rooftops, overlooked by dancer Richard Villaverde flash before our eyes. From his vantage point we see the city enveloping the sea of memories of the things we used to know.

Forcella becomes the centerpiece of Love Letter, our veritable tour guide of memory, and it is a gift to follow her. Her seashore dance takes on a confident and secure tone purposefully demonstrating how she is finding her way, and the product of her transformation is one of a beautiful and powerful dance urging courage and hope. Quan uses the imagery of the dancer blowing something invisible in her hands out into the universe which propels us to a new space where she arrives and participates in the next movement.

Zachary Kapeluck and Blake Krapels dominate the opening of a playful scene set against the backdrop of the night lights of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and Harry Belafonte’s Man Piaba. This piece is truly joyful and jubilant, though the opening tone is again one of questioning our standing in this space, in this universe. Quan uses the music so effectively, the words laying out a letter to parents whose children have just arrived upon an age of curiosity. Kapeluck and Krapels are joined by Yorita and Savannah Green, and witnessing their movements progress from an uncertainty and “curiosity” as they seem to come into their steps and redefine who they are, is delightful and assuring.

Forcella continues with us on an actual tour of dances in various landscapes in Philadelphia. Roderick Phifer and Stanley Glover and perform an impressive and synchronous dance in the Navy Yards. Ashley Simpson is joined by Yorita and Forcella in what feels like an almost conversational piece set in the Stoneleigh garden.

Ashley Simpson in “Love Letter” by Caili Quan
Director of Photography: Elliot deBruyn

The three women dance asynchronously and all look directly into the camera when they are featured as if they are interacting directly with the viewer. Simpson especially appears to be speaking to us. Her “voice” and her movements seem a direct statement to the viewer. Her stance is a position of power and progress in her circumstances and she seems to challenge the viewer to take on the same in their own space. The intentionality of the dancers being set over 6-feet apart does something compelling in this scene. They are near to each other, but still individuals; supporting each other, but finding their own steps and statements.

Love Letter ends on a rooftop overlooking the Philadelphia skyline as Forcella dances with Richard Villaverde, who appears to be the literal object of her love letter, though the piece is clearly a love letter for all the things we have loved. A voice states that in our Mahalong, there is sadness but also happiness. This sentiment is clear in the last pas de deux as Forcella and Villaverde dance six feet apart, again together but just nearby.

Their outstretched fingers reaching for each other as their movements encompass the entire view of the city skyline show us that while we long for the things we have left behind, the beauty and the strength of this life are still within us. Love Letter is truly an elegy of things past, but also a celebration of where we are and an ode to the hope of what we might become.

BalletX rocks the dance world into the present in an honest and powerful upset to the constructs of dance performance as we have known it. The platform for viewing, the dances packed with multilayered material, the capacity to bring together artists from all over the world to create art we never would have seen under other circumstances should be an inspiration and a motivation for all of us.

After watching BalletX’s premieres, you will wake up the next morning filled with hope and surety that we have the potential to rise in a transformation unlike anything we could have ever known had we not been faced with these challenges. These artists are screaming at us that now is not a time for denial or silence, now is a time for honesty and courage, for challenging yourself and the constructs that have defined us until today.  Let’s scream back.