BWW Dance Review: BALLETX
Sitting through BalletX's 10th anniversary season performance at Philadelphia's Wilma Theater on July 6, 2016, I was struck with some deep pangs of disappointment. It wasn't that the new works presented that evening were bad, quite the contrary. But how does one say that something more was expected, especially when reviewing a new Matthew Neenan production?
Matthew Neenan is a prodigiously talented choreographer. I've been following him since he was a dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet up to his choreographic debut and beyond; he possesses a sensitive mind and a thinking heart, all of which translates into striking stage images. But, as has been the case a number of times with his past choreography, he has a tendency to repeat his steps over and over again. I would advise an editor, because there were at least 15 minutes that could easily have been cut from his new work, "Identity Without Attribute."
Inspired by Toni Hamilton, a friend and supporter of BalletX who died in 2015 after suffering with Alzheimer's, "Identity Without Attribute" has a great deal to commend it. Although there is no story other that the facts about Ms. Hamilton, the work explores the loss of memory, here a metaphor for love, companionship, and connection--all those attributes that define us as people living in the light, away from the dark where perception has dimmed and faded. (At least that's what I read into it.) There were certain times during the performance that the poignant images evoked cascading memories of loved ones that many have lost to the disease. But the dance offered that one precious thing that all of us need in a time of illness: hope. It wasn't overtly stated, or should I say danced, but the performers made me believe it. And Mr. Neenan surely did his share in making this abundantly clear. It zinged to the heart.
I was very moved by this, but there were some glaring details that stood in my way of total satisfaction. One was the video projections and music by the Klip Collective. I know that this must have seemed a creative, new injection into the dance, but the truth of the matter was that they stood in the way, barricading the choreography from making its full impact. It's as if the team was thinking of a new gimmick, something to make it really relevant to today's news. Instead, all it succeeded in doing was taking my eye and comprehension away from the dance. (Perhaps I'm too much of a blue cyclorama person; I apologize deeply.) Yes, I got it; those were images evoking states of diminished memory. It should be in the steps, not on the backdrop. Let me move on to the music, also devised by the Collective, a huge intrusion according to my critical acumen. I believe this only hindered Mr. Neenan, becoming repetitive to the eye and numbing to the mind. I'm not sure which came first, the music or the dance, but I do blame the work's deficiencies on the work's length. A lot more could have been accomplished with less. I hope that Mr. Neenan keeps investigating his work to see what changes can be applied. Then I'd like to see it again.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Bonzi", a name borrowed from one of the musical pieces used in the ballet, follows the eponymous character, a tired salesman who finds himself in a Magritte-like world of doors that slide, turn and open all around him. Bonzi could be a character of great fun, but as in Neenan's work, the choreography failed to evoke or ignite my imagination. And it was too long. There were times when I thought the ballet was over, and it just continued. What could have been a light piece of insightful comedy became a trial, as I began nervously moving around in my chair, waiting for the curtain to fall. During a pre-conference talk, Ms. Ochoa said that she had worked with a dramaturge on this dance. If so, it was the wrong person.
The dancers were all superb: Edgar Anido, Chloe Felesina, Francesca Forcella, Gary W. Jeter II, Zachary Kapeluck, Skyler Lubin, Daniel Mayo, Caili Quan, and Richard Villaverde. They all should have received bouquets. And in this day, when dance has become more political than artistic, it was wonderful to see such a committed, diversified group on stage.
BalletX has made a definite and lasting mark on contemporary modern dance. It will continue to keep growing, as it should. If I was not as moved as I should have been, this is the case when you see any new piece for the first time and have to sit on judgement, not always a pleasant thing to do. But having seen so much of BalletX's repertoire, I can say, with honesty, that this company deserves to be on the dance map. Any international tours in the works?
I look forward to seeing what's next. It's always interesting!!!!
Photograph: Alexander Iziliaev