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BWW Review: BALLETX, Philly's Groundbreaking Contemporary Company, Offers Three NYC Premieres at the Joyce

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On August 16th 2016, opening night of a six-day run at the Joyce, BalletX did not disappoint dancegoers anticipating a taste of the quirky fare for which the troupe has become known. Billing itself as "Philadelphia's premier contemporary ballet", the company has from its inception in 2005 been what the founders have called a "playground" that has allowed choreographers the freedom to experiment and explore as they strive to create exciting new works. Matthew Neenan, a Co-Founder who now focuses solely on choreography, once told Philadelphia Gay News reporter Suzi Nash that those three words - experiment, explore, exciting - are the reason for the "X" in the name, as well as a reference to Generation X. In that same interview, Neenan was quoted as saying, "You said the word 'ballet' and they would think tutus. We wanted to expand that and give people who'd grown tired of traditional ballet something new."

Neenan's "Show Me", the first offering on the triple bill, is a case in point. Although not the best work in Neenan's considerable pantheon of ballets, this pleasant creation showcases the choreographer's gift for making dances based on solid ballet technique set to popular music - in this case, a group of recordings by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. As is often true on playbills these days, the dancers were not listed in a way that would allow me to single out anyone for special praise. That said, I will resort to commending the woman in aqua, on pointe but decidedly au courant, for a first-rate performance. However, all ten of the company members were superb.

Next up was "Gran Partita" by Finnish-born Jorma Elo to a collection of music by Alban Berg, Mozart, Monteverdi, and J.S. Bach. Appealing patterns and unexpected lifts abounded, but the piece could have used an editor. I overheard several people at intermission echoing my opinion that Elo's work was repetitious and went on too long. Also, both Neenan and Elo included sections danced to silence, a ploy that is no longer fresh. Even so, I applaud both of these dancemakers for their contribution to the 21st century canon.

The evening's closer, which had its World Premiere on February 10th 2016 at The Wilma Theater in the Philadelphia where BalletX is the resident company, was Trey McIntyre's weird and wonderful "Big Ones". The dancers all sported headpieces with huge appendages (Ears? Horns?) that could have been comical had the dancing not been so polished and convincing. McIntyre is quoted on the playbill as saying "We are caught in a war between wanting to be great and wanting to be loved." That perhaps explains his choice of songs by the late Amy Winehouse as accompaniment. I'm not a fan of hearing lyrics while watching dance because my attention is necessarily divided between the words and the movement. That is especially true in the case of Winehouse. She was an exceptional artist but her diction is not always easy to understand. Even so, I appreciate McIntyre's use of her pulsing and poignant messages.

The audience, notably multi-generational, hooted and hollered and applauded wildly during all the curtain calls. That is a testament to the achievement of BalletX during its ten years of pushing the boundaries of ballet choreography in a quest to convince people of all ages that the art form is in fact not just about tutus.

BalletX continues at the Joyce through August 21st 2016. If you're in town, don't miss this opportunity to see the little company that could.

Photo of Matthew Neenan's "Show Me" by Alexander Iziliaev


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