Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre
July 27, 2019
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Philadelphia’s BalletX opened DANCECleveland’s 2019-2020 season this past Saturday as part of year three of the annual American Dance Festival in Cleveland. The contemporary ballet company founded in 2005 by former Pennsylvania Ballet dancers Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, made its Cleveland debut at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre in a program featuring three diverse works that by its end, brought the audience to its feet in appreciation.
Known as a breeding ground for new works by contemporary choreographic voices from around the globe, much has happened with BalletX since its last visit to Northeast Ohio back in 2013. Neenan has moved on from company leadership to concentrate fully on his burgeoning choreographic career and BalletX in 2018 opened its new Center for World Premiere Choreography, moving into a new 5,000 square foot studio and administrative home in Philadelphia.
What hadn’t changed since 2013, was the ability of the company and its 10 dancers (including former GroundWorks Dance Theater dancer Blake Krapels) from knocking an audience’s socks off with world class dancing in world class dance works.
The program opened with choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s latest ballet for the company “Steep Drop, Euphoric” (2019) set to music by Ezio Bosso and Ólafur Arnalds. The 25-minute piece began with the jolting screech of string instruments to usher in the first of many traveling dancer tableaus that would be integral to the look of the ballet beginning with dancer Chloe Perkes being lifted to stand atop the shoulders of several other dancers.
Fonte’s choreographic style for the ballet had BalletX’s full complement of dancers flowing from one smoothly formed tableau of dancers being lifted or melting into one another’s arms a la the works of choreographers Lar Lubovich and Doug Varone. The lush movement was characterized by the dancers swaying and sinking into close-quartered interactions with each other, arms often suspended in air briefly. Fonte alternated the pace of the ballet with quick bursts of movement by individual dancers mixed in with slower group dance phrases.
At one end of the rear of the stage, a long piece of what looked to be Marley dance floor (the slip-resistant surface the dancers perform on) hung from the rafters and was unrolled to the stage floor, suggesting a road to the heavens. The image jived with Fonte’s thoughts on the ballet contained in the program notes that read: “Perhaps the only places left unexplored are the canyons of your interior geography, the dark alleys of your consciousness – one of which might lead you to your road to bliss.”
That interior geography and potential road to bliss appeared to belong to Perkes’ character who throughout the ballet stepped in and out of dancing with the others to stand on the Marley road and gaze back at her fellow performers as if reflecting on her life.
In a later section of the ballet, dancers Andrea Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck launched into the first of two successive pas de deuxs. Yorita, a diminutive powerhouse, burst about the stage with spritely energy showing off her beautiful extension, turning ability, and footwork. A second pas de deux immediately followed with dancers Skyler Lubin and Stanley Glover continuing the barrage of beautiful choreography that culminated in the dancers forming a quartet spiced with partnered lifts. After a heartfelt solo danced by Perkes in spotlight moving along the Marley road, the ballet ended as it began with her standing atop several dancers’ shoulders reaching out. This time not toward the Marley road leading out on to the stage, but the one leading upward.
Next the company switched its stylistic gears in Charles “Lil Buck” Riley’s “Express” (2018), danced to jazz music by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste. Lil Buck, a dancer, actor and model from Memphis, Tennessee, burst onto the dance scene in a big way in the past few years in large part due to his “Memphis jookin” hip hop dance version of Michel Fokine’s ballet classic “The Dying Swan” that went viral.
For the 16-minute “Express,” the choreographer fused his mostly improvised jookin movement language with ballet and jazz movement to create a hybrid style that fit nicely on BalletX’s dancers. Costumed in streetwear and sneakers for the men, pointe shoes for the women (at least to begin with), the work was overall a fun, flirty, and jazzy play on male/female relationship banter.
The work’s finest moment came in a solo by featured dancer Glover to Batiste’s melancholy dirge “Saint James Infirmary Blues.” The silky smooth Glover moved with the freedom of Lil Buck himself in the jookin-flavored solo.
By work’s end the women had swapped their point shoes for red Nike sneakers, and the entire cast of 10, especially dancer Cali Quan, let their funk flag fly in a frenetically fabulous finale to the Jon Batiste and Stay Human song “Express Yourself (Say Yes)” capped by Batiste asking the question, “What is Jazz?”
The program ended most satisfyingly with a reprise of Neenan’s signature ballet for the company, “The Last Glass”(2010) that the company performed in Akron in 2013.
Inspired by what Neenan referred to as “wild street-parade,” the 25-minute ballet all 10 dancers was set to suite of 8 tunes by American indie-rock band Beirut, and whose emotional lyrics Neenan took to heart in his choreography.
I wrote of the ballet in 2013: As if splashing through puddles of emotion that covered the stage, the dancers kicked up anger, joy and sadness, which then clung to them, giving their characters an underlying motivation and exposing their imperfections.
Masterfully-crafted in its dancer formations, group movements on and off the stage, and its transitions between dance phrases, Neenan wrapped a clever tapestry of contemporary ballet movement and beauty around several very relatable human stories contained within the ballet. None so emotionally penetrating than that of characters portrayed by Perkes and Krapels in which Perkes seemed to be recalling the joys and heartache of being with Krapels, a lover she lost. The haunting image of a heartbroken Perkes walking slowly across the stage, head in hand as the carnival of humanity carried on all around her, was one that could be universally felt.
It is perhaps fitting BalletX and DANCECleveland chose to repeat Neenan’s “The Last Glass,” as the ballet warrants repeated viewings to take in its full glory. One can only marvel at Neenan’s ability to conjure up such an exquisite creation.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.