Philadelphia’s BalletX navigates uncertain times with ingenuity

January 21, 2021
By Kate Mattingly
Stanley Glover in Tsai Hsi Hung’s Two X Two, a streaming performance presented by BalletX. Photo: Tara Keating

Presenting dance performances during a global pandemic is a test of ingenuity and perseverance. On Wednesday night, the Philadelphia-based BalletX beautifully rose to the challenge.

Three short films were shared through a live zoom event that included conversations with the three choreographers: Tsai Hsi Hung, Manuel Vignoulle, and Francesca Harper. The evening was moderated by artistic and executive director Christine Cox, who created a sense of warmth and connection in her brief conversation with each choreographer before each film. The variety of voices and congenial tone reminded us of what distinguishes these artists.

BalletX is a contemporary ballet company known for exquisite dancing, creative choreography, and camaraderie. The easy banter and dialogue among Cox, choreographers, and dancers shed light on the mutual respect and collaboration that makes BalletX a gem in Philadelphia’s cultural landscape.

One obvious aspect of pandemic performances that’s both a benefit and an obstacle is watching dancing on a screen. It’s an advantage because it means we can connect from any distance with an internet connection (in this writer’s case, from Salt Lake City). Screens can also be challenging because it means that we’re watching editing and cinematography as well as choreography. BalletX met this challenge with a brilliant solution: choreographers worked with Daniel Madoff, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and now a film director and editor. Madoff worked individually with choreographers, and during the editing process, choreographers shaped how their work was presented. The results were stunning.

Tsai Hsi Hung’s Two X Two, for dancers Stanley Glover and Roderick Phifer, is set to music by Luca D’Alberto called “Consequences.” Filmed in Franklin Institute’s Pepper Hall, the original reading room for the first Patent Library in the United States, this duet juxtaposes sparring actions between the men and the sedate, scholarly atmosphere of the room, with its antique wooden floor and empty mahogany bookshelves. The men wear tuxedo jackets with geometric patterns cut out of the fabric (costumes designed by Mark Eric), and the precision of their movements and elegance of the clothing create a sense of sophisticated struggle. They rarely touch each other, but close-ups of their faces suggest a relationship that is inquisitive, supportive, and, at times, defiant.

The combination of film editing, with cuts every few seconds, and D’Alberto’s driving and pulsing string music, heightens the intensity of the dancing. Glover stretches his legs in gravity-defying extensions, and Phifer turns with exceptional balance and control. The differences in their movement qualities complement one another and create the sense that a magnetic force draws them towards each other. Hung’s choreography suggests a fusion of dancing and martial arts, and, after a flurry of darting and jabbing without contact, the film ends with the men facing each other, extending one arm, and their fingertips graze as they back away from one another.

After sharing Two X Two, Cox returned to the screen with Glover who spoke from Los Angeles. Glover spoke about his experience of learning the duet, and how he resonated with the choreography because he had studied martial arts for 10 years. This was the first time Glover saw the duet: while the dancers worked with Hung to create the movement, the editing by Madoff and Hung occurred after the filming so there was an element of surprise and suspense in this virtual event.

The second film, Manuel Vignoulle’s Heal, was filmed by Madoff in both indoor and outdoor settings, including the Awbury Arboretum, West Mill Creek Park, and Washington Square West. When Vignoulle introduced the film with Cox in their brief conversation, he said he worked with the cast of four in June of 2020. The global pandemic as well as the murder of George Floyd reminded him of the importance of a “responsibility” he felt in creating art. Dancers’ interactions in Heal are poignant and emphasize struggle as well as support.

Dancer Roderick Phifer appears alone wearing a black suit with this head wrapped in mummy-like bandages. As he pulls at and unravels the fabric, his expression suggests exhaustion. A duet by dancers Shawn Cusseaux and Skyler Lubin is a study in weight-sharing as they lift and carry one another. A solo by Blake Krapels is interspersed throughout Heal: his movements are sporadic and forceful, as if resisting confinement. At one point, in a scene in the woods, Krapels is covered in mud, doing a worm-like motion through a mud pit. There’s a feeling of connection and freedom in these moments, and Krapels said in a post-film conversation with Cox that dancing in a mud pit “was . . .  most liberating.” The music by vocal group Li Ósc, “Otche Nash” and “Ninna nanna del contrabbandiere,” provides a somber through-line for the different solos and duet. In the closing image, Phifer’s profile is seen in close-up, his body resting on a forest floor, and he slowly closes his eyes.

THAW, the third film, makes a special connection to Philadelphia by drawing from the work of poet and social justice advocate Alice Dunbar-Nelson, famous for work in empowering black women in the early 1900s. In her pre-film conversation with Cox, Harper revealed that the work was also motivated by “thinking about memories that shaped my life.” Harper spoke about her own interracial relationship, and dancers Ashley Simpson and Krapel are featured prominently in THAW. At one point they are bound together by a cord that seems to glow.

Of the three films, THAW most emphasizes the mediation of dancing through screens: the cast of seven appears with mobile devices capturing images of one another, and these images float through the space as screens within screens. This layering effect wonderfully evokes a feeling of memories, of images that stay with us and conflate past and present. Madoff served as editor for the film, with cinematography by Madoff and Peter Fernberger. Music was by slowdanger and Arcolris Sandoval. Dancer Shawn Cusseaux stood out from the exquisite cast with a solo that showcased his speed and flexibility, dancing with quicksilver and assured qualities that are captivating.

The evening was a testament to BalletX’s ability to navigate uncertain times. Giving audiences a glimpse into choreographers’ processes and dancers’ perspectives was an enriching and thoughtful way to foster connection during a time of distancing.

BalletX Beyond is the subscription-based streaming platform for BalletX. For more information go to BalletX.org/Beyond


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