Wilma Theater, Philadelphia

Dec. 4-15, 2019

A scene from Jo Strømgren‘s The Moon
photo credits: Bill Hebert

BalletX artistic director Christine Cox requested holiday themes from choreographers Jo Strømgren and Matthew Neenan that would have their premieres for two weeks in December at the Wilma Theater. Strømgren created ‘The Moon’ a dance-space odyssey, and Neenan ‘s ‘Twelve Bells’ mused on more traditional yuletide dance scenarios. All things being relative both making the point everybody does not have such a best time observing holiday traditions.

Norwegian choreographer Jo Strømgren is a prolific theater and opera director, and ‘The Moon’ is choreographed around a spoken drama about astronauts played by Andrea Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck who are winding down their space mission and get back to earth for the holidays.   They chat about his marriage breaking up, as good flirty colleagues would do, when their spaceship runs into a meteor shower and they are knocked off course.

Meanwhile, Strømgren has the other eight BalletX dancers behind this narrative moving in abstract configurations, that can also seem to be expressive of the astronauts’ emotional desires and fears. Whether they are meant as Greek dance chorus or just bodies moving in weightless space, the choreography just keeps evolving in such dynamic ways- with streaming duets, trios, and hypnotic group motion in what seems like a gravity less stage.

The choreographic flow is so dynamic that it overshadows Strømgren’s domestic drama. The choreography and the performances by these dancers, is so dynamic without any literal translation, that the astronaught story is a bit lost in space.

Yorita and Kapeluck outpace the pedestrian dialogue as consummate actor-dancers that they are. Eventually, they shuck their spacesuits and join the ensemble.

Strogmen’s MOON choreographic landing

Jorge Cousineau’s video projection of looming images of the moon surface, and the vastness between, with the earth in the distance. The cinematic interplay between dancing bodies moving in space is captivating. Composer Mette Henriette’s is musically intriguing, and jarring cine-sonics substreams used to great effect in tandem with the visuals.

Neenan’s ‘Twelve Bells’

Neenan’s ‘Twelve Bells’ chimes in

Matthew Neenan’s ‘Twelve Bells’ opens with Chloe Perkes in front of a scrim in a vanity chair looking forlorn in a yellow skirt and pointe shoes, she piques across the floor, before she flops on the floor and ties up her limbs in frustration. Behind the scrim, the other dancers paint a mosaic in slow partying motion and she decides to join them.

Composers Rosie Langabeer (in her 4th collaboration with the company) and Tara Middleton perform their score of songs, a mix of holiday ballades and campy instrumentals.  Both are also vocalists and multi-instrumentalist and they move around the stage in various tableaux along with bassist Josh Machiz.

Neenan lacing in comedy and technically demanding pointe work for Perkes. In a gorgeous combination Perkes pull up from a deep lunging position on one leg, a pure strength move that can be very precarious on one toeshoe.

Perkes’ character is stressed out, but then dresses for the party in a gorgeous pink tulle, tights and toe-shoes ensemble. Andie Yorita sits at a keyboard and solemnly decorating a Christmas tree, but forlornly knocks it over. Meanwhile, Roderick Pfeifer and Blake Krapels portray a gay couple at the party who are having the best time, rolling on the floor in their own love hangover, rescuing the tree that Yorita had put up and then in despair knocked down. Wonderful to see an unambiguous duet by a same-sex couple reflected on the dance stage.

Richard Villaverde returned to BalletX earlier last season after a hiatus and is in top form, an athletic and lyrical dancer, he danced full force in both ballets. 

As the ensemble gathers around the singers, Yorita dances alone, still separating herself from the festivities. And they have the moves for some organ grinding basso nova beat by Rosie Langabeer. 

Meanwhile, a party breaks out with Neenan responding choreographically with witty showdance ala Shindig circa 1966. Neenan’s has comic dance signatures, (flat-footing pointe work come to mind) but in ‘Twelve Bells’ he fuels it with breezy balletics mixed with free dance moves (some evoking the 60s ala Shindig) and keeps his more familiar moves packed away.  

Neenan weighs in with a predictable editorial on the commercialism of the holiday season, with dancers prancing around with gift bags, ‘Look what I got’ flaunting or sneering at the contents.  A chance for the dancers to show off their swag and swagger. Meanwhile, costume designer Christine Darsh’s sharp eye for millennial urban chic gives BalletX dancers fabulous couture in this or any other holiday season.

This is Neenan whimsical, warm and choreographically unfussy, and another romp with dancers onstage with musicians. And perhaps a somber coda by the dancers in Neenan’s ringing of the bells finale.