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Appalachian State University's Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts continued its virtual season on Feb. 25th featuring BalletX, Philadelphia's premier contemporary ballet company. Streamed for one-night-only through the Schaefer Center's YouTube channel, the evening provided a teaser for the company's anticipated in-person return in 2022.
The event began with an introduction by artistic and executive director Christine Cox, followed by a brief documentary which was created this past year in celebration of the company's 15th anniversary. Cox co-founded BalletX in 2005 with Matthew Neenan, renowned choreographer who has created dances for ballet companies across the country (including The New York City Ballet, The Washington Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet, among many others) and who is now resident choreographer at Pennsylvania Ballet, where he and Cox both danced for many years. With a foundation in ballet technique but an affinity for experimentation, BalletX has become a niche for new commissions and has produced over 80 new ballets throughout its brief history. The documentary featured footage from the company's many performances at premier dance institutions throughout the country, including Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the Joyce Theater, and New York City Center, as well as in its outreach series, which includes pop-up events in Philadelphia parks, train stations, and museums.
Following the documentary were two previously filmed pieces from the company's repertoire, a lighthearted duet entitled "Fancy Me" by former BalletX dancer Caili Quan, and a longer contemporary ballet piece, "Increasing," by Neenan.
"Fancy Me," which was recorded from the 2018 Vail Dance Festival in Colorado, was danced by Quan and Roderick Phifer. Quan dressed in a sundress and Phifer wore suspenders as the two grooved on the beautiful outdoor stage characteristic of the annual summer dance venue. To soul music, the dancers used smooth moves and sharp accents as well as cute and intimate interactions, such as a hug. The two ended sweetly by walking down the stage steps and taking a seat, holding hands.
Neenan's "Increasing" was an interesting contemporary ballet piece for a group, interpreting a Schubert string quintet (in this performance from 2014, a live quintet accompanied the group of dancers from the stage). Dancers, in costumes by Christine Darch, were dressed in earth tones under lighting by Drew Billiau. The piece began with a single dancer onstage and "increased" cumulatively to a group of ten, who sometimes danced in unison and often in playful pas de deux. Dancers expressed movement ranging from classical ballet grand jeté leaps and bent-leg attitude turns, to contemporary floor work and even gestural movement, such as gazing out into the audience with hands shading the eyes. The filmed version of this piece was still and captured the whole stage, which allowed for the audience to see Neenan's intriguing use of space and lines. That being said, unlike with "Fancy Me," which was filmed more closely to the two dancers and thus allowed for the virtual audience to see movement more clearly, it was hard, at times, to make out the intricacies of the dance from this platform. Like all virtual dance (and otherwise) concerts, at the moment, I would much have preferred to see it live!
That, of course, was the point of this brief introduction by the Schaefer Center to BalletX – to familiarize a local audience and inspire them to return live (fingers crossed!) in 2022. For that future performance, BalletX plans to present the relatively new ballet version of Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince" by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, which premiered in the summer of 2019. In the meantime, while we all hold fast, the Schaefer Center will continue its virtual season into the spring with more free performances by touring artists, as well as Appalachian State's own student groups. See the Schaefer Center website for more details.