It can be quite onerous reviewing an improvisational ballet performance. On one hand, a reviewer must provide their genuine opinion about the act, however forthright it may sound, and on the other, the reviewer bears a responsibility to the performers who are caught in a moment of raw emotion without any synchronized choreography. BalletX’s performance at the Bridgette Mayer Gallery had the audience struggling between these two ends of the reviewer spectrum.
BalletX, Philadelphia’s premiere contemporary ballet, boasts of uniting distinguished choreographers with an outstanding company of world-class dancers to forge new works of athleticism, emotion and grace. The company was founded in 2005 by Christina Cox and Matthew Neenan, both are award-winning performers and choreographers.
BalletX had its world premiere at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in September 2005 and is now the resident dance company at the prestigious Wilma Theater. This year, BalletX performed intimate improvisational solos in the Bridgette Mayer Gallery space inspired by the work on display.
The performance that took place Sept. 14 had Philadelphia’s art-loving (and mostly septuagenarian) community gather in the narrow hallways of the gallery to watch BalletX perform. The setting was absolutely picturesque, with the gallery’s walls adorned with iridescent square panels featuring the works of over 250 artists.
As soon as the gallery was filled with music, the crowd quickly drifted to welcome Chloe Felesina, BalletX’s contemporary ballet performer. As Felesina writhed and slithered through the crowd, the audience awed at her contortions that could even give Daniel Browning Smith a run for his money. And then, a man stomped through the crowd and left.
In all honesty, I don’t blame him. The performance was borderline eerie, especially for art amateurs who didn’t comprehend the accompanying “Murmuration” act by duo Andrew Marsh and Eric Coyne, respectively vocals and cello. Marsh’s whisperings and hissing sounds had many people dazed. For a second, I thought Marsh was conversing in “Parseltongue.” The room was filled with unease as the audience was trying to figure out how the performance would unfold.
Marsh captured the audience at once, beginning with a compelling story about a woman who travels to Nice, France, and meets a man. All the while, Felesina transformed his soft voice into a live motion picture with her dramatic gestures and fairylike dainty movements. The performers paused every now and then to catch a glimpse of the paintings and incorporate them into their act through intriguing narrations and sublime pirouettes.
Marsh’s story added elements of light-hearted humor which earned a few chuckles from the audience. Felesina’s performance appeared refined in places, but was sprinkled with cringe-worthy moments of clumsiness due to lack of choreography. However, considering the improvisational nature of the performance, the act was held together well by the trio.
BalletX has performed in numerous settings and locations but I am unsure if performing in a narrow art gallery served the company’s purpose of reaching their audience on a wider scale. There were many problems with the location of the performance, the major ones being lack of visibility and crowding. While people in the front got a good view of Marsh’s and Felesina’s wriggles and contortions, others were left unamused and vying for a chance to understand the performance.
It is also worthy to note how lackluster a heartfelt performance can feel without adequate costumes and setup. The performers were dressed in simple plaids and corduroys which stripped the performance of all exhilaration.
Was the performance decent? Yes. However, for a company as monumental as BalletX, decent does not cut it. For many first-time watchers like myself, the company’s name was reduced to an unremarkable act and not a scintillating memory. However, considering the fact that 20 percent of the proceeds from the artwork will benefit BalletX, maybe performing at the gallery was a good financial decision after all.