Impressions of BalletX's "Beasts"
Beneath the Ball Gown Lurks the Beast
Beasts, a world premiere ballet by Nicolo Fonte
At the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Philadelphia / November 18-22, 2015.
Dancers: Edgar Anido, Chloe Felesine, Francesca Forcella, Gary W. Jeter II, Zachary Kapeluck, Skyler Lubin, Daniel Mayo, Caili Quan, Richard Villaverde, Andrea Yorita
Choreographer: Nicolo Fonte / Set Design: Mimi Lien
Lighting Design: Drew Billiau / Costume Design: Christine Darch
Pictured above: Richard Villaverde in Nicolo Fonte's Beasts.
The dancers crawl out of the mists and slither across the stage. Their gray and white colorblock costumes, by costume designer Christine Darch, suggest white-finned aquatic creatures against an imagined seabed. These creatures learn to move, crawl, stand, dance, love, fight, and grieve. They become civilized and restrain their normal impulses, but, the question remains, do they really change? They are the beasts in Nicolo Fonte’s world-premiere ballet Beasts performed by the ten dancers of Philadelphia’s BalletX dance company.
This is the start of BalletX’s 10th Anniversary season, and they’re kicking it off with a new ballet that explores evolution and the perennial debate of nature versus nurture. Nature, if the urge towards sex and destruction is considered nature, seems to win out over the elegant veneer of learned behavior.
The first act is an almost literal depiction of the emergence of life on Earth — the creatures seem stuck to the floor, unable to rise, until one at a time, they realize they can crawl. Then, one learns to stand and the others follow. Now upright, relationships form as they dance together: two men and a woman, three women and a man. These couplings are humorous until conflict arises. Someone is always left out. Rivals fight. Someone dies. A partner is left alone to mourn. But they have formed a society, and they celebrate.
Daniel Mayo, Edgar Anido, Chloe Felesina and Richard Villaverde in Nicolo Fonte's Beasts. Photography by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy of BalletX.
The second act offers a sophisticated blend of civilization and brutality. Men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns and pointe shoes perform a balletic ballroom dance, but moments of primitive lust and rage break the propriety. The dancers switch partners, and the gentlemen show their true nature, essentially implying, “I’m going to get laid tonight.” The women leave, and the men engage in fistfights and a gun battle to classical music. The stylization of violence and lust covers over the underlying cruelty of society. The women return, and the dance continues.
The 10 dancers act as a unity, but there are breakout moments: Chloe Felesina plays a murderous vixen in a red dress and Richard Villaverde in a gray tutu becomes a black swan to Andrea Yorita’s classic white-clad ballerina. The conclusion strips the dancers of their costumes, as they stand before us in their underwear, ready, perhaps, for a new beginning.
The music is a mix of recordings by Henrik Schwartz, Ella Fitzgerald, Pete Townshend, Patti Smith, Claude Debussy, among others. The switch between classical tones and familiar modern melodies matches the changing moods on stage.
The set by 2015 MacArthur Fellowship recipient Mimi Lien is basic. A huge screen tilts and swings high and low, which sometimes forces the dancers to crawl underneath. Patterns are projected across it. This subtly moving backdrop allows the random patterns of primordial ooze to be easily translated to the formal lattice-work windows of a modern ballroom.
While the dancers exhibit their skill at mixing classical ballet with contemporary choreography, the underlying narrative is familiar. Other than a guy in a tutu, there’s little here that illuminates the discussion. With so much violence around us every day, does setting our baser urges to music and dressing them up in ball gowns offer any solution?
Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan formed BalletX 10 years ago with a commitment to creating contemporary ballet while preserving its rigorous technique. This is the second ballet that Nicolo Fonte has created for BalletX; the previous was his 2013 Beautiful Decay. The collaboration works. It’s an enthralling performance that transcends its philosophical underpinnings and allows us to understand the possibilities within contemporary ballet.
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