For the second time in less than a week, street dance was presented as concert dance on a Philadelphia stage. And for the second time, it worked beautifully.
Last weekend audiences saw Rennie Harris’ choreography for Alvin Ailey using a Philadelphia style called GQ. This time it was Lil Buck working with BalletX and Memphis jookin. Both were wonderful, and it was fun to compare such different styles in a genre generally lumped together as hip-hop.
Lil Buck’s Express opened its East Coast premiere Wednesday night at the Wilma Theater on the BalletX Spring Series program. It was created for last summer’s closing celebration at the Vail Dance Festival, where artists who don’t usually work together are given opportunities. Thus, a piece danced in pointe shoes (for the women) and sneakers (for the men and later also for the women).
Set to music by Jon Batiste and Stay Human, from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it is a mix of surprisingly classical moves and the rhythmic bounces, slides, and glides of Memphis jookin, sometimes referred to as urban ballet.
For a piece with arm stands and freestyle circles (which of course were choreographed), Express also has a traditional or even period feel, with a good amount of romance — like Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free but in sneakers.
Enjoyment begets enjoyment, and the dancers were nearly laughing through a good deal of the piece, which rubbed off for a feel-good performance.
All three pieces on the program included pointe work, which is unusual for this modern ballet company. The other two were world premieres, from the mentor and the mentee of this year’s BalletX Choreographic Fellowship.
The mentor is Nicolo Fonte, who has made several other works for both BalletX and Pennsylvania Ballet.
His Steep Drop, Euphoric, set to music by Ezio Bosso is another mostly joyous dance performed on and in front of a vertical strip of backdrop that extends out as a runway onto the stage.
The “steep drop” refers in part to a female dancer, Chloe Perkes, who is held high aloft by the men at the beginning of the piece and then dropped (safely) down to the ground, only to be lifted up again at the end of the ballet.
For an art form that is all about legs, it is a particularly leggy ballet, with lots of long stretches and lovely sculptural shapes.
The mentee is Katarzyna Skarpetowska, and hers was one of the most fully realized of the fellowship works we’ve seen over the years. Set to music by Vivaldi and Adrian Klumpes, Skarpetowska’s piece, Off the Canvas, is literally art in motion, a performance representation of Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Bacchus) series of paintings, large red scribbles, which seem to be moving.
In Off the Canvas, dancers are in red-and-cream costumes on the white canvas of the stage. The work features many classical balletic movements to evoke modern art. The women on point all bourrée together make a variety of shapes. The men form a traditional diagonal line across the stage. But the dancers also take risks, falling back into another’s arms.
The dancers “paint” the canvas with up-and-down movements acting like brushstrokes. Occasionally it seems too literal, but Skarpetowska’s work is engaging.
Some cities have two baseball teams. In its 13th season, with regular performances and maturity, BalletX has made Philadelphia a two-ballet-company town.