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BalletX is dancing live again at the Mann, with captivating new work from three star choreographers

Being together in a theater — even an outdoor theater — was surreal and wonderful. And BalletX looked excellent.

Francesca Forsella leads the line of BalletX dancers in Matthew Neenan's "Mapping Out a Sky."
Francesca Forsella leads the line of BalletX dancers in Matthew Neenan's "Mapping Out a Sky."Read moreVikki Sloviter

BalletX danced resolutely through most of the pandemic, presenting a full virtual season that was both inventive and artistically satisfying, as well as some small in-person performances.

But to be together again with the company in a theater — even an outdoor theater — was wonderful, and in some ways surreal.

Thursday night was the troupe’s first full-length in-person performance in more than a year. It was the first performance ever at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. And it wrapped up the company’s COVID-complicated 15th anniversary season.

The birds around the open-air theater sang along to the music, along with some comical and very loud quacks from waterfowl. And the dancers looked as powerful and precise as ever.

The company introduced one new dancer, Jonah Delgado, to the cast of 11, joining three other newcomers from 2020: Shawn Cusseaux, Savannah Green, and Ashley Simpson.

The program included three world premieres from three stars: company co-founder Matthew Neenan, who has made a name for himself nationally; Hope Boykin, who began her career dancing with Philadanco and then performed with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for many years before retiring last year; and Dwight Rhoden, the co-founder and co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

Artistic director Christine Cox has said for years that she aspired to work with both Boykin and Rhoden, and the premieres in this Summer Series program are their first with BalletX.

Thursday’s show, which returns Friday evening and for two performances Saturday, was also the rare BalletX program with the women on pointe for all three pieces.

Boykin’s piece, IN the Distance, opened the program. Set to an original composition by Grammy winner Ali Jackson, as well as spoken-word poetry by Boykin, it had the dancers in various shades of deep blues and focused on the walks we take through life.

In some of the more percussive sections, the dancers reacted to every fast beat, making it seem as though the music was coming from within.

Neenan’s work, Mapping Out a Sky, was set to an arrangement of Stephen Sondheim songs, mostly on piano, with the dancers dressed in black-and-white costumes, resembling piano keys.

Philadelphia audiences have seen much of Neenan’s work over the years, since he was also a choreographer in residence at Pennsylvania Ballet. His choreography has matured over the years, and Mapping Out a Sky was a lovely, architectural piece focusing on the dancers’ long limbs and beautiful lines.

Rhoden’s gorgeous We the People was set to iconic works by classical composers. He had four couples dressed in bright red doing interesting partnering work, spinning them around and also highlighting the dancers’ beautiful arm and leg extensions.

The Mann is a considerably larger theater than the Wilma Theater, where BalletX normally performs. The dancers filled the stage well, but some of the lighting and backdrops could have been adjusted for the space.

The dancers always look great set against Wilma’s black-box space. They looked great here, too, but it’s harder to see them with audience members seated farther from the stage.