Dance is so visceral. Watching a talented corps of ballet dancers performing feats of acrobatic and athletic wonder is almost a challenge to take it all in. If there’s one performer that captures your eye and holds it for too long, you feel like you’ve missed the moment where you can watch the whole company turn in unison. A few too many minutes dwelling on whether or not a pair of dancers is going to hit the stage walls, and you’ve stopped paying attention to their form and grace. In a two-act season finale for BalletX called Beautiful Decay, the company showed its youthful verve with their daring and non-traditional approach to ballet. This isn’t the Pennsylvania Ballet, so precision and execution needn’t be the focus or primary tenets of critical evaluation. But inevitably, that’s what a discerning eye might not be able to turn away from.
In the first act, the costumes were distracting—they were ugly. Earth-toned crushed velvet covered their torsos and their arms to the wrist, but left thighs and calves bare, soliciting old-fashioned, Victorian vibes in a decidedly Shakespearean way. Ren faire costumes with Philadelphia’s premier contemporary ballet? Just doesn’t seem to match.
The theme of the ballet was purported to be one in which aging and the effects of time are explored, and this was most obviously manifested by the presence of older dancers on stage. Brigita Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck, both in their 70s, share significant stage time alongside the company’s bouncing, virile young athletes. But the effect is kind of lost as the audience is spellbound watching these geriatric dancers use their arms, twirl and pose; it’s nearly comical. Just like it’s awkward watching Frances Ha struggle as a non-dancer in a dancer’s world, it is almost uncomfortable watching what we can only presume to be once-capable dancers attempt to steal the spotlight from brilliant, fit dancers decades younger.
The second act felt way more indicative of what the BalletX mission is all about. They danced in interpretations of formal wear and to a far more modern score. Act I was full of Vivaldi, and while “Four Seasons” certainly lends itself to an outstanding dance score, it does not exactly scream modern. Iceland’s Olafur Arnalds provided glitchy, electronic sounds that the dancers aptly danced to in white athletic tanks. One thing that becomes clear is that there is a significant difference in wearing real ballet shoes, as opposed to soft slippers. At a handful of moments throughout the afternoon’s performance, it was obvious—visible even. Holds get wobbly, spins require extra foot flexes, and tiny extra stutter steps aren’t something even the most talented ballet veteran can maintain in bare feet.
No one would dream of denying these talented dancers’ athleticism and strength. But BalletX doesn’t look like a traditional ballet in many ways. There’s way less care or focus on height and body shape, and that’s great because even short boys and girls deserve to dance if they’ve got the goods. And ballet doesn’t have to be so Balanchine. We can’t wait to see something really weird from these guys.