On-line performances by BalletX at Guggenheim Works and Process

Ralph Malachowski
Adjunct Instructor at Berkeley College, New Jersey and Substitute Teacher at Northern Burlington County Regional School District

On June 14, 2020, BalletX partnered with Works and Process at the Guggenheim to co-present four world premieres on-line by choreographers Hope Boykin, Caili Quan, Penny Saunders, and Rena Butler. The presentation was featured on Zoom as well as YouTube.

Each work was short, lasting only about five minutes for each, some were shot in black and white, while others were shot in color. Three of the works were indoors, while one had outdoor episodes. Two (perhaps three) of the works dealt with Covid-19 self-isolation. One dealt with a couple’s interaction, while one dealt with topics that appeared to be related to Black Lives Matter. In all, all four were in no way similar to each other or were in any way run-of-the-mill

.…it’s okay too. Feel by Hope Boykin opens with two dancers, Savannah Green and Ashley Simpson, awakening to self-isolation during this pandemic. A woman’s voice recites a poem (written by the choreographer) in a confessional, conversational style. She talks about fear, isolation, touch, her audiences, and feeling more alone now than ever before. A piano is plaintively accompanying her reciting. Music is credited to Bill Laurance. She dances in a large and spacious room, alone. Meanwhile, the other woman dances alone in what seems to be a cramped apartment, with glimpses of masks poignantly hanging on the wall by the front door. We are told that it’s okay to feel fear, to feel grateful for not being dead, for living through this to the end. In Hope Boykin’s words, “Forgiveness begins in our own hearts, but it’s okay to feel.”

100 Days by Caili Quan is performed by Chloe Perkes and Ammon Perkes. We see the young duo awakening to a new day while “The Longest Time,” music and lyrics by Billy Joel, performed and arranged by Micah Manaitai blares. Ms. Peakes dreamily partners her coffee mug, coffee pot, and kitchen island, as well as her companion, undoubtedly to conquer the ennui of self-isolation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the choreographer’s own words as she shared them on the video,

“I wanted to create a work that captured not only the angst and sadness that we all experienced, but also the simple joys in love, companionship, and family during the “100 Days” of dancing at home.

”Although addressing serious topics of confinement, survival, and patience, 100 Days is at many times funny, and cheerily shot in color. It’s something we really need to see right now.

Brown Eyes by Penny Saunders is yet another, totally different piece. Shot in black and white, it appears to be an abstract ballet, a feeling heightened by angular lighting with half of the background a wall and the other half mirror. The music by Michael Wall has an odd atmospheric effect in it which sounds like horses’ hooves. Brown Eyes is magnificently danced by BalletX dancers Andrea Yorita and Zachary Kapeluk. Both dancers are committed and perform admirably. By all appearances, it appears to be a rather traditional vocabulary of a man and a woman grappling with a relationship. Reading the choreographer’s notes, we learn that this piece explores physical abuse between partners in lockdown. In the choreographer’s words, “Brown Eyes attempts to go beyond closed doors to give us a glimpse of an intimate relationship with an ever shifting and unfair balance of power.” Without this information, one may miss the choreographer’s point entirely. We also learn that the sound which may or not be horses’ hooves may be just that. Ms. Saunders states this work will be part of a larger work exploring the American cowboy.

The Under Way (working title) by Rena Butler is shot in color featuring two African-American men, excellently danced here by BalletX dancers Stanley Glover and Roderick Phifer, in extreme action, whether they are attempting escape, holding their hands up in surrender, running in place, undergoing metamorphosis from a chrysalis attached to a tree, or being consumed by ghost demons. These latter transformations are accomplished by having one dancer capture the other within his t-shirt. According to the choreographer, “My intent is to find parallels with defining moments in U.S. history, such as The Underground Railroad, and pair these particular events to where we are currently.”

The backdrops vary from a staircase to a scene under a tree, to the front of a building. One assumes that the prominently-placed statue both artists perform before in many scenes is one of controversial mayor Frank Rizzo. Those who have lived in Philadelphia for many years no doubt have specific feelings about the late mayor. Without specific knowledge of the man and his legacy, the scene strikes the spectator as preposterous. The statue is placed on the steps of a formal building, supposedly to be close to and accessible to the public, yet there is a tiny fence all around it to keep people at arm’s length, causing a sinister, and darkly amusing, sight by itself.

Kudos to BalletX and to Works and Process at the Guggenheim for bringing these works to the public. At this time, we need art now more than ever before.

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