As BalletX’s 2016-17 Choreographic Fellow, Tommie-Waheed Evans hasn’t had a commissioning opportunity quite like this before. He has spent substantial time with the company’s versatile dancers, all eager to dive into every experiment he suggests. There’s also the pressure of premiering his work before BalletX’s audiences for this two-week series. But Evans feels well-supported. His mentor, the seasoned Munich-based choreographer Cayetano Soto, challenged him in an email exchange to express how he was really feeling. After facing various fears about this choreographic process, Soto helped Evans go forward confidently with his unusual inspiration.
The work of video artist Bill Viola focuses dramatically on the elements—earth, air, water, fire—and on birth and death, so it’s not easy source material for a ballet. Evans isn’t interested in creating anything that replicates Viola’s visual world, though. Instead he’s realized that what touches him deepest in Viola’s work is how it renders extreme suffering, and reveals how that intense experience may transform into something of beauty. So Evans envisions his new work, In between the passing…, similarly building in intensity and then transforming.
In rehearsal the BalletX dancers launch into a series of duets and solos that powerfully draw out the strengths and character of each person. Evans gave initial phrase material and asked each dancer to craft their own version inflected by words like “weight,” “invisibility” or “unpredictability.” One dives into the floor, another is electric with tensile strength. In a group, they turn liquid and later earthy, with some Drake sounds slipped into the sound mix. Using urban sounds is crucial to Evans; it charges up the dancers.
Evans himself was a knockout dancer in Philadanco for 13 years, and has made works on a range of companies. Still, he wasn’t sure how what he calls the “Africanistic quality” in his choreography would sit with the BalletX dancers. They’ve taken fully to its polyrhythms, repeating pulses and sometimes low center of gravity.
The question Soto asked Evans – “How do you really feel?” — informed the development of Soto’s Schachmatt (“checkmate” in German). Initially asked to make something 10 minutes long and funny, Soto later felt it wanted to be something bigger. Expanded in 2016, the piece still has plenty of playfulness—cartoonish stylizations and clever two-dimensional passages. But it finishes with a softer, tender ending. Along the way we hear hot Latin brass, a plaintive French chanteuse, and much in between.
The Last Glass by Matthew Neenan is a company favorite, having played at The Joyce Theater and Vail International Dance Festival after its 2010 Philly premiere. It’s a feast of dance, some en pointe, with a procession of duets and solos in diverse moods. Set to an appealing score by the indie band Beirut, it’s a fitting end to the arc that BalletX’s directors were aiming for—one where we, the audience, leave feeling enriched and perhaps challenged, but certainly complete.
By Lisa Kraus, Dance Writer