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Steve Sucato  |  October 08, 2013

BalletX opens DanceCleveland season with engaging program at E.J. Thomas Hall (review)

DanceCleveland hit a home run with its season opener of BalletX Saturday night at the University of Akron's E.J. Thomas Hall. The contemporary ballet troupe from Philadelphia, in its Northeast Ohio debut, presented a memorable mixed repertory program of three engaging ballets performed adroitly by its versatile dancers.

The sold-out performance, co-sponsored by the university, led off with Amsterdam-based choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Still@Life" (2008), set to music by J.S. Bach and Wassenaer.

Inspired by still-life paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo, Ochoa's ballet opened on a tableau of a half-dozen male and female dancers costumed in black tops and skirts frozen in an action pose, with one female dancer gripping a green apple between her teeth. The tableau then dissolved, and the dancers set out on what would be a well-crafted journey filled with whimsy and great dancing.

Apples were tossed, rolled and passed among the dancers in playful choreography that had bodies twisting and turning as dancers' legs shot into high extensions and curled through elegant dvelopps.

Ochoa's movement language for the ballet, characteristic of the familiar contemporary ballet language used by many of today's choreographers, had a freshness to its familiarity that was delightful.

Her choreography for the ballet was a mix of interesting dancer formations and clever movement phrases that, like the music it was danced to and the costumes, transitioned from dark to colorful as the ballet progressed. "Still@Life" proved full of life and was both entertaining and satisfying.

Next, former San Francisco Ballet dancer Alex Ketley's "Silt" (2009) adopted at its beginning an apathetic mood, as a male/female couple danced in silence, executing a sputtering succession of contorted body positions while four more dancers -- three seated in chairs -- looked on, appearing bored and disconnected.

As the ballet progressed, a music collage by TarJMB kicked in, creating a brooding atmosphere further enhanced by a dark lighting scheme from designer Drew Billiau. Ketley's complex choreography for the ballet's six dancers in this setting felt desolate and at times ceremonial. There was beauty in this, but it was often muted.

One of the ballet's finest moments occurred in a solo by dancer Richard Villaverde, performed to haunting piano music by Arvo Prt. Looking emotionally tormented, Villaverde poured himself into a swirl of back-and-forth movement that was mesmerizing. That solo, along with a scant few other moments in the ballet, appeared as oases in an otherwise stark and forgettable landscape.

The program closed with BalletX co-artistic director Matthew Neenan's "The Last Glass" (2010). Utilizing the company's full complement of 10 dancers performing to a soundtrack by American indie-rock band Beirut, Neenan's ballet presented the audience with a scene out of a bus station or airport terminal.

As if splashing through puddles of emotion that covered the stage, the dancers kicked up anger, joy and sadness, which then clung to them, giving their characters an underlying motivation and exposing their imperfections.

They then carried out disparate personal stories that moved within the same space. The most revealing of these was a lone woman looking bereft, walking slowly across the stage with head in hand. Her story and sense of loss would become the focal point of the ballet.

"The Last Glass" was a cool ballet, blending Beirut's often-melancholy troubadour-esque tunes with a collection of quirky characters and dramatic mini storylines, along with really smart choreography from Neenan that smacked you in the face at every turn. Danced passionately by BalletX's dancers, the ballet was a fitting end to a superb evening of dance.

Steve Sucato is a writer and critic and chairman emeritus of the Dance Critics Association.

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