If anyone is up to the challenge of choreographing to the gutsy strains of Amy Winehouse it is the inimitable Trey McIntyre, a choreographer as devoted to contemporaneity in music as he is in dance.
BalletX, a Philadelphia-based contemporary ballet troupe, closed the mixed bill of its Joyce season with McIntyre’s Big Ones, a work which slides right into the choreographer’s hip, pop-friendly repertoire. Founder of his own artistic venture Trey McIntyre Project, McIntyre has set works (and sections of works) to bands as diversified as the Shins, Fleet Foxes, Queen, the Zombies, Goldfrapp, the Polyphonic Spree and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band among many many others. While he has choreographed to classical composers, McIntyre has a penchant for the popular and why shouldn’t he? There is a dearth of decent choreography in professional contemporary ballet set to non-classical music whether old or modern (Glass, Reich, Riley and avant garde-ist Ligeti continue to remain popular choices).
If Winehouse was alive today she’d be 33 years old. Touted as a genius singer and songwriter (she wrote more than half the songs on her seminal album “Back to Black”) of the early 21st century, her absence still looms large not only in the music industry but for the generation who spent their 20s (or their teens) with her. Setting a dance to Winehouse is a challenge because her music is almost too good: too catchy, too musical, too soulful, too strong. Any movement and musicality needs to match it. While Winehouse tapped the retro influences of Ronnie Spector, Aretha Franklin and the Shangri-Las, her songwriting and uniquely potent delivery, capture those timeless emotions of pain, longing, rejection and rebellion.
McIntyre opens Big Ones with rebellion, kicking the piece off with “Rehab.” Unfortunately, this is the most sluggish number and perhaps a misstep: opening with an artist’s most famous number is a dicey move. The tune itself is not fast, but it certainly doesn’t feel as slow as the choreography looks, but McIntyre’s swagger increases as Big Ones progresses. The costumes are, it must be noted, fairly strange: male and female dancers don sculpted black hats with two prongs, a pair of modernist bunny ears which are not only hugely distracting but don’t add to the work’s aesthetic or mood, especially paired with leather-look hot pants and tops. McIntyre taps Winehouse’s wit and snark in “F**k Me Pumps,” with female dancers prancing en pointe. Elsewhere men get energetic, powerful, muscled moves which verge on the acrobatic, including lots of man-to-man partnering and tumbling.
Chloe Felesina, the predominant soloist throughout the work, dances a lovely, trepidatious pas de deux to Winehouse’s heartbreaking cover of Phil Spector’s “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” Daniel Mayo is her goofy, gregarious partner, the bizarre geek the girl has fallen for. They dance in tandem, and a dance of nerve-wracked passion ends with Felesina carrying Mayo offstage with a tender piggyback ride – a refreshing reverse of the common trope of the man carrying the woman offstage (so often in a semi-fetal position of vulnerability). Here a song which can be read as pining for unrequited affection, is transformed through dance to show a story of female self-knowledge and strength.
Big Ones’ rhythmic stride builds towards the end, but the work on the whole remains overshadowed by Winehouse’s music. If McIntyre is flexible and continues tinkering, he could be in for a serious home run. The positive audience reception proves not only that Winehouse still resonates strongly, but that good pop ballet continues to be an area of opportunity.
Opening the bill was Show Me, a work by BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan. Set to three tunes by different composers as performed by string quartet Brooklyn Rider, the music for Show Me is often full of plaintive, Appalachian wistfulness. There are a lot of hand flinging, finger-pointing gestures which don’t add to the work and, if anything, are distracting. It has a fluid, liquid feel, so much so that it is difficult to find structure. Pas de deuxs are sprinkled briefly between halted ensemble dancing. The score hits a swinging stretch with the work’s eponymous song composed by Aoife O’Donovan, and two female dancers perform a swift, playful duet taking advantage of the lingering stretches of strings. This section is brief however, and the women rejoin a cluster of bodies and the gorgeous, catchy melody is wasted on a collective group of twists and turns. Two men towards the start of the work also have a nice, slow, tumbling partnership. There are many pretty moments in Show Me – sweeping lifts and romantic poses – but the dances for two prove stronger in musicality and inventiveness than the larger groupings.
The gestures continue in Jorma Elo’s Gran Partita, a piece which ploughs through many moods using works by Berg, Mozart, Monteverdi and Bach. There is a histrionic section where muscles are taut, flexed and stretched and strident, Olympian positions are taken in stark, high contrast lighting. And there is speed and even violence, with dancers fake punching each other. In the busiest sections, dancers buzz around and coil their bodies in and out – it is almost like a Bosch painting: there is something grotesque in every corner. Like Forsythe, it is often brutally fast and features similar jaunty angles, flinging limbs and hyper extensions, all traits which Elo has exhibited before.
While many of the musical choices are beautiful, if not exceptional works, the piece itself doesn’t feel terribly musical, and in seeing it, it was hard not to meditate on the fact that much of this movement could only be possible today. In another day and age, contortion was reserved for a different entertainment art (and many of those incredible feats still don’t make it into ballet). After a long evolution, dancers today have the highest range of motion in the history of ballet. Today’s technique is virtually limitless. But is contemporary choreography limiting, even trapping itself by over-exercising a perceived freedom of flexibility, often at the expense of musicality? Sometimes it appears so.
All three pieces on BalletX’s mixed bill were premiered in the last two years, a prime example of the company’s commitment to new work. The troupe co-founded by Neenan and current artistic director Christine Cox has an impressive track record: 50 world premieres since 2005. The 10 dancers who graced the Joyce stage represented a powerhouse of talent and technique, on par with some of the best dancers at much larger companies – BalletX is worth checking out.