American Dance Platform: BalletX & Raphael Xavier

Andrea Yorita of BalletX in "The Boogeyman." Photo by Bill Hebert.

New York’s countless theaters and clubs make the city a performing arts mecca, featuring as tantalizing a cultural scene for the classical arts as for the most experimental of performances. Yet, in January, the number of performing arts professionals that descend upon the city explodes as they come to attend a plethora of professional gatherings and festivals that are loosely joined under the banner of JanArtsNYC.  

One such event is the American Dance Platform, hosted by New York’s renowned dance theatre The Joyce.  The platform is sponsored by The Harkness Foundation for Dance and is intended to showcase “some of the most captivating American companies performing today.”  The 2019 edition presented a total of six companies across three dual company performances running from January 3 – 7.

“Movement conceptualist” Raphael Xavier opened the first platform performance covered by The Wonderful World of Dance on January 4th.  Xavier is a professor teaching “an introduction to hip hop styles and traditions and an improvisational approach to hip hop practices at Princeton University” in New Jersey, and he is best known for juxtaposing breaking and hip hop dance with non-traditional sounds, music and narratives.

Raphael Xavier - Point of Interest
Raphael Xavier – Point of Interest

For his platform appearance, Xavier chose to present ten short pieces that were so similar in tone that they appeared to be a single nearly hour-long work.  Xavier performed alongside four other male dancers in predominantly group pieces that alternated with brief duets and solos. The music or, in some cases, the sound is predominantly credited to Xavier, as is the majority of the choreography.

Although urban or street dance is often exhilarating due to its amazing acts of acrobatics, dexterity and strength, almost all of Xavier’s work felt unusually flat. Of course, there were moments of surprise when a dancer performed some particularly death-defying feat, but as quickly as the rush came, it receded, as the choreography sank back into a sort of predictable lull.  The use of minimalist music and texts as a score did little to infuse a bit of much-desired vitality.

The only piece that stands out by the end of the performance is a duet entitled “Still,” which cleverly addresses ageing by placing a younger dancer, performed by Jerry Valme, and an older dancer, Raphael Xavier, next to each other in the same outfit, at times having them perform in unison and at others having them interact, as though bridging gaps of memory and time.  The piece endows a physical form the link that remains between us and the younger version of ourselves. It’s simple and elegant, charming and relatable, and above all, engaging.

The second half of the evening saw a radical shift in style with the double bill from Philadelphia’s BalletX.  The ballet’s first work, Increasing, is a neoclassical piece that premiered at the Vail Dance Festival in 2014.  Choreographer and company co-founder Matthew Neenan explains in his notes that “After choreographing works that were more strictly defined by narrative strategies or conceptual through-lines.  I wanted to make a piece that was more purely musical.”

Andrea Yorita and Roderick Phifer of BalletX in "The Boogeyman." Photo by Bill Hebert.
Andrea Yorita and Roderick Phifer of BalletX in “The Boogeyman.” Photo by Bill Hebert.

Neenan’s self-professed goal of creating dance “that would closely parallel the playful richness and intensity of Schubert’s musical structure” in the first movement of his String Quintet in C Major is unsuccessful.  Some sort of theme or visual imagery as a jumping point may well have benefited a piece that seemed identical to every other lackluster ballet work one’s ever seen. There was nothing original, no brilliant spark, and playful was at no point an adjective that came to mind.  The piece is drab and unremarkable, made even more so by boring gray and pastel purple costumes that add nothing to the visual spectacle.

Thankfully, BalletX made up for a poor choice in the opener by closing with The Boogeyman, choreographed by Trey McIntyre in 2018.  McIntyre takes us on a journey through the American music of the 1970’s – with a score that includes music by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Nash, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Earth, Wind & Fire – dedicating the piece to “the Soul Train Dancers from the 70’s,” whom he thanks for saving him.

The piece invites us into the privacy of a bedroom, where the tunes we play either reflect our mood, get us on our feet and moving or even manage to bring us together.  It’s a work of pure joy, that not only keeps eyes glued to the stage, but also has the audience rocking in its seats. Successfully combining ballet training and precision and the popular dance genre makes BalletX’s credo of challenging “the boundaries of classical ballet by encouraging formal experimentation while preserving rigorous technique” ring particularly true with The Boogeyman

Reviewed on 4th of January at The Joyce Theater.

Read the review of the second and third evenings!