On July 7th, I was fortunate to see BalletX’s tech-infused Summer Series, which consisted of two ballets in collaboration with Klip Collective at The Wilma Theater. I think it’s safe to say that if most people outside of the field of dance (including dance appreciators such as myself) were asked to free associate with the word ‘ballet,’ most people would not quickly move toward Psychology or Surrealism. After experiencing Summer Series, this is no longer the case, which leads me to realize why I appreciate and respect BalletX on so many levels.
The degree to which the BalletX dancers and choreographers engage in critical analysis and cultural critique within their boundary-pushing, definition-expanding ballets leaves the audience contemplating their ideology for days. In choreographers Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Matthew Neenan’s capable hands, ballet remains something that’s more than entertainment, more than spectacle, more than awe-inspiring well-honed human talent; it’s a mode through which we interpret what it is to live.
The Summer Series experience began with a poignant, candid, occasionally enlivening contemplation of the mutability and fallibility of memory by BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan. Entitled Identity Without Attribute and created in honor of the late Toni Hamilton, a writer and longtime friend of BalletX who battled with Alzheimer’s, Neenan offers insight into the notions of what the experience of this disease’s progression can be like. Through extended moments of repetition, thematic gestures such as the central character’s (performed by Caili Quan) placing her palms on different parts of her body in an “am I still here?” moment of self-checking, and the use of other dancers as either facets of the central character’s own personality/past self or people with whom the central character had relations, the audience is placed within an inward-facing process of questioning.
At moments it is clear that Quan’s character is lucidly remembering an interaction, in some scenes she is transported into her own memory as if she is living it – celebrating, engaging, basking in the experience like it’s entirely new, and at other moments, she is very clearly a bystander to her own memories, clinging to her knees in the fetal position as she questions: what is real, what actually occurred, what is invented in her brain, and what is her role in any of it? As one of so very many people who have witnessed Alzheimer’s in any capacity, I couldn’t help but get slightly emotional as I again stomach the fact that memories, even without Alzheimer’s, are mutable, fleeting, delicate. And yet, they have a beautiful ability to salvage bits of ourselves that we thought we had lost.
After a brief intermission, the mood lightens with a touch of comic relief. With her quirky playfulness, and a whole lot of carefully considered signification, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa takes the audience into René Magritte’s world. Tied together by the questioning of reality vs. dream-like fantasy, these two ballets fit together like an Andalusian Dog and a donkey in a piano, if you catch my drift.
Out of no intent to gloss over the amazingness that is Neenan’s Identity Without Attribute, I can’t help but get particularly excited to dwell on Ochoa’s ballet, Bonzi, because of its impetus being one of my personally beloved art-historical influences. Intended by Ochoa to take us on a journey alongside her character, Bonzi, into the world of René Magritte, I found that it was so much more than a real-time unfolding painting; it was an intelligently dissected interpretation of Surrealist ideologies.
Bonzi opens with seven huge white doors, wheeled by disembodied hands, and Bonzi. That’s it. Despite my limited first-hand knowledge of performance, I know that keeping the audience engaged and happily giggling by a mere turn of an un-opening door or singular movements of a glove, hat, or suitcase is quite the feat. But the dancers and Ochoa make it look so seamlessly easy. (Not to mention the fact that much of Bonzi’s movement was largely improvisational by BalletX’s Edgar Anido made it all the more impressive.)
With disembodied, gloved hands beckoning Bonzi from behind white doors with video projections, a suitcase with which he is either lackadaisical or completely possessive at every turn, bowler hats that mute or render invisible, and apples and eggs which refer at various moments to every possible iteration and meaning of the word “seed,” the motifs are as palpable in Ochoa’s piece as they are in Magritte’s prolific body of work. On one level, the images/objects refer to themselves and nothing more in a very Magritte-esque manner of challenging the viewer’s perceptions of reality through incongruous context, but on another level, we begin seeing complicated relationships between the props, engaging them in the context of Surrealism at large, as if they are aspects of Bonzi’s psyche.
The suitcase – worn, unassuming, briefcase-like – is so many things in this ballet: a conduit for exploration when Bonzi curiously throws it over one of the immovable moving doors, an occasional deadweight that holds him back when he attempts to go somewhere new, the holder of secrets and initiator of interactions when he opens it to find “seeds” of sorts (the iconic apples and eggs), a precious aspect of his life when he gets frightened at the thought of leaving it behind, and an excitation of color and liveliness when he pops confetti out of it in the end. After the show, when asked about the suitcase’s significance, Ochoa responded by saying that the suitcase is Bonzi’s life/karma – “sometimes it weighs him down, other times it’s light, airy, but in the end the [vibrancy] is inside, he doesn’t have to look for it.” I’d like to add and offer the notion that the suitcase is actually Bonzi’s ego. Occasionally stepped on, lost, protected, or shared, one carries it no matter what to either navigate the curiosities of reality or to test them.
And that navigation system can come in handy when the id takes over! Several scenes in the performance of Bonzi rely on the bowler hat to render would-be-more-explicit sexual gestures invisible while fantasy and reality blur (like the scenes when female dancers don horns or rainbow tails and flirtatiously advance toward Bonzi’s intrigue). When Magritte uses a bowler hat, he often does so in tandem with the removal of personal identifiers, denying reality in a context of dream-like absurdity. Ochoa takes that a step further; her bowler hat opposes the id with polar opposition as the ballet continues. Ochoa’s bowler hat swallows the apple as dancers use that symbol to interact, covers the dancers’ pelvises when thrusting, or shields Bonzi’s face when one male dancer attempts to shift Bonzi’s movement away from temptation, physically altering his motions with the use of the hat. In a stroke of genius, the bowler hat becomes the superego within Surrealist signification as it mutes Bonzi’s id and enforces a strict ‘moral’ code.
The journey that Ochoa crafted within Bonzi struck the perfect balance between fantasy and reality as it evolved from Magritte’s notions of semiotics (like when each dancer dons a different color of gloves while a backdrop of projected white text stating the names of the colors scrolls behind them), to challenging the audience’s relation to those semiotics, and eventually to offering an interpretation of the human psyche as a true Surrealist would. This abstract of relations is challenging, rewarding, and silly in all the right ways, and is certainly not one to miss.