The first work on the program, “Show Me” (2015), is by Matthew Neenan; the third, “Big Ones” (2016), by Trey McIntyre. Much of the freshest choreography in American ballet is made by these two men. They certainly cover the country. In recent years, New York has offered lively, fresh, odd, engaging work by these two, brought by companies based in California, Idaho and Tennessee. And both have made important dances for BalletX, the smaller, younger and far more experimental of Philadelphia’s two chief ballet troupes. They also choreograph for the other one, Pennsylvania Ballet, where Mr. Neenan is resident choreographer.
Perhaps the most offbeat choreographer in American ballet, Mr. McIntyre, who often employs pop or rock music, is now in top form. When Pennsylvania Ballet visited the Joyce for a week this spring, his “The Accidental” (2014) — set to taped songs by Patrick Watson — was the program’s highlight. Now his “Big Ones” (whose premiere I reviewed in Philadelphia this February), accompanied by Amy Winehouse recordings, proves marvelous. This year has already brought some excellent fresh choreography; “Big Ones,” as well as Alexei Ratmansky’s very dissimilar “Serenade After Plato’s Symposium,” new with American Ballet Theater this May, are two of the best examples.
“Big Ones” is truly weird, but it takes you inside its weirdness so soon and so surely that it shows many different humors: It’s funny, touching, poignant, stirring. At its premiere in February, the audience members didn’t laugh; they do now, and at the end they give it the evening’s biggest ovation. The principal peculiarity is derived from the costumes, designed by the ubiquitous team Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, also here at their finest and most idiosyncratic. The dancers, wearing tunics and dark brown leather hot pants, then tie on bonnets with two-foot-tall vertical ears, antennae, tufts or horns.
Most of the performers retain these throughout, but for two of them, removing the headgear becomes dramatically significant, so that it’s easy to assume that these bizarre hats are symbols — and to ask what they symbolize. The absurdity of conventionality? When Chloe Felesina, the protagonist here, removes hers, we’re so used to seeing everyone wearing these high-rise headpieces that her act becomes one of courage and self-assertiveness. When she removes Daniel Mayo’s — we’ve watched him become her boyfriend — it’s traumatic; he’s vulnerable, exposed.
It’s better, though, not to explain meanings here. There’s a multiplicity. Several ideas certainly arrive from the Winehouse songs, with her chesty voice planting their words so firmly into our ears: This is a ballet that starts (irresistibly) with the words, “They tried to make me go to rehab/I said no, no, no.” The world onstage is marvelously, darkly realized by Drew Billiau’s lighting; we’re in some club. The bonnets all start out on a row of stands at the back, and the crazy conformism of the piece is established by the unquestioning way the dancers, as they enter, don the headgear as a matter of course.
Drama here derives principally from the dances, which are as odd as the costumes. It’s hard to believe now that nobody at the February premiere laughed out loud when Zachary Kapeluck, the tallest and biggest man onstage, threw up his heels in a fast little knock-kneed Charleston step; the Joyce audience chuckled happily at the sight. The men and women here are absurd, silly, often adorable, but not really impressive. Ms. Felesina — both tough and lonely — at first seems damaged in the way that she cannot quite connect with any of them, but the duet in which she and Mr. Mayo find intimacy is the piece’s biggest, sweetest surprise.
But “Big Ones,” danced by BalletX at the Wilma Theater here, isn’t coy or roguish; and its eccentricity is not remotely camp or twee. Mr. McIntyre’s choreography is juicy, very dancey and weirdly passionate; without ever being sure where it came from, I fell in love with it early on. I began to gurgle with glee when, to the song “Valerie,” the excellent Zachary Kapeluck, a tall man with powerful thighs, leaned forward and threw up his heels in a knock-kneed charleston.
From then on, “Big Ones” kept wiping the smile off my face and restoring it. Although it inhabits the politically correct world of modern ballet, where same-sex partnering is more than O.K., it’s mainly about a woman’s view of men — Chloe Felesina has the focal role — and sometimes a man’s view of women. The partnering in a male-female duet goes both ways, often in casual and throwaway moments: A man bends over a woman’s thigh and she keeps him tucked there with one arm as he beats his legs behind him in the air.
I don’t think the title “Big Ones” refers solely to the headgear ears; the lighting (by Drew Billiau) and costumes (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) make sure that the dancers look appealingly, vividly unsylphlike. All 10 look adult and individual; Ms. Felesina, Daniel Mayo and Mr. Kapeluck, in the most featured roles, are especially fine in appearing at once serious and absurd, curious and ardent.
Back in the days of vaudeville, the label “eccentric dancing” was accepted for a wide range of idioms, not least tap. But it’s wonderful to see some truly eccentric ballet — and to see it full of lively, musical steps. Early in the opening song — “Rehab” — a dancer lands from a jump in a briefly sustained arabesque with such perfect timing on a bell-like note in the music that you feel how dance, music and you are enmeshed in a single weave. The dancing features both large and small moves; some tucked-up jumps stay fondly in memory, as do, above all, some one-legged hops in arabesque by Ms. Felesina, judiciously catching the music’s rhythm.
Mr. McIntyre has struck me before as one of the two best American choreographers based outside New York; the other is Matthew Neenan, who co-founded BalletX and shares this program. They both have talents for ballets to popular music, and bring onto the stage views of America today — views that aren’t like the stage societies in New York. Mr. McIntyre is a freelancer (for a few years he had his own company); it’s good to think of him enlivening the national and international scene. “Big Ones” comes to New York when BalletX dances at the Joyce Theater in August.”
The realm evoked, with inky lighting from Mr. Billiau, striking but simple costuming by Reid Bartleme and Harriet Jung, and spare setting by Mr. McIntyre, is one that could be dubbed “Life in Hell,” echoing Matt Groening’s comic strip of that name with its familiar tall-eared rabbit.
The tragic end to Winehouse’s career with her untimely death from alcohol poisoning in 2011 must be on the minds of many in BalletX’s audience, but even if not, it was likely in Mr. McIntyre’s as he arranged his dance episodes, spurred by Winehouse’s varied, unsentimental, romantic lyrics. “Big Ones” begins with “Rehab” and ends with “Back to Black.”
In between the dance’s opening, on a stage lighted as if by a cave explorer’s headlamp, to its closing, with one of the women ( Chloe Felesina) who’s removed her eared headdress in solitary focus, Mr. McIntyre’s choreography shows his cast as sometimes playful and sometimes caring individuals who are impelled by Winehouse’s singing, words and emotional tone. Altogether the 30-minute dance variously honors Winehouse’s musical and poetic artistry.
Daniel Mayo, who joins Ms. Felesina for an intimate duet, does so wearing his ears as if pinned back. Just why is left for audiences to fathom. “Big Ones” plumbs dark depths and leaves us grateful that BalletX commissioned Mr. McIntyre to enrich its repertory of contemporary ballet.”
Choreographed by: Trey McIntyre
Costumes by: Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung
Lighting by: Drew Billiau
Music: by Amy Winehouse
Premiered: Feb. 10, 2016 by BalletX
Running Time: 30 minutes
Funding provided by Wyncote Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.