BalletX Opens 10th Anniversary Season With Nicolo Fonte’s Beasts

The provocative world premiere explores the tension between man’s primal and civilized impulses.

Nicolo Fonte and BalletX dancers rehearse a scene from "Beasts." | Photo courtesy of BalletX

Nicolo Fonte and BalletX dancers rehearse a scene from “Beasts.” | Photo courtesy of BalletX

It’s less than a week to go before opening night of BalletX’s tenth season and the company’s 10 dancers have just been dismissed for a lunch break after doing a run through of the second half of Nicolo Fonte’s new work, Beasts. The ballet explores the tension between man’s primal and civilized impulses. Sitting on a sofa in the lounge at the company’s rehearsal space, the Performance Garage at 15th and Brandywine streets, Fonte munches on a slice of pizza and discusses his evening-length world premiere commissioned by BalletX.

Fonte, a Portland-based New Yorker, has been in Philadelphia working with the company’s dancers since October 5th. But the 80-minute work, which explores what makes us who we are, our biology or the society we live in, has been in the works for more than a year with the choreographer carefully crafting an eclectic soundscape of music including work by Henrik Schwartz, Pete Townshend, Pink Martini, Patti Smith and Claude Debussy.

“Audiences need to know one thing, while the subject matter is really interesting, I’m not a sociologist or scientist,” says Fonte. “I’m not writing a dissertation on this subject. While this particular dance may provoke some thought, it is also highly entertaining. That is a big thing for me. If I’m going to ask the audience to sit there and pay attention to what I have to say for an hour and 20 minutes there better be some variation, some highs and lows, and some really shocking moments, thrilling moments, sheer tear-your-heart-out-and-put-it-back-in moments. You can’t do everything in one performance but you can try.”

Patrons who saw his 2013 work for BalletX, Beautiful Decay, would likely agree. Fonte, who has worked with prestigious companies including the Dutch National Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Stuttgart Ballet, is known for work that’s physical, fast and poetic. Fonte also has a knack for storytelling with movement. Beasts promises that balance of ideas and fun.

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Set designer, Mimi Lien, who is a 2015 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant, has created a design that works beautifully with Fonte’s exploration of the tabula rasa, blank slate concept. She’s constructed a  wall that hovers along the back of the stage at a slight angle. During the first act, the dancers treat it like a cave, crawling in and out in an exploration of man’s primal side. In the second act, which explores the effects of socialization, the wall is positioned upright.

Audience members seem to be responding to the drama during the company’s open rehearsal, according to the choreographer. During a section in Act Two when the men have finished waltzing around like they’re in a Viennese ballroom, the gentility of the scene degenerates when macho posturing hijacks the refinement and explicit violence takes over. “Audiences were like ‘Whoa, that’s crazy.’ It’s really intense and provocative,” recalls Fonte. “There’s another section that follows involving seduction and murder and the audience went ballistic clapping when it was over. When they stopped I was like ‘What are you applauding?!”

The choreographer laughs at the memory, and continues, “I’m not fluff. I don’t make fluff. I don’t like fluff. I don’t like small talk. I’m just kind of hardcore. I’m a Capricorn, but I do like to go to the theater, smile and laugh and be entertained and also like to think. That’s what I try to make when I make work. I feel really proud with this work. It’s a provocative idea with a lot of violence, action and a lot of hope and funny moments that represent exhilaration and joy.”

The rest of BalletX’s season features an impressive lineup of talent, including work by Kevin O’Day,  Trey McIntyre, Gilles Papain, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and company founder Matthew Neenan.

Beasts runs November 18-22 at Wilma Theater. For tickets and more information, go here.

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