BalletX at the Wilma: All set

Adam Hundt (from left), Tara Keating, choreographer Adam Hougland, Jaime Lennon, and Willy Laury.AMY S. ROSENBERG / Staff
Adam Hundt (from left), Tara Keating, choreographer Adam Hougland, Jaime Lennon, and Willy Laury.AMY S. ROSENBERG / Staff
Posted: July 10, 2012

Sandwiched between an approaching Millennium and a Perestroika, the three choreographers for BalletX's summer series at the Wilma Theater this week found themselves in a creative and collaborative conundrum.

The stark white expanse of the set created by Matt Saunders for both parts of Tony Kushner's AIDS saga Angels in America — Part One: Millennium Approaches, which ended its Wilma run July 1, and Part Two: Perestroika, which begins Sept. 12 — would remain in place for the five-day BalletX run that begins Wednesday.

So, with little notice, the choreographers working with BalletX, which is the Wilma's resident dance company, were presented with their backdrop: an Angels in America world signifying places ranging from a hospital room and Central Park to heaven, with two doors, a balcony, and open wings, painted white almost to the top but purposely left unfinished in black brushstrokes up high.

Contemporary choreography in this millennium is nothing if not a right-up-to-showtime creative discipline, and arts groups that share space as fine as the Wilma's have to be adaptable. Though they only found out a few weeks ago about the set, the two choreographers who were preparing world-premiere pieces said that time frame suited them, and they were able to do work with dancers with the set in mind.

"It's a great idea for a reality show," said Darrell Grand Moultrie, whose new piece is Differences in Sections, to music by Kenji Burn. "Here's a set, let me see what you would do with it — Project Danceway. I saw it as a challenge, like on Project Runway, where the guy makes leather pants out of plastic bags. That's true genius. I love those kinds of challenges."

For Londoner Adam Hougland, who choreographed his new work with BalletX dancers in only two weeks — first in a nearby studio, then on the Wilma stage — having any kind of set is a luxury.

"When they said, ‘We have this set, we could work it,' I thought, ‘Good,' " said Hoagland, whose untitled, darkly funny work is set to music by the parody band Big Daddy, which did 1980s pop songs in a kitschy 1950s style. "It's the kind of thing I'd ask to have and be told we can't afford to do it. It's a bit of a luxury."

Hoagland said the white would be an excellent backdrop. "There are certain colors in my piece that will show off nicely against the white," he said. "The piece of music and costumes are decided. Now what I'm trying to do is look at this and use it to my best advantage. You've got a staircase, you've got doors."

As it turned out, the staircase would be removed because of safety hazards, as would the Central Park bench, said Matt Neenan, the company's co-artistic director. But the doors are figuring in all the works on this week's program. "They've all seen the space," he said. "They're all going to do it a little bit different."

The third piece, Beside Myself by Tobin Del Cuore, is not new; originally staged in dark lighting, it had to be reimagined in its brilliantly white setting.

"You can still do fairly dark lighting," said Neenan. "He [Del Cuore] still thinks he wants the dark look, with the door open to have a glare of light. I'm glad we can make it work. It's a beautiful set, it's gorgeous. I'm kind of treating it as our summer look."

Del Cuore said that he was treating the set as a challenge, and that any dance performance was dependent on factors beyond the choreographer's total control: "I'm of the mind-set that every time you do a dance it's slightly different. Why not take that and sort of expand on it? I'm definitely doing that with the choreography."

His original work, he said, was quite dark, with a black floor, black backdrops. After seeing photos of the Angels set, "I knew I wanted to make alterations to the work itself. I'm very excited. It seems like fate in a way."

Del Cuore said he would be working with the lighting designer to adapt the work, taking an already bright light and making it grow "instead of fading." "There's already this play of light," he said. "Instead of going for darkness, go for light."

In fact, said lighting designer Drew Billiou, it was Beside Myself that ended up being the easiest to adapt to the existing lighting that also came with the Angels set. The door opens to an otherworldly light behind it, and another one that shoots a shaft of light across the stage. Del Cuore's dancers move in and out of that light, he said, with the rest of the stage darkened.

For the other works, the puzzle was more complicated. The Angels set came with all manner of stage lights, including fluorescent pink above the balcony and tubes of neon orange for a bar scene. All are being repurposed.

"The challenges are, we're doing dance, and Angels is a theatrical piece," said Billiou, who admitted to feeling a bit panicky during a tech rehearsal Monday as he figured out the lighting for Hoagland's piece. "This one wants to have a darkened and confined feel to it, like a backroom bar. The challenge is, whenever I light everything up, the wall lights up brighter than the dancers."

His goal, he said, was to make sure the set did not give an undeserved unity to the three pieces, which couldn't be more different.

"It's the Angels in America set," he said. "It can be blue, orange, red, it's still the Angels in America set. It'll all have the same feel to it."

Lacking a budget to redo the costumes — which are dark green and dark blue, Del Coure said he'd end up "playing with aspects of color against the white." And the doors, as in the other two dances, are proving irresistible — "It works really well for my piece," he said.

None of the choreographers plans on using the balcony. Although all are familiar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and two had seen the Wilma's production while in town to rehearse their own shows, they said the story itself — a chronicle of America set against the 1980 AIDS epidemic — would not affect their own work, just the set and the lighting they inherited.

"I'm rolling with it," Del Coure said. "I'm thinking outside the box.

Anitra Keegan, who is dancing her final performances after six years with BalletX before retiring to teach at Bryn Mawr, said this was the first time the company, in sharing space at the Wilma, had also shared sets. “It'll be an interesting process — and hopefully a good one," she said.

Contact Amy Rosenberg at 215-854-2681, arosenberg@phillynews.com or @amysrosenberg on Twitter.

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