Dance on film is the only game in town. BalletX takes the field.

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Dance on film is the only game in town. BalletX takes the field.
An image provided by Elliot deBruyn/BalletX, Roderick Phifer, left, and Stanley Glover in “Love Letter” with choreography by Caili Quan. The Philadelphia company BalletX has released four new works that engage the medium by pairing choreographers with filmmakers. Elliot deBruyn/BalletX via The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- This much we know: Another fall season of ballet is beginning, and almost none of it will take place in person. Ballet companies need to make dance films, and they need to be better than the forgiveably slapdash “we’re still here” video postcards of the early pandemic period.

The big guns, like New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater, have announced plans for premieres in the coming months. But a much smaller troupe, BalletX in Philadelphia, is ahead of the game. On Wednesday night, it released four new works.

These works will remain available indefinitely, but they aren’t free. To watch them, you have to subscribe to BalletX Beyond, which also gives you access to premieres later in the season, along with extras like interviews and making-of documentaries. The cheapest plan is $15 a month — less than a ticket to a live show but almost as much as premium Netflix. It’s a necessary experiment, especially for companies without huge endowments. Somebody has to figure out how to get people to pay for digital dance.

One enticement is to offer films that at least look professional and try to take advantage of the medium. On this score, the new BalletX films succeed. The choreographers have collaborated with skilled filmmakers. And while not ranging far from Philadelphia, the locations suggest a world much wider, varied and visually exciting than a dance studio or the inside of a dancer’s apartment.

“Scribble,” which Loughlan Prior choreographed and directed remotely from New Zealand, experiments with animation. As dancers move in a black void, their figures are traced in bright lines — hand-drawn by the artist Glynn Urquhart. It’s a cool effect, especially when the dancers seem to be doing the drawing themselves.

But in terms of choreography, the title is all too accurate. Even if the film weren’t hobbled by a terrible score (it reminds me of lounges in urban-chic hotels), it would be more of a demo reel for a technique than a finished work of art. It seems to have very little to say.

That’s not a problem with Penny Saunders’ “Ricochet.” This film has a subject: the archetype of the American cowboy. More specifically, it’s about how the myth is handed down, generation to generation, as a boy’s dream. It means to make you think about what’s left out and the damage done.

The images — of fields and corrals, captured by Quinn Wharton’s mobile camera, flying above and swooping in close — bring us into the subject quickly and vividly. The revisionism is largely implicit, intimated by the casting (some dancers are Black) or by the presence of Charley Pride, the Black country singer, on the soundtrack.

Sometimes, the dancers lip sync to old cowboy-movie dialogue. The technique, with its distancing effect, helps question the myth, even as it draws unflattering attention to how we’re watching dancers trying to act. Again, the film’s greatest shortcoming is the choreography. Apart from a tender yet tense same-sex duet for Stanley Glover and Roderick Phifer, few moments pierce the skin as dance.

Rena Butler’s “The Under Way (working title)” is also stronger on concept than on choreographic substance. Conceptually, there’s a lot going on. Ostensibly, the film is about the Underground Railroad, yet it’s actually more topical and complicated, folding in Plato’s allegory of the cave to suggest, with skeptical hope, how recent events may have woken white people up to the realities of racism.

Butler, directing with Tshay Williams, had the dancers film themselves, mostly in their own apartments, though this handicap is offset by playful camera angles that direct attention, metaphorically, to point of view. The setting of the final section, in the living room of the dancer Blake Krapels, underlines his realization of white privilege. Bouncing off the furniture, Krapels, who is white, recites in voice-over a list of things he’s free to do, like go birding or jogging.

But the most powerful part benefits from a more striking setting: in front of a statue of the former mayor Frank Rizzo, filmed before it was removed as symbol of racism. The vocabulary of the duet (again for Glover and Phifer) isn’t revolutionary (hands-up, running in place), yet combined with the setting it has force.

That is, it has force as dance. Isn’t that the goal, even on film? In a sense, Caili Quan’s “Love Letter” is the least ambitious of this crop. It is what it says it is: a love letter to her home country of Guam, sent from afar, embodying the happy-sad longing of the Chamorro word “Mahalong.” It expresses this emotion — and does so through dance.

The music helps: a ukulele tune, a Harry Belafonte novelty track, Tahitian chanting. It inspires dancing that the performers seem to relish, dancing that makes you want to move.

The editing, by Elliot deBruyn, is in tune with that energy. The concluding section cuts between a man on a city roof and a woman at the beach, their separation both emphasized and collapsed by editing. As a film concept, this is nowhere near original. As dance on film, it works.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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