BalletX, Philadelphia’s Premier Contemporary Ballet Company, launched its Spring Series last night at the Wilma Theatre, just a day ahead of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Swan Lake, across the street. A different (smaller) theater, a different (smaller) audience (with, one hopes, at least some overlap), I idly wondered why, when the offerings are of the standard of BalletX, contemporary ballet doesn’t yet have the same audience draw. It’s probably because of a lack of information, a half-conscious idea that it’s probably inevitably gritty and serious stuff. My companion for the evening had never seen contemporary ballet before – she never had even considered it, and came away with a new interest.

Andrea Yorita in Trey McIntyre's The Boogeyman
© Bill Hebert

The Spring Series was fun, frolicsome and light-hearted, book-ended by two world premières, with the return of a 2014 work of the repertory in between. Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Vivir led the way, a dance depiction of the Spanish Harlem of his youth. Vivid colours, extrovert dancing – something of Latin street liveliness pervaded the whole, not least in the articulation of wrists and heels. Indeed, it wouldn’t be an over-statement to write that we were looking at street performers, even in their fleeting partnerships and private spaces. Gary Jeter II’s danced soliloquy showed a body in psychic pain, but not so internalized that it wasn’t primarily an expressive sort of pain. Music was Latin in feel, and often quite retro, much of it from Rodrigo y Gabriela. The dancers caught the joyous fleeting sense of immediacy that the best street performers all do – those for whom an audience is always in passage – you must grab their attention quickly or they’ll be gone. Seize the moment.

Matthew Neenan choreographed Increasing to the score of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. The choice of one of the most celebrated pieces of chamber music was fundamental to Neenan’s conception. His one desire was to let the dance spring entirely from the music, and fittingly, a live quintet were on stage to realize that aim. Whether the choreography was entirely successful in doing what it set out to do, I’m not as sure. Sometimes, I really thought it worked splendidly; at other times, I was less convinced (one communal moment of clumpiness close to the players, I thought, actively impinged on the music – there seemed to be too much going on in one corner). And I’m not quite sure whether narrative was avoided entirely. It boasted exuberant, playful relations between the ten dancers, which one couldn’t help thinking to be a bunch of carefree students – creating friendships and relationships, group dating, breaking apart ( there was a twice or three times repeated ‘breaking through’ of a  couple’s line). Andrea Yorita moved with impressive flexibility and expressed herself so intelligently. It ended with a pleasingly ragged line (of course it would – these were a collective), all of them jejune, eager to live, physically irrepressible. It was really all about the pleasure of the dance to great music, however it comes.

Trey McIntyre’s The Boogeyman grew out of 1970s funk, and as Christine Cox, BalletX’s director, joked at the start of the performance, if it didn’t get you moving, you might want to check your pulse. This was lively, clever, and amusing, with a darker subtext (the dance with the phone chord ended in a suicide at one stage), but one which never overcame the riot of doing funky ballet in bellbottoms and velvet trouser suits. With songs by Stevie Wonder, Johnny Nash and Gilbert O’ Sullivan ringing in our ears, it was attractively staged and energetically danced. Francesca Forcella was a tour de force and Caili Quan was fabulously eye-catching. With a garçon bob, and effortless bravura of movements and expression, she was the coolest dancer on stage, a joy to watch. I mean they were all cool tonight, all 10 of the dancers on stage. It’s not about being on the biggest stage that matters, but what you do on any stage at all – dance like there is no-one watching. But, happily, we are.