Whatever about Balanchine’s celebrated phrase ‘ballet is woman’, there is no denying that ballet is youth, perhaps the highest expression of worship for the youthfully able body. Old age is given character parts, at best, ignored, at worst. What if you turned the whole thing on its head? What if the scene stealers were an old couple, in shapeless costume, unbeautified, with slow nursing home gait, witnesses, guides, spirits, memorists of the ardours and excesses of youth? What if the deep beauty of the wisdom of the soul despite (or because of) physical decrepitude and decline was so patent as to make one’s heart skip a beat?

Gary W. Jeter II, Hellmut Gottschild © Bill Hebert
Gary W. Jeter II, Hellmut Gottschild
© Bill Hebert

Such was the disarming conceptual glory behind Nicolo Fonte’s striking work Beautiful Decay, performed by Philadelphia’s premier contemporary dance company, BalletX. It was clever, but more than that, it was a truly profound choice, a choice that could not but instill reflection on the life-cycle in which every single human is enmeshed. I remember once overhearing a snide comment about the repetitiousness of a particular contemporary ballet, ‘it’s just beautiful bodies in motion – same old, same old’, and the truth is, for all the technical brilliance and exuberance of beautiful bodies, we often unconsciously long for restraint, for something that gives us pause and stillness, for both vulnerability and wisdom to be on stage before our eyes.

I spent the first act enraptured by Fonte’s creative force. As male and female youth, ten strong, swept through spring and summer, to an amped-up version of Vivaldi’s Concerto no 2 in G and the Four Seasons (how indicative of the sound and fury of life at full throttle), they were in mysterious dialogue with old age, performed by the two veterans, Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck. Herrmann and Fischbeck infused every simple movement of the aging body with a grace and indeed a spirituality which was as powerful as anything I have seen in dance. Herrmann, in particular, was transparently supernatural in her gravity and in her world embracing arm gestures. We were truly touching great art here.

And the youth ran through the procession of doors, vaulted, turned, whirled, and lifted, always in company, couples or tribes, in various groupings of men and women. Their pride of life carried all before it, was overwhelming at times, in its compulsive energy. Movements were inflated, limbs thrust out; spines were flexed and stretched, as they pushed beyond the normal contours of the body; wrists and necks were prominent in their self-display, as if to say ‘what’s it to you?’. In one dance involving the women, the use of the head was especially notable. It wasn’t long before their own vulnerability emerged – movements that were broken, interrupted, harsh or even violent  - undercurrents of sexual aggression and victimhood were obvious.

Hellmut Gottschild Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Chloe Perkes, Gary W Jetter II © Bill Hebert
Hellmut Gottschild Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Chloe Perkes, Gary W Jetter II
© Bill Hebert

And the multiple layers of connection between youth and age meant that one could see the work again and again, and still not exhaust its meaning. Were the old mirroring the young, reliving, remembering, judging? Were the young indifferent, hostile or fascinated by the old? That curious ‘pas de deux’ of sorts between one of the young men and the older lady, and between the older man and a young lady – people they had loved long since or victimized or both or neither? The closing of Act I was touching as the two old people faced the audience and the young dancers came behind to shadow their movements, a vision of kinesthetic empathy so profound as to move one to tears.

The second Act wasn’t a match for the glory of the first, and it became less readable as the time went on. To the music of Max Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed: Spring 1 Remix and Ólafur Arnalds For Now I am Winter, it seemed at the start to show youth in the autumn of their lives, with movements more cautious, painful and emotionally complicated. They walked rather than ran. This was in keeping with the progression of the first Act. There was a moving quartet – with the old people and youth able to trust each other enough to fall into each others’ arms and touch hands, and there, I thought, the work would end, in a sort of coming-together, a healing transference of bodies and spirits. But it didn’t, and there I lost it somewhat, as the material reverted to high energy with an edge, and the old people disappearing for longer stretches. The ending was so abrupt as to be disarming, but all on stage were facing the same direction, looking off-stage, and raising their arms in a sort of salute. Because the first act promised so very much, and I did expect a sort of transformative conclusion, I couldn’t help but feel a little let-down. Still, a beautiful performance.