BalletX debuted as the Wilma Theater’s newest resident company last Thursday. The performance was no Nutcracker Suite.
Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, former members of the Pennsylvania Ballet, wanted to redefine ballet in Philadelphia. In 2005, they formed BalletX, a contemporary ballet company that combines classical ballet technique with edgy, modern choreography.
“Contemporary ballet is a different way of moving,” dancer Corey Baker said. “Christine and Matthew have a great vision for Philly – new choreography at a quick pace.”
Cox and Neenan are new to neither contemporary style nor to running a company. In 2000, when Cox and Neenan were still dancing with the Pennsylvania Ballet, they and two other dancers formed an experimental ballet company called Phrenic New Ballet. Two years ago, Cox and Neenan left Phrenic New Ballet to form BalletX.
“Matthew and I wanted to simplify what we were doing, so we broke apart [from Phrenic New Ballet],” said Cox, who teaches dance at the University of the Arts, Bryn Mawr College and Swarthmore College. “Our goals are to engage young people, make ballet more accessible and produce all original works.”
“We are trying to fill the void of contemporary ballet in Philadelphia,” Neenan said. “As for ballet companies in Philadelphia, there are just PA Ballet and us.”
Cox and Neenan see the partnership between BalletX and the Wilma Theater as a logical fit.
“They are pushing the envelope in theater and we are pushing the envelope in dance,” Cox said. “Our boards had a meeting of the minds and BalletX seemed like a natural match.”
BalletX is made up of four former Pennsylvania Ballet dancers, local artists, international artists and even a recent UArts graduate. Over the summer, the 10-member company spent five weeks learning the choreography and within the past two weeks, the choreographers and dancers reassembled the show.
“It’s lots of work to put on a show and companies normally have more time than this,” Cox said with a laugh. “We don’t have studio space, yet.”
Regardless of BalletX’s time and space constraints, the company was ready for opening night on Thursday.
The performance is composed of three acts. Neenan choreographed the first piece, “Once Again.” He chose music by Frederic Fasch, Giuseppe Torelli and Beatles Baroque: “Les
“The piece is more classical than the others,” Neenan said.
Although the music and choreography had more traditional elements than the other pieces, the dynamic was edgy and driving. Throughout the 15-minute piece, the dancers created “variations on a theme.” The dancers alternated between synchronization and counter-movement. Dancers moved around, through and against each other.
The nature of romantic relationships created an underlying tension, and at one point as part of the performance, dancer Meredith Rainey left the stage in disgust after two female dancers competed for him.
Also, Neenan seemed to explore the diversity of relationships with duets of gay and straight couples. At times, dancers would “interrupt” the duets, partners would change and new characters would enter to the stage. Throughout the piece, the dancers emphasized physical and emotional closure and reopening.
The second piece, choreographed by Cox, portrayed loss in watching a parent age. He titled the piece “M.O.M. My Own Memory.”
“There is a lot of tension around watching a parent get older,” Cox said. “My mother is not a character in the piece. It is about people going through the process [of watching a parent age].”
The music included Beats Antique and Evelyn Glennie with recorded vocals by Bjork.
Throughout the piece, the dancers focused on physically and emotionally supporting one another. When the curtains opened, the music sounded like a mechanical clanking and ticking, and the dancers seemed to be moving without emotion. As the piece progressed, the dancers lifted and held one another.
In the second movement of the piece, the lights flashed red and the choreography became more frantic. As the curtain closed at the end of the final movement, the dancers mimicked the opening mechanical movements, except the lead character wept and did not participate in the motions.
Guest artist Adam Hougland choreographed the final piece, “Risk of Flight.” He has choreographed for the Louisville Ballet and Julliard School.
“This is an abstract piece with a central duet about relationships,” Hougland said. “I instructed the dancers to act as if they had lost a child. I wanted to portray people stuck in a cycle – people who can’t stand to be around each other.”
Dancers Rainey and Heidi Cruz-Austin, both former members of the Pennsylvania Ballet, danced as the principal duet. At times they held each other and at other times they fled, showing beautiful physical intimacy crossed with repulsion.
Cruz-Austin and Rainey’s costumes were simple and minimal, echoing both physical intimacy and nakedness of loss.
Now that BalletX is a resident company of the Wilma Theater, the company will have three performances yearly at the Wilma. The next show will be in July and features all female artists – Cox and two international choreographers will choreograph an ensemble of women.
“In the future, we hope the company tours more, continues to perform in Philadelphia and lasts beyond us,” Neenan said. “That’s why we didn’t put our names on it.”
Leah Kristie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.