Taking contemporary ballet off the stage

BalletX, a local dance group, brought ballet to the public.

Contemporary ballet dance company BalletX performed at 30th Street Station. | COURTESY BILL HEBERT
Contemporary ballet dance company BalletX performed at 30th Street Station. | COURTESY BILL HEBERT
Contemporary ballet dance company BalletX performed at 30th Street Station. | COURTESY BILL HEBERT
Contemporary ballet dance company BalletX performed at 30th Street Station. | COURTESY BILL HEBERT

BalletX, a Philadelphia-based contemporary ballet company, broadened its performance medium beyond the proscenium stage and into the public scene by transforming the dimensional relationship between the dancer and audience.

At the 2014 Fringe Festival, this dancer-to-audience barrier was broken amidst the ordinary hustle of 30th Street Station and the Bridgette Mayer Gallery.

The company, founded in 2005 by Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, strives to be innovative with its impressions of ballet dance. BalletX incorporates techniques of classical ballet with flares of modern and jazz, accompanied by an array of music genres, not limited to the traditional balletic sounds of Tchaikovsky.

In May, BalletX performed at The Porch at 30th Street Station. With the Philadelphia skyline serving as a backdrop, the company presented a medley of four pieces from its repertoire, intermingling its choreographed movement among the erratic mundane of Philadelphia street life.

“It’s great to be a part of the Fringe Festival in an area where [the city] is really building out,” Cox, artistic and executive director said. “We jumped at the chance to perform at The Porch. We are looking for any opportunities to have our dancers performing, and Fringe was a great opportunity for a live performance.”

As a performance space, The Porch vanishes the “fourth wall,” which can sometimes isolate the dancers from the audience, allowing bystanders of 30th Street Station to grasp a deeper connection to the fluidity and emotion of the pieces.

“It’s very intimate,” company member Richard Villaverde said, who is starting his third season with BalletX and first year at the Fringe Festival. “We’re distracting by bringing art to a beautiful part of the city that is normally loud and busy. It’s beautiful.”

“Doing Fringe is great because sometimes we all get stuck in our own little world and our own interests,” Villaverde said. “We forget to look out of the box or think about something else. Doing the festival introduces people to this new contemporary form of dance.”

BalletX members said this alternative form of performance does not strip meaning from the pieces.

“You get to see the dancers so close; you can walk around and see every angle of their movement,” Cox explained. “The crowd has such a great time with the company performing outside.”

“As long as you connect with your partner, people will understand where we are going,” Villaverde said.

The BalletX Fringe experience reached beyond West Philadelphia, into the Washington Square district of the city. The Bridgette Mayer Art Gallery’s 2014 Benefit Exhibition, showcasing the work of 250 local, national and international artists, featured improvisational dance pieces from three BalletX company members.

Like The Porch, the Gallery is an inventive platform for BalletX performances.

“It’s an interesting set-up,” Cox said. “It’s very new for us. It’s very ‘Fringe’ for us.”

BalletX’s performance innovations, both on traditional and nontraditional stages, reflect its style innovations. The company harnesses classical ballet fundamentals and attaches it to their creation of contemporary artistry channeled through musicality and movement.

“[Contemporary style] is what comes out of their bodies after training for so many years as a classical dancer,” Cox said. “‘Contemporary’ meaning ‘current’ movement style.”

Aside from BalletX’s participation in Fringe, where it experimented with staging presentation, the company will return to the established stage of the Wilma Theater for its Fall 2014 season.

Jorma Elo, a highly pursued choreographer who has worked at companies like American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, is partnering with BalletX for a second time to create a world premiere piece. The performance, blending techniques of classical and contemporary ballet, is currently untitled.

“I’m really excited to work with Elo,” Villaverde said. “He’s such a brilliant contemporary ballet choreographer. It’s going to be a great experience working with someone who is so well-known.”

In an extension of balletic perception, the domain of BalletX empowers its members to progress by exercising elasticity of their artistry using various methods of dance.

“Adding jazz and modern elements to ballet creates a very versatile dancer that can mold to a lot of different forms,” Villaverde said. “It’s nice to be challenged by having your mind open to something different. And this is very important in a company like BalletX.”

Grace Maiorano can be reached at grace.maiorano@temple.edu

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