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They Shook Up Ballet in Philly, and Now They're In New York

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Aug 11, 2016


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The words "summer vacation" certainly mean nothing to the dancers of BalletX. This forward-looking, Philadelphia-based ensemble has been performing nonstop during July and August.

Immediately following their two-week summer home season – which, typically, offered two world premieres – they performed at two A-list dance festivals, Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts and Vail International Dance Festival in Colorado. They barely had a moment to unpack their bags before heading to New York for the company's first week-long run (August 16 – 21) at the Joyce Theater. Those performances will mark the culmination of BalletX's tenth anniversary and give New Yorkers their most substantial opportunity to see the troupe.

Ballet X's founders, Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, were dancers with the Pennsylvania Ballet who hungered to launch a venture that could focus on original choreography. "We really wanted to create a platform for contemporary ballet," says Cox, the company's artistic and executive director. "The initial idea was to create a space where we could have fun and be creative – and find our own voices."

Neenan, now an acclaimed and busy choreographer with commissions nationwide, had already started choreographing, so their venture was to be in part an outlet for his work. "At the time, Pennsylvania Ballet was getting more conservative in its programming," he says. "We started BalletX because we knew there was an audience that really wanted to see ballet in a different way. It was a way to get to work with choreographers (established and emerging) whom we've always wanted to work with – and to have a playground for choreographers to come to." Initially a pickup company – a group of dancers mostly working with Pennsylvania Ballet who were expanding their horizons during their downtime – BalletX has now, in its tenth year, grown exponentially. This season provides 41 weeks of employment, which is quite a coup for a smaller troupe.

"Our dancers are really strong individuals," notes Tara Keating, a founding member of BalletX who is now its associate artistic director. "They need a strong base in classical technique, but at the same time they need to have their own voice. We try to have a diverse group, and dancers who can really connect with our audience on a personal level."


BalletX offers four programs each year at its home base, the intimate Wilma Theater. "That was what put us on the map rather quickly," Neenan says. "We got in at the right time; the theatre was looking for a resident dance company." The adventurous audience that attends their Wilma series has made it possible for the company to to take risks. "We're creating world-premiere work from relevant choreographers," Cox says. "We've built up a community that is a dream audience. They are excited about what's to come."

The company's size has remained at ten dancers (though that's not what the "X" represents), but Cox senses it may soon expand. And while Neenan's pieces have always been a mainstay, the group has commissioned a total of 31 choreographers for a repertory that now totals 58 works. All but three have been choreographed for BalletX; borrowing or re-staging is not really their style.

Cox wants to provide her dancers with the kind of experience she most treasured when she was dancing. "I loved being in world premiere choreography. I loved the process; I loved working with choreographers, seeing how their ideas came to life." At the Joyce, BalletX will present three dances created just for them, each of which features all ten dancers.

Neenan's Show Me, first performed in Vail last year, is set to songs by Padma Newsome, Aoife O'Donovan and Christina Courtin, as interpreted by the adventurous string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

Meanwhile, Jorma Elo's Gran Partita, which combines scores by Bach, Mozart, Monteverdi and Berg, highlights the dancers' diversity in style and ability. Closing the program is Trey McIntyre's Big Ones, in which this adventurous and unpredictable choreographer sets the dancers in action to Amy Winehouse songs

And of course, there are no plans to stop at the end of this season. Cox says, "I'm building on the argument to make Philadelphia even more of a destination for choreographers to stop in and create work."


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Photos by Alexander Iziliaev. Top photo: BalletX dancers perform 'Show Me.'

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.