BalletX founders Matthew Neenan and Christine Cox have come a long way from X's earliest incarnation: Neenan's Phrenic Dance Company, which Neenan oversaw while he was still dancing for the Pennsylvania Ballet. In those days, performances were held in the top floor studio at the Pennsylvania Ballet's Broad and Washington headquarters.
The enthusiastic response to Phrenic encouraged Neenan and Cox to retire from the big ballet company to pursue their enthusiasm for the new and the different in movement. But they couldn't have imagined the range of American choreographers who would want to bring their experimental dance work to a company that celebrated invention.
This month's extraordinary program opened with Loni Landon's Two Ears One Mouth, the first time this young New York choreographer's work has been seen in Philadelphia. Two Ears One Mouth was fluid and filled with open movements of arms and legs, as well as some tricky stuff like swinging one of the ladies by her leg and arm.
Sopranos in the audience
When a dancer falls for no apparent reason, we acknowledge that we're in the midst of a story that we don't know. Every dancer was good, but as usual Anitra Keegan stood out and she remains in the viewer's imagination. Martha Chamberlain designed wonderful ruffly costumes for men and women.
One of the evening's most intriguing events occurred when the sopranos Adrienne Bishop and Julie Bishop began singing La Jasmin (the flower duet from Delibes's Lakme). As the beautiful music washed over the theater, people in the audience began twisting their heads to see where the sound was coming from. Not the stage, not in the program— there they were, smack in the middle of the audience, rising from their seats.
It was a wonderful, subtle touch. Neenan leaned against the wall, watching and listening, while just above him, on the left-hand aisle, Cox smiled and swayed.
Shaking off silt
Silt, with choreography from Alex Ketley, was a reprise from last year's season. This dance essentially poses a question: How does so much in life drift away from us? It concerns loss of self, yes, but in such an engaging way (the dancers shake off the silt) that only the program notes make it clear what the subject matter really is. Still as the six dancers slowly and individually pull away to sit at stage back, or drift into the wings, we see this as a movement metaphor for inexplicable change and new surroundings, a theme that affects everyone.
South Philly school life
Jackson Sounds, a truly unique dance experiment, brought the evening to a close. The title comes from Neenan's six-month collaboration with Andrew Jackson Public School in South Philadelphia, during which he captured the exuberance and vocal joy exhibited by the students in their school life. These children primarily come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and their world was visibly changed by BalletX's presence.
The process was captured in film, with heartwarming footage of Neenan and the kids all jumping around, excited and happy. (The film was the work of the Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Alexander Iziliaev, whose photo-eye provides unique and faithful images of the dance world for his own troupe as well as BalletX.) Many Jackson students were in the audience, and their cheering and hollering was infectious.
In addition to the dance, cellist Robert Maggio composed an original score for two cellos echoing the sounds at the school. The screen over the stage showed the excited youngsters and the musicians; then the screen slowly disappeared overhead and, like magic, the audience saw the actual musicians pouring forth their own version of the inspiration generated by the interaction among the school kids, their teachers and the professional dancers.
Jackson Sounds may be Neenan's most important and influential work. Let's hope it will inspire the Xers (and others) to find ways to incorporate real life— everything from schools to hospitals to parades— into their theatrical inventions.