BalletX’s Choreographic Fellowship stands out on the US dance scene

Go behind the scenes with BalletX choreographers Jennifer Archibald and Nicola Wills before the 2024 Spring Series

5 minute read
Archibald, a Black woman in black leggings & sweatshirt, strikes an angled pose in the gray-floored BalletX studio.

Walk into BalletX’s storefront building on Washington Avenue, and dancers at work come into view almost immediately. High above, on the far side of the studio, large windows make a transparent division between the artistic endeavor and the administrative work happening one floor up. This open plan is unusual for an artistic headquarters—especially in the buttoned-up world of ballet.

Philadelphia’s BalletX is a happy contrast with the formality of many ballet companies, where, according to choreographer Jennifer Archibald, “You don’t even know half of the corps de ballet. You’re only working with your cast and your repetiteur, then you go back to your apartment.” That’s not what happens in BalletX’s Choreographic Fellowship program, where Archibald is currently mentoring Nicola Wills.

Teamwork is key to the distinctive character of this small, tight-knit company’s yearly fellowship, which brought Archibald (a Canadian whose blend of hip-hop and ballet is quickly rising on the US choreographic scene) together with Wills (who hails from South Australia) for three weeks in February. Each artist is working on a new ballet that will premiere as part of BalletX’s Spring Series, coming up March 6 through 10, 2024, on the Wilma Theater stage.

Multiracial group of 14 dancers in rehearsal gear, leaning forward intensely as one in the BalletX studio.
The BalletX company rehearses Jennifer Archibald’s new work. (Photo by Arian Molina Soca for BalletX.)

Typically, ballet choreographers get their start with a company where they began as dancers. Justin Peck, New York City Ballet’s (NYCB) resident choreographer, is a prominent example: he was an NYCB corps de ballet member when he began choreographing professionally at the company-affiliated New York Choreographic Institute. Philly favorite Matthew Neenan, who co-founded BalletX and is now a widely acclaimed choreographer, created his first work for Pennsylvania Ballet (now Philadelphia Ballet) when he was a dancer in that company. But BalletX has a different aim. “This fellowship is not designed just for a dancer to transition into choreography, but rather to give choreographers a chance to dive deeper into the work,” comments artistic director Christine Cox.

High stakes at the front of the room

There are a few other US programs that help further develop experienced ballet choreographers, but none of them are built for the close, constant collaboration of BalletX’s fellowship, launched in 2016. Speaking with me via Zoom near the beginning of this year’s fellowship, Archibald said it was far too early to give notes on the emotional arc of Wills’s ballet. But making a new ballet isn’t solely a creative undertaking. “The ballet industry is a unique machine—understanding the creative and the business aspect,” Archibald said. “It’s not easy to be that person in the front of the room.”

Wills agreed. “For me, [the mentorship] is an emotional support. As Jennifer said, it’s difficult to be at the front of the room, especially when you’re young. The stakes are high. You want to create work that’s authentic, but everything is subjective in the arts. There are a lot of details to do with how you work with the dancers, how you choose the dancers, how you choose the music, and how you function in the studio. It’s been nice for me to kind of download that off of Jennifer.”

Jackson, a white woman with braided hair, intently watches as Wills, facing Kelly, places a foot on his shoulder.
Jared Kelly, Nicola Wills, and Lanie Jackson (at right) rehearse Wills’s 'Two People in Love Never Shake Hands.' (Photo by Arian Molia Soca for BalletX.)

The creative aspect also motivates Archibald’s interest in mentoring. Earlier in her career, she participated in the New Directions Choreography Lab at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where she had trained. Her mentor there was Gus Solomons—a postmodern polymath who famously danced with Merce Cunningham’s company, made his own works, and wrote dance criticism. “He said some things to me that have stayed with me throughout my career,” she says. His central message: “Choreography is more than putting steps together. What is your intention?” When she helped choose Wills from among more than 50 fellowship applicants, she applied that wisdom: Wills stood out both for her authentic desire to continue learning and for the choreographic voice that clearly underlay the phrase-work in Wills’s video samples, Archibald says.

New work based on a duet

Two People in Love Never Shake Hands, Wills’s new full-company work set against “a backdrop of old Hollywood nostalgia,” is based on her separate, highly emotional duet by the same name. The new work explores social ideas around romance, longing, desire, and rejection, Wills said, and probes complex questions: “Why do we choose the people we choose? How do we collide with somebody in life? How do we stay? How do we end up? Attraction and love—it’s one of the biggest myths of humanity. We never know how it functions: why it works out, why it doesn’t.”

A quartet I witnessed in rehearsal embodied the forces that roil us: Jared Kelly and Lanie Jackson stood face to face. Behind Kelly was Jonathan Montepara, who pulled at and positioned Kelly. Behind Jackson was Annika Kuo, who tugged at and supported Jackson.

Jackson intently but gently uses her angled arm to bend Kelly, a Black male dancer, gracefully to the side by his neck.
Lanie Jackson rehearses with dancer Jared Kelly in the BalletX studio. (Photo by Arian Molina Soca for BalletX.)

After Exalt

Philly audiences know Archibald’s work via the joyous Exalt, which BalletX premiered in May 2022 and featured again this past fall. (Here’s a look behind the scenes). Exalt blends hip-hop and ballet in a percussive kaleidoscope. Her new work, which kicks off a two-year commission, strikes a dramatic note. It will become a full-length ballet based on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in BalletX’s 2024-2025 season. Archibald used her first two weeks in the studio for movement research and character development, she said, as she figured out how to develop the story: would she use a narrative concept to relay the savage tale of boys marooned on an island, or come at it from a different angle? Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s concept of the hierarchy of needs underpins her exploration, she explained. Viewed in rehearsal, the ensemble embodied Maslow’s lowest tier: tightly packed together, they seemed to threaten the one, two, or three dancers who occasionally ventured out on their own.

Then it came time for a rehearsal break, and the room filled with friendly chatter.

At top: Jennifer Archibald rehearses her new work (title TBD) for BalletX. (Photo by Bill Hebert for BalletX.)

What, When, Where

2024 Spring Series. Choreography by Jennifer Archibald, Jodie Gates, and Nicola Wills. BalletX. $25-$75. March 6 through 10, 2024, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 225-5389, ext. 250, or


The Wilma is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms. For more information on Wilma Theater’s accommodations, visit their website.

Masks are optional.

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