If you are looking for sugarplums, you will have plenty of Nutcrackers to choose from this season, including a version in tap shoes. BalletX never gives us the expected, however. This year, before the mad whirl begins, the company’s two world premieres invite us to take a breath and enjoy an evening of thought-provoking and often lyrical dance. For choreographers Matthew Neenan and Jo Strømgren, the underlying message is hope.
Behold the light
Neenan, cofounder of BalletX with artistic and executive director Christine Cox, stepped away from his direct association with the company in 2014, but he continues to choreograph for them and remains a local favorite both here and at the Pennsylvania Ballet. When we sat down to talk, he’d been dashing from one end of town to the other, creating pieces for both companies, so you will have a chance to see another of his new works at the Merriam Theater across the street in the spring. But I wanted to talk to him about Twelve Bells, his first holiday piece.
“Christine had the idea, since it’s in December, to have a holiday-themed kind of piece,” he said.
But of course, he had to put his own spin on it: “We kept talking about that time of the year, the holiday, end of the long year.” ‘We’ includes co-creators Rosie Langabeer and Tara Middleton, who composed and perform the music for the piece. Neenan explained the title with a kind of free association between the season and the music: “12 days of Christmas, 12 bell tones, 12 live bells, 12 representing December, the 12th month of the year.” The dancers ring hand bells as part of the music, and the bells also become wine glasses and hors d’oeuvres.
Neenan says they were inspired by a picture book, The Red Tree, by Australian artist Shaun Tan. The book tells the story of a small girl who feels overwhelmed, as if the world is passing her by and she does not know her place in it. “It kind of talks about depression,” Neenan said, “and the world consuming you, but at the end of the day you get home.”
When I asked Neenan if the theme had personal meaning for him, he grew pensive. “I definitely had depression when I was a kid, because I was bullied. Ballet kept me alive… But I always had this hope. I knew that as an adult I would be happy because I knew ‘I am going to do what I love. I am going to be a dancer.’”
It’s that ray of hope that he wants to convey through dance. His three main characters (Andrea Yorita, Richard Villaverde, and Chloe Perkes) experience the stress and loneliness of the season as well as its joys. At a recent visit to the BalletX studios, I was entranced by the “Holiday Party,” in which dancers lounged, mimed smoking and chatting, and danced in long, fluid movements around an electric organ. Perkes curled up in a chair and I could feel her sense of isolation until she was brought into the dance.
Collaborators Langabeer and Middleton created seven new songs for the piece, which Neenan describes as inspired by holiday music. The music ranges from contemplative, with Tibetan singing crystal bowls, to jazz to spoken word and white noise. “There is a resemblance to some of the Christmas carols,” Neenan assured me, adding, “We’ve taken some lyrics from certain carols, but we made sure that all of the music was newly composed, from scratch.” The lyrics to one song, “Every Christmas,” are made up entirely of titles from well-known carols.
“Behold the Light” ends the ballet with that promised ray of hope.
'Lost in Space' at Christmas
Norwegian choreographer Strømgren also accepted Cox’s Christmas challenge, but with a twist. “When I get an invitation to do a theme I say yes,” he told me, “but I will give my answer in a different way than you expect.” His new piece, The Moon, makes use of a visual backdrop of NASA footage to help tell the story of two astronauts (Andrea Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck) whose ship malfunctions in space. This is an evening of hope, but before the fortuitous science fictional happy ending, Yorita and Kapeluck contemplate the possibility that they will not make it home in lyrical, sometimes elegiac movement to the cool jazz saxophone of Mette Henriette.
“I am more inspired by science fiction movies and not necessarily from dance or opera or literature in that sense,” Strømgren said. “I watch all the television and see all the movies.” So you may recognize the costumes in this very scifi Christmas. They were inspired by Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, in the Aliens movies.
What, Where, When:
BalletX presents its fall series from December 4 through 15, 2019, at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad St., Philadelphia, 19107. Visit BalletX or call (215) 546-7824 for times and tickets.