BalletX, Philadelphia’s leading contemporary dance company, will fill McCarter Theater with the music of Amy Winehouse when the company performs on Saturday, June 24, at 8 p.m. as part of the Princeton Festival.
Boasting 50 premieres by living choreographers since its birth in 2005, the company’s McCarter program features three works in a classic mix: one by established contemporary choreographer Trey McIntyre, another by company member Colby Damon, and one by company co-founder Matthew Neenan.
McIntyre’s “Big Ones” is the one with the Winehouse sound. The choreographer’s stated intention is to “explore the internal process of highly creative artists and their balance between fearlessness and fragility, boldness and insecurity.” Dealing with this theme, the bold costume design by the award-winning team of Reid Barthelme and Harriet Jung features very large rabbit ears on each of the dancers. The ears were present from the first day of rehearsal, causing the choreography to reflect the different physical reality of balancing, turning, and jumping with these alien appendages.
Colby Damon’s work, “On the Mysterious Properties of Light,” is a meditation in movement and spoken text on the scientific aspects of light. Accompaniment ranges from the Kronos String Quartet to a lecture on physics, spoken by one of the dancers as he dances.
Neenan’s “Credo” was created in 2016 for the Vail Festival as a response to a recent trip to India. “With new cultures, scents, symmetries, and chaos everywhere, he found himself with a surplus of new dance ideas and questions about how communities work, live, and love together,” as the program notes state.
BalletX dancers are part of a new wave of performers at ease in ballet and other dance forms. Many have danced with professional ballet companies, such as Miami City Ballet and Atlanta Ballet. Most have received undergraduate degrees in dance from such schools as New World School of the Arts in Florida and University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The use of the phrase “contemporary dance” signifies to audience members that they will be seeing ballet-trained dancers, but not the pointe-shoe-and-tutu-laden formality that a conventional ballet presentation might entail.
When asked how she herself would define “contemporary,” BalletX director Christine Cox centers her answer less on issues of technique and style than on issues of content. “I would define contemporary ballet as fresh, new, and different. I like to use the language of ballet and invite choreographers to bring their special tone and dialect to the technique. For instance, ‘Big Ones’ is based in classical ballet, but because the work was made by a contemporary choreographer, he chose music he loves (Amy Winehouse) and movement that connects to her music. That alone changes the framework of the new ballet. The way the steps are made is different, and the music changes the experience.”
BalletX has received wide recognition and support from many funding organizations, such as the Schubert Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Jerome Robbins New Essential Works Foundation, and many others. This will be the company’s first appearance at McCarter Theater.
The company is unusual in its field in having a female artistic director who is also executive director of the company. Cox has followed the traditional career development of first being a dancer, then becoming a choreographer, and now exercises her art by maintaining a vibrant company and community of dancers, fostering the voices of the next generation of performing artists and dance-makers.
Cox, born and raised in Philadelphia, has been honored by the city on multiple occasions, having received a Rocky Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, fellowships from the Independence Foundation and the Pennsylvania State Council on the Arts, and a place on the Philadelphia Arts and Business Council Advisory Board.
Cox’s parents were both in the medical professions — her mother as a nurse and her father as a psychiatrist. She started dance classes at age six with modern dancer Gwendolyn Bye in a creative movement class at the University City Arts League in west Philadelphia. A class in creative movement was perfect for Cox, who “loved to move freely to music. I just loved dancing, and never dreamed of being a ballerina,” she says during a recent interview.
By middle school her teachers at the Arts League recommended that the Coxes send their daughter to Pennsylvania Ballet School for more specific ballet training. By early adolescence Cox had fallen in love with ballet and wanted to make a career of it, so she enrolled in the Philadelphia High School of Performing Arts. In addition to continuing her ballet studies, she took modern dance classes in Martha Graham and Horton techniques (the latter utilized by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company).
When asked who her most influential teacher was, Cox didn’t hesitate to respond: “Lupe Serrano!” The 87-year-old Serrano, a Chilean-born dancer who was a prima ballerina with American Ballet Theater in the 1950s and ’60s, was teaching at the school of Pennsylvania Ballet during Cox’s years there. Her tiny frame was a powerhouse of technique and what dancers call “attack” — the ability to focus one’s mental and physical strength into a concise and clear series of movements that can reach the furthest ranges of the audience. For those who remember Cox as a dancer, and all who see her in action now as a highly effective business leader, Serrano’s influence is clear.
At age 17 Cox was hired by director John McFall to join BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. After five years Cox moved to New York, where she performed as a guest artist with Ballet Hispanico. Cox spent the 1992-’93 season in Princeton, dancing with American Repertory Ballet. In 1993 she returned to her Philadelphia roots and joined Pennsylvania Ballet under the direction of Roy Kaiser.
During her years in Pennsylvania Ballet, she appeared in a wide variety of ballets, including leading roles in works by George Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins. She also worked as a rehearsal director, preparing the children of Pennsylvania Ballet School for their roles in “The Nutcracker” for more than a decade.
Yet this was not enough. Blessed with boundless energy, both physical and intellectual, Cox soon teamed up with another Pennsylvania Ballet dancer, Matthew Neenan, and started creating dances. At first Cox and Neenan were part of a quartet of dancer/creators who called themselves Phrenic New Ballet. This group worked together from 2000 to 2004, and this phase was “a significant stepping stone,” says Cox, on the road to the formation of BalletX.
“We came to a point where there was a parting in the vision for the future. Matthew and I wanted to simplify the vision, and keep it more focused on new work and not also try to go in a video direction. So we separated the group, and re-named our part BalletX. We changed the branding. We focused on next steps, and tried to find a place where we could perform regularly.” Since 2007 BalletX has been resident at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.
When asked what it was like continuing to dance full time as a professional with Pennsylvania Ballet, while concurrently being a co-director of a contemporary dance company, with all the additional work that it entails, such as marketing, costuming, scheduling rehearsals, and fund-raising, Cox says, “It was liberating! In all senses — if I was tired, I didn’t feel it. I felt more happiness and freedom. When you are a dancer in a large company, you don’t have a lot of control, other than over your own body. So when you’re not picked for a part or a role, it’s hard. But I could re-direct my focus and say, well, I have this. So it allowed me to dig in deeper and deeper, and to carve out something really meaningful.
“Fortunately, the artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet at that time was Roy Kaiser, who had the bandwidth to support this. I think it was actually a relief for the organization because I was such a uniquely different dancer than your typical ballet dancer, and they could say, ‘She has something else she can focus on.’”
By 2012 co-founder Neenan was also creating choreography for many other companies across the United States and wanted to have the freedom to move around to pursue those opportunities. At this point, he remains very involved in the company as a resident choreographer.
Cox also has a busy family life as the mother of two. When interviewed by phone, Cox was on her way to the Philadelphia Zoo with her sons, four-year-old Wesley and eight year old Warren. Enjoying a day off from school, the two had just sat quietly through a lengthy staff meeting of the ballet company and were now going to get some zoo time as a reward. Cox says the boys love to hang out during rehearsal and classes and be a part of the larger family of BalletX.
The dance world is a small one, and full of overlap. Many of the friends Cox made during her year with American Repertory Ballet have continued to be part of her world — Tara Keating, a fellow ARB dancer that year, is now associate artistic director of BalletX, after having danced with Cox and Neenan for many years. Cox says, “Tara has been really critical to the growth of the organization. She really helps me manage it, and is someone I trust with all my heart.”
Septime Webre, another fellow dancer from the same time period at ARB, was for many years artistic director of Washington Ballet, and recently presented BalletX in Washington, D.C. Choreographers Jodie Gates and Amy Seiwert, whose work has been presented by BalletX, also have been affiliated with the Princeton-based ARB.
Cox, a dynamic speaker as well as producer, will offer a free discussion on Saturday, June 24, at 7 p.m., before the 8 p.m. curtain for the performance. Cox is eager to be back at McCarter after all these years — this time with her own artistic vision on display. “I like to present programs that really show the breadth of our capability technically and artistically. I put this together to take the audience on a journey of what contemporary work really looks like. It feels fresh and different, and I look forward to sharing it with the Princeton audience.”
BalletX, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton, Saturday, June 24, 8 p.m. $15 to $45. For more on Princeton Festival events and full schedule: 609-759-0379 or www.princetonfestival.org.