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Roderick Phifer rehearses in preparation for BalletX’s first show of the 2019-20 season, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's “The Little Prince” opening July 10 at the Prince Theater. | Image courtesy: Vikki Sloviter

Ballet X is all about forward motion.

Founded in 2005 by Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, with Cox presently as its Artistic and Executive Director, BalletX  – on the stages of the Wilma Theatre, pop ups throughout the city, on tour, or at its Washington Avenue home base – has staked a claim as must-watch theater going against the grain of traditional ballet. 

That’s what it means to be this city’s premier contemporary ballet company and teaching group. One must, to paraphrase David Mamet in “Glengarry Glen Ross” use the ABCs of dance: “always be challenging.”  One must push the boundaries of classical dance by, according to Ballet X’s code, “encouraging formal experimentation while preserving rigorous technique.”

This means even in the summertime when most audiences head toward New Jersey’s shore points, and when most dance and theater companies are cooling their heels.

That’s when BalletX attacks. 

“Summer is when the company started as a seedling of an idea, when we started building our audience,” said Cox of the time 14 years ago when she and Neenan decided to put shows together, first for the Arts Bank, then the Philadelphia Fringe Festival (now FringeFest) at the Wilma.

“Summer [has] never scared me,” said Cox. “I think people are hungry for something great to see and do come July  – it’s a perfect time for us to get people’s attentions. We don’t check out of the city. Neither do hundreds and thousands of people who don’t have shore houses. Maybe they’re looking for something such as BalletX.”

Along with revving up this week’s world premiere of choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's “The Little Prince,” a family-friendly ballet inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella (July 10-21, at the Wilma Theatre), BalletX’s HQ along Washington Avenue begins its new dance class schedule, presents its 2020 Choreographic Fellow (Clarence, NY-born Nicole Caruana), and announces its 2019-20 season ahead of schedule. 

Not only is the company dropping knowledge on eight world premiere ballets for the upcoming season – increasing its number of premieres to an impressive 82 since its 2005 inception – Cox will welcome her company’s co-founder Neenan – now an international renowned choreographer who created several works in BalletX’s flagship repertory such as o639 Hours, Sunset and The Last Glass – back to BalletX.

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The team at BalletX is fully prepared with a rollout of a full 2019-20 season schedule of shows, a new dance class schedule and the announcement of its New York-based choreographic fellow. | Image courtesy: Vikki Sloviter

“Thrilled to be part of Philadelphia’s cultural fabric, excited about the work we’re doing on stage and off, creating as we have 82 world premieres, our mission is telling new stories, and getting an audience to fall in love with ballet in new ways,” said Cox.  Born and raised in West Philly, Cox is committed to growing BalletX’s choreographic New Works programs, but also her and her company’s place within the community – hence, the free pop-up performances around town to dazzle the senses for passerbys, her Dance Exchange public school educational program for third and fourth graders.

As the Wilma’s resident dance company, Cox said the relationship between her and Blanka Zizka is stellar. “They’ve had our back, since the very beginning,” she said. “As we grew and got our first staff member, they let us have one desk, then two, then five people with two desks in their offices, and when we got that big I made the decision to find our own offices.”

That’s when BalletX, as of summer 2018, took occupancy of a 5,000 square feet warehouse at 19th and Washington for its organization: “the dancers finally have lockers… a place to hang its dance belts,” says Cox and classes in everything from West African dance to hip hop stepping.

“I feel as if we’re a cultural anchor and bridge down there – Point Breeze, South of South – and even had our first block party out there on Washington Avenue two weeks ago,” said Cox, remarking how scores of diners from Chick’s lifted their heads from their plates, and watched BalletX’s membership dancing in force.

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“Summer [has] never scared me. I think people are hungry for something great to see and do come July  – it’s a perfect time for us to get people’s attentions. We don’t check out of the city. Neither do hundreds and thousands of people who don’t have shore houses. Maybe they’re looking for something such as BalletX.”

– Christine Cox, Artistic and Executive Director, BalletX

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With its summer block party behind then, BalletX can turn its attentions to this week’s world premiere of choreographer Ochoa's “The Little Prince.”  Based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, Cox pushed Ochoa to do something radically different with the child-like story that “sparked her imagination as a youth, her inner child, and as an adult.”

With a set designed by Barrymore-favored local Matt Saunders, original music composed (and played) by Peter Salem from the UK, and an award winning dramaturge in Nancy Meckler, Ochoa's “The Little Prince” goes beyond a fanciful fairy tale. “When you tell a story with no words, with your body alone, you must tell it clearly.”

Toying as much with tradition and it does the shock of the new, Ochoa's take on “The Little Prince” is BalletX’s stock-in-trade. 

“We always toy with tradition…we want to take ballet and turn it all upside down,” said Cox. “That’s our thing. We’ll have one dancer, on pointe, doing these hard balletic steps, with a lampshade on her head and a lampshade tutu. Another dancer will flirtatiously move with red gloves – just a part of the rich characterizations Ochoa has in store.”

With that, Cox reminds us that ballet is a dance form that looks back often. “That’s what ballet does – honors its past and its past creators. Which is fine. Me? I’m about the new; how we can move ballet forward, how we can give it a contemporary, modern spin.”

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