- Katie Behrman
“I’m always running,” pants Christine Cox, founder of Philadelphia’s premiere contemporary ballet company BalletX, as she swoops into the lobby of the Wilma Theater. Her eyes dart around the room, scanning the black and white photographs lining the walls before settling in front of a large mirror placed in the middle of the floor. Her hand delicately gestures to the mirror and she strides towards it, unzipping her green, puffy coat. She spins a metal chair across the rusty-red and gold carpet to position it next to one of the round tables. Straight as a rod, she settles into the cold seat.
“You can write that in there, that I’m always running,” she says, leaning down to open her backpack. Christine whips out a granola bar from the outer pocket and quickly unwraps its plastic covering. Her chin lifts up, her eyes flutter shut, and her mouth spreads into a smile. “And that I’m always eating. You can write that in there, too,” she laughs, moving a wisp of her warm-mocha colored hair back into her loose bun.
As the founder of BalletX, teacher at the University of the Arts, and mother of a one-year old and a five-year old, Christine hardly has time to slow down and walk, let alone to eat a sit-down meal. A native of West Philadelphia, Christine founded BalletX with her co-artistic director Matthew Neenan in 2005. Currently, Christine serves as the co-artistic and executive director of the company.
Christine first met Matthew when she joined the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1993. Starting that year, the dancers of the ballet produced a one-night only show, Shut Up and Dance, to support the Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance (MANNA). Matthew Neenan decided to choreograph “Judy,” a piece in which Christine danced. The pair became fast friends.
In 2000, they started a company, named Phrenic, with their friend from the ballet Amanda Miller and her husband, a dance filmmaker, Tobin Rothlein. The company, which experimented with contemporary movement and multi-media technology, lasted for four years. “There were four directors,” remembers Christine. “There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so we decided to split off. I asked Matt if he wanted to keep working on making ballets with me, and he said yes. And in 2005, we started BalletX.”
Christine and the company have been inseparable ever since. “BalletX is Christine’s baby,” remarks the company’s Communications Manager, Mari Kraske. “She cares so much about this company, its dancers and the future. She’s a visionary.” Recently hired dancer Francesca Forcella agrees, saying, “Christine is very passionate about the success of BalletX and helping it to continue to grow.”
Christine shakes her head, “BalletX is beyond where I thought it was going to go. BalletX is growing, and it’s doing really well. Knock on wood,” she hurriedly adds, her eyes skimming the carpet-lined and metal-filled lobby. She shrugs her shoulders and knocks on the silver, metal table.
BalletX has certainly exploded since its start in 2005. Named the Resident Dance Company of the Wilma Theater, BalletX holds three performance series annually, providing its ten dancers with eighteen performance opportunities in Philadelphia. “We have an amazing audience. They’re really passionate about the company. Without them, we probably wouldn’t be here,” reflects Christine. In addition to having shows in Philadelphia, the company performs at national and international venues and festivals, including the Joyce Theater in New York and the Vail International Dance Festival in Vail, Colorado.
BalletX has also expanded its repertoire with over thirty world premieres, including a full-length evening work, “Beautiful Decay,” choreographed by Nicolo Fonte. The ballet, which explores the passage of time and the changes it brings, premiered the summer of 2013, receiving a standing ovation from the audience each night. Kelly Furukawa, a student and dancer at the University of Pennsylvania, remembers the performance: “I was absolutely blown away by the avant garde nature and artistry of ‘Beautiful Decay.’ I find myself reflecting back on it often. I felt like each dancer was connecting with me personally through their movement—they really reminded me of why I love to dance and why dance is such a powerful means of expression and communication.”
Kelly’s response to the performance perfectly encapsulates how Christine wants her audience to react to the company. “I want to be a part of dance that moves people, that makes them feel happy, connected, that drives them into their feelings so that they can get closer to who they are as a human being,” she states. “So, that’s what we’re trying to do here. To make ballet an art that resonates with people.”
Through BalletX, Christine proves that there’s still something very new and relevant in an art form that people often offhandedly dismiss as archaic. BalletX’s Fall 2013 program explored topics such as interpersonal relationships, the dichotomous natures of humanity, forgotten history, and the raw, unadulterated energy of dance. The ballet world of princesses, swans, and dolls has all but disappeared for BalletX. “Contemporary ballet has the opportunity to bring present social, political, and current ideas onto the stage,” explains Christine. “We hope that in making ballet contemporary, we’re making it about today—with that vocabulary of classical dance. It’s history and current issues colliding together to make a new, unknown piece or form of dance.”
In addition to investigating current ideas, BalletX challenges the rigid boundaries of classical ballet. In two out of the three pieces presented in the fall series, the choreographers flung away the women’s pointe shoes, placing them instead in soft shoes or socks. The ubiquitous tutus and tights of ballet never even made it to the stage. Rather, soft tanks, suits, and practice clothes covered the dancers.
BalletX also often tests the movements of classical ballet, twisting classical ballet technique into unique dance phrases, an idea reflected on by the company’s name. “I like the possibilities of ballet multiplied with x times ten or the x through the ballet, no ballet at all,” Christine says. Andrea Yorita, a powerfully petite dancer who trained under the strict Royal Academy of Dance syllabus before joining BalletX, believes that contemporary ballet interprets movement differently than does classical ballet. “In contemporary ballet, you have to be able to dance off your leg and then get back on within a second,” she describes. Francesca Forcella thinks of contemporary ballet as “classical ballet with mutations.” She elaborates, “It takes the classical ballet shapes and movements and puts a new, or contemporary, twist on those shapes and movements. It allows a dancer the freedom to take more liberties in their original movement style.”
Richard Villaverde, who trained under the tutelage of Christine at the University of the Arts prior to joining the company, loves this freedom of movement. Unlike classical ballet, he believes that contemporary ballet enables him the opportunity to make choices as a dancer, rather than striving to imitate perfectly the choreographer, as he would in a classical piece. “If there’s anything that I’ve learned in this company,” he says, “it’s that the choices you choose to make as a dancer, as long as you respect the wish of the choreographer, are always correct.”
The dancers’ passion for contemporary ballet comes across in their infectious energy and their willingness to try new dance styles. Their movements can be sharp and angular, as exhibited in Bill Herbert’s photograph of Richard Villaverde in “Beautiful Decay,” or gracious and tender, as in Alexander Iziliaev’s photograph of Colby Damon. In Herbert’s photograph, Richard’s tense arms extend horizontally out from his chest, his splayed hands point up, his strong legs reach to the sides of the stage, and his eyes stare intensely over his left shoulder. His energy extends out in all directions, forming a perfect star. In Iziliaev’s photograph, Colby leaps into the air, and his entire body gestures towards the place where he has just left. Palms up, his hands delicately reach back, while his face contains a trace of haunting loss and regret.
This diversity of movement quality has certainly been a draw for the company. Andrea Yorita first saw BalletX perform at the Laguna Dance Festival in Southern California. “I fell in love with the work and the dancers,” she remembers. “Not only did they do a wide range of work from different choreographers with different styles, but they also had very unique dancers. I loved that everyone in the company was so distinct from one another, yet they were still able to dance together as a cohesive group.”
Christine agrees, stating, “All of our dancers are very unique movers with very different qualities.” During the fall program’s opening night’s “Conversation with the Artists” event, Christine told the audience that BalletX looks for “expressive, open, passionate dancers who love to explore movement,” adjectives that also seem to describe Christine.
Christine received her first professional job with BalletMet, a ballet company located in Central Ohio, when she was seventeen years old. “I think that my time at BalletMet actually put the seed in me to be a part of new creations,” she reflects. “I did so many great, new ballets there. Sometimes the ballets had tasks—we would do a piece where our elbows could never leave the sides of our hips,” she says, as her eyes light up and she pokes her hips with her sharp elbows. “I always loved being part of something totally new, ‘Oh, this has never been done before! I’m in it!’ I always thought. It’s so exciting.”
BalletX’s dancers share this urge to perform with Christine. “Everyone wants to dance,” she says, “and I want them to dance. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to perform. So, whenever a choreographer comes in, I’m always like,” she takes a deep breath and raises her voice a pitch, “‘Oh! Can you use everybody?’ And, that can be hard for a choreographer; they often don’t want to use ten dancers. That’s why I wouldn’t want to expand the company much more than twelve, sixteen at the most.”
Such a small company has created a tight-knit community in BalletX. “The audience feels close, the dancers are definitely close, the staff is close—we’re all very much a family. All through and through,” smiles Christine. Richard Villaverde agrees, but he is quick to add, “Sometime it’s a little hard being constantly with each other. But, we’re like a family, so all the dancers in the company have helped me find some really valuable and deep experiences in my dancing.”
The dancers’ intimate connections to one another shows both on stage and off. During performances, the dancers are not shy to make eye contact with one another. “I really felt that the dancers were grounded in each other. That they were all friends and that they loved dancing together,” says Audrey Keller, a student and dancer at the University of Pennsylvania who attended their summer series. In a photograph by CJ Dawson, the connection between rehearsing dancers Chloe Felesina and Jesse Sani is palpable. Chloe stands over Jesse, her body leaning over his, with their hands intertwined. Chloe’s eyes gaze down intensely at Jesse’s, whose whole body stretches up towards her. Their interaction seems not to be an artificial product of the pose, but rather as a result of their intimate connection with one another.
Christine not only promotes friendships among her dancers, but she also forges ties between BalletX and the community. Her desire to encourage others to dance started well before she formed BalletX. “A friend of mine that I was dancing with at the Pennsylvania Ballet had a daughter who wanted to quit ballet at six years old,” she remembers. “So, I wrote to her, and I said, ‘Don’t worry, when I was six, I asked my mom to take me out of ballet class, too. But she kept me in it, and I have loved it ever since.’”
Since BalletX’s founding, Christine has spearheaded several community outreach programs to engage people in dance. “I have always believed in the importance of dance and how it can affect a community,” she says, agreeing that growing up in West Philadelphia has influenced her to organize outreach programs. “I try to keep my mind open to interesting ideas that involve how to explain what a professional dancer does and also to create opportunities for people to dance.”
One of Christine’s first outreach programs, “Inside the Mind of the Dancer,” explores what a dancer thinks about when he or she is warming up and the different complexities involved in a single ballet step. Christine jolts up straight in her chair, opens her arms, and begins demonstrating each feature of first position. She rapidly lists off the different components of the position, from rotating one’s legs at the upper-part of the thighs to placing one’s head in alignment with the spine. “And people are like, ‘Oh my God! You’re thinking about all that?’” she laughs, adding that it’s a very complex mind that can do classical dance.
For the second part of the program, Christine asks the audience to shout out an emotion and a sentence that describes that feeling. She picks out an example, “Happy: I got a puppy today.” After the audience yells out their choice, the dancers choreograph on the spot. “It makes the audience feel connected to the process,” she says confidently.
Christine also has implemented various dance-related programs in schools throughout Philadelphia. “It’s really important to work with the students for them to really realize their body and empower them to feel…” Christine pauses, “to feel superior.” This spring, BalletX has launched a new program called Dance eXchange, in which BalletX spends 11 weeks at the Andrew Jackson School, teaching dance to the students and creating a performance for them. “I’m really excited about it,” beams Christine. “We’re bringing in people from New York, the National Dance Institute, to come in and train our dancers and our staff, including me, in pedagogy. NDI is a 30-year organization that’s been in the New York public school system for years, and it’s an incredible opportunity.” Christine hopes to see Dance eXchange become a permanent outreach program for the company. “The next step is building it into next year and making sure that it continues and happens,” she explains.
In addition to expanding the outreach programs, Christine hopes to increase BalletX’s presence over the next few years. She takes a slow, deep breath and says, “In five or ten years, I see BalletX being a highly sought after company that people want to dance in. She states, “I see the dancers really trying to continue to push—I’d like to get the level of choreography higher and higher. I want to see more established choreographers and fewer emerging, but,” she assures, “I still want this to be a place for new choreographers to come and make work.” Her eyes rise towards the ceiling and she dreamily says, “And I see us touring more and more around the whole world.” She lets the last two words linger in the air.
And Christine knows that to get to that point it’s going to take failure. “There are challenges everyday that I have to overcome,” she insists. “It takes being able to fail all the time and being able to accept that and being able to…,” Christine sighs, “it’s very complicated. It’s being able to communicate, navigate, think on your feet constantly, and somewhat be a little numb to what everyone has to say about what you’re doing—to put up that shield and keep going.”
“Christine’s a fighter,” stresses Andrea Yorita.
“She’s someone I always want to keep in my life,” insists Richard Villaverde.
Christine rushes to hold the door open for a delivery woman with a cart of heavy packages. “It must get busy this time of year,” she says to the woman as the icy, December wind whips around them. “I bet all that hurts your back,” Christine gestures towards the packages, her dancer’s mind immediately thinking of the body. “It’s not too bad,” the woman politely responds.
Christine enters her cramped office to a chorus of hellos. Papers flood the single table and clutter the couch. Posters and pictures hang on the walls, slightly tilted. “Well,” she chuckles humbly, “this is it. Welcome to BalletX.” But, for Christine, this is not just “it.” For Christine, dance and BalletX is everything. “I think we should all be dancing more,” she says, “Because dance is important. It’s important to our souls.”