On Saturday at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Global Arts Live presents the finale of its Winter Dance Fest 2023, a program by Philadelphia-based BalletX featuring Boston premieres by Justin Peck, Matthew Neenan, and Jennifer Archibald. It will be the third time the organization has brought the company to Boston.
Acclaimed for presenting fresh, new contemporary choreography with technical flair and emotional commitment, BalletX wants to break down the stigma of ballet as an elitist art form, making it not only current, but also accessible and welcoming. “I want ballet to be part of everyone’s life,” says Christine Cox, the company’s artistic and executive director. “Our mission statement is to expand the vocabulary of classical dance for all audiences.”
“The company is fantastic, with a high level of dancing,” says Maure Aronson, Global Arts Live founder and director of artistic programs. “They have a deep and very rich repertory, working with choreographers whose work is established as well as discovering a number of fresh voices.”
In fact, a large part of what sets BalletX apart and catapulted it to international attention is the company’s dedication to commissioning new work. Ninety-seven percent of the company’s repertory has been specifically choreographed on and for the dancers, including six full-length ballets. “We’ve commissioned over 116 world premieres by 70 different choreographers, 50 percent by women,” says Cox. “I want to support diverse voices; that’s what makes us who we are at BalletX. You can’t put us in a box. You have no idea what you’re going to get when you come to a show, but it’s going to be a journey that shows you different perspectives from a wide range of choreographers.”
That vision has been relatively unchanged since Cox founded the company in 2005 with Boston native Matthew Neenan. At the time, both were dancers at Pennsylvania Ballet (now Philadelphia Ballet). They assembled a group of dancers to experiment and explore creativity in ballet during their summer hiatus. “We loved dancing so much, we just wanted to keep doing it,” says Cox. “We were doing all the choreography, and it was a chance to be experimental without high stakes.”
BalletX quickly developed into a more established troupe, with Cox stepping in solo to build the company full time after Neenan left in 2014 to focus on his choreographic career. (He has been choreographer in residence at Philadelphia Ballet since 2007.)
The company’s dancers all have intensive ballet training, but also the versatility to put their skills to the service of a wide range of choreography, sometimes going from slippers to sneakers to pointe shoes within a single program. “I’m invested in ballet growing and being more contemporary,” Cox says. “We’re using the classical ballet form to create new ways of moving, merging different styles together, really creating a new language of dance with ballet as the underbelly.”
On the upcoming program, choreographer Jennifer Archibald fuses elements of ballet and hip-hop in the 2022 commission “Exalt,” a high-energy ensemble piece set to club music. Archibald is founder/director of Arch Dance Company in New York City and resident choreographer of Cincinnati Ballet. “She’s an incredibly talented choreographer in high demand,” says Cox. “[This piece] shows you what the dancers can do if given the opportunity to be free. Their whole bodies are engaged. They go from a fouetté to a flip to a slide to a glide … There’s no story line; it just lets the dancers have fun.”
Tony Award-winning choreographer Justin Peck, who is New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer and artistic adviser, contributes his “Become a Mountain.” Performed in sneakers and athletic wear, the work’s 12 dancers perform to Dan Deacon’s song of the same name. “It’s about waking up and getting after life instead of scrolling on your phone, and it’s so timely,” describes Cox, who says the work made her laugh and cry with her heart racing the first time she saw it.
Matthew Neenan has contributed more than 20 works to the BalletX repertory over the years, and his “Credo” is a company favorite. Set to a contemporary string quartet by Kevin Putz, it was inspired by the choreographer’s trip to India, reflecting the country’s brilliant colors and the commotion of the streets, with its throngs of people amid moving cars. “It’s this [sense of] organized chaos, yet there’s this unspoken law that somehow they could all move together,” says Cox. Neenan’s choreography has been featured by prestigious companies around the country, including New York City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet, and much of his current success can be attributed to his work with and for BalletX.
“I really believe that BalletX is a vehicle for choreographers to come and dream and grow and work and develop,” says Cox. “It’s about building connections onstage with the community of artists and that connection carries over to the audience. We want audience members to leave with [at least] one moment that reaches into their soul and ignites their passion for life.”
At Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Feb. 4. Presented by Global Arts Live. Tickets $48-$69. 617-876-4275, www.globalartslive.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.