Matthew Neenan: “It’s Been Very Arduous But The Company Has Done Very Well.”
BalletX begins their summer series next Wednesday at The Wilma Theater, featuring two world premiere pieces and visuals from the lighting gurus at Klip Collective. The music in the program was created by Philadelphia composers Josh James and Julian Grefe.
The series, which runs through Sunday, July 17, is the culmination of BalletX’s ten-year anniversary season. The company was founded by Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan as an alternative to the traditional ballet offerings, presenting new pieces and avant-garde and experimental work. They launched at the Live Arts Festival in September 2005.
Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa will premiere a piece inspired by the surrealist painter Rene Magritte. Neenan created a piece that was inspired by writer Toni Hamilton, who was a longtime supporter of BalletX until she passed away last year.
Our G.W. Miller III attended a rehearsal and then spoke with Neenan about his latest project and the future of BalletX.
What was the process of creating this piece?
Toni was an avid supporter of BalletX and a good friend of mine. When she passed last year, I was intrigued to do a piece that would honor her memory.
While doing that, her husband gave me some of her manuscripts that she wrote about 40 years ago at an artists’ residency at a place called Ossabaw Island, which is off the coast of Georgia. She went there twice. I read all of her journal entries, which also turned into a real manuscript. It went back and looked at her life, when she was growing up in the 40s and 50s. At the time, she was my age now. It was kind of interesting to get to know her at that age. That was a major inspiration. She was a beautiful writer. I got a lot out of it. I learned a lot about her that I didn’t know.
What surprised you? What didn’t you know?
I found her very similar to myself.
In what way?
She was a very generous woman, very compassionate and very easy to talk to. She loved conversation. But there was a side of her that really kept to herself. Her time of solitude was very important to her. Even with her husband and children, her time to think and be by herself and have her own thoughts and not be manipulated by everyone else really mattered to her.
I think that’s why she did these two residencies, so that she could have that time to write and reflect. She always kept a part of her heart that was for her. She was the kind of person who really kept her own secrets.
I’m very much the same way. My alone time is very crucial to me. She was more of a closed book than I thought, as am I.
The production itself is very dramatic. Is that based upon what you learned about her or based upon her work?
Through her work. Also, she suffered through Alzheimer’s disease. How she dealt with it was very honorable and brave. She accepted it. She didn’t like it. She did all the research she could. She wasn’t a person who wondered why the sun came up. She gets to the bottom of things. She’s very regimented in knowing her facts.
When she was diagnosed, she needed to know and wanted to know everything about the disease so she could cope with it and live with it. She didn’t screw around with it. That, I really admired about her.
How did the collaboration with Klip Collective come about?
This is our first collaboration. I sent them all of the manuscripts and all of my notes that I took from the manuscripts that I thought were important to know or be inspired by.
From their perspective, it’s all about memory and what’s inside our inner most luxuries and turmoil. So, the piece is going to have a very atmospheric tone to it, a little bit dark. Toni was always a fan of my work that was a bit more on the eerie side, a bit more risky, especially when I’d take some risks with the music I chose. She always applauded me and found those works more fascinating rather than the works that were more clear, that were meant to be enjoyable to the audience. She liked the work that I did that had lots of moments of stillness or music that might not be agreeable to everybody.
I stayed true to that. It’s not a super happy piece.
When you started BalletX 10 years ago, could you have imagined it still being around and thriving today?
That was the goal. For the first couple years, things were going well. Christine and I agreed that if it doesn’t seem like it’s working or if it seems like it’s killing us – which it kinda has – then we won’t do it. Our health is more important. But we’ve been very blessed. It’s been very arduous but the company has done very well.
Once things started to happen – some great touring and being invited to all these really wonderful dance festivals – that kind of sealed the deal. It was like, ‘Yeah, this is happening and the company is going to continue.’
If we produce strong work and we have strong dancers and we know the important people, it works. It’s an art form but it’s a business as well.
It seemed like you started from modest beginnings. And now it’s an institution, a part of the city.
Absolutely. The Wilma Theater and our whole relationship with the William Penn Foundation, it was the right place at the right time. The Wilma people were like, ‘Why don’t you perform here three times per year?’ That was huge.
Christine – it’s all really due to her. She’s a hustler. She makes things happen. She’s solely directing the company now and that’s because that’s her passion. She gets things done. She doesn’t sit on things.
That’s the attitude you have to have if you want to get a small, nonprofit dance company to survive.
Has that allowed you to focus on the artistic, creative end?
Yeah. Three years ago, when we starting another strategic plan, my career as a choreographer was starting to take off. I was getting more commissions from other companies. I’m also the resident choreographer at the Pennsylvania Ballet. You can only do so much.
Christine did choreograph a little bit in the beginning but she was kind of sliding away from that and dealing with more of the business end of things. It was the right time to shift and stir the pot a little bit.
What are the next goals for BalletX?
I think to continue as we are. I’d love to see the company have the residency at the Wilma. We love that theater. It’s perfect for us.
Everyone is always like, ‘You need a bigger theater.” I’d rather stay in a smaller venue and let the dancers perform more rather than try to sell the Academy of Music out for only two nights. Dancers only improve when they perform more.
I think international touring is a major goal.
Since 2007, we’ve had our own theater base. But we don’t have our own studio base. The company needs its own home, with offices and studio space. We’re kind of running around from different venues but that gets kind of difficult.