Last month, Christine Cox posted a video on social media that generated a wave of “likes” and seriously enthusiastic comments. “You Go Christine!!,” “Yassss!! Love it!!,” “So much joy! Love it!” It’s not even a 20-second clip, but the funk-fueled footage of the Philly community getting down to V.I.C.’s goofy party song, “Wobble,” works.
Much about why BalletX, a contemporary ballet company of 10 dancers, is thriving while other arts groups are struggling is epitomized in that quick moment. It’s fresh, it’s inclusive, and it connects to what people want.
In the clip, Cox, artistic and executive director, and Roderick Phifer, a BalletX dancer, groove together at the re-opening of LOVE Park. BalletX had done a pop-up performance that day. Cox, 48, wears her brown hair in a loose bun paired with a figure-skimming black-and-white dress you might wear to the office if you were a former dancer and still looked like one.
Despite no club clothes, Cox and Phifer bring the sauce, along with the crowd. You can see the pleasure of dance in the faces of everyone—old, young, all the colors represented, some with pink hair, some in hijabs, or jeans and T-shirts—caught in the camera frame. Someone off screen hoots with respect.
“My hope is to inspire our community through dance,” says Cox recently while in her office that overlooks a rehearsal space in the newly opened BalletX home at 1923 Washington Avenue. In addition to a commitment to a steady output of new works—the company has presented 68 since its 2005 founding—BalletX is committed to the community.
“Dancing is core to our human nature,” says Cox. “So, I’m looking for ways to tap into that because when we dance together, joy is generated. It sounds so cliche, but can’t we have more of that in life?”
These efforts include in-school programs at three partner elementary schools in the city; pre- and post-show conversations with artists; free pop up performances around the city; open rehearsals; moderated panel discussions in the new space; a two-week summer intensive program for ages 16-24; fall classes where her dancers get more opportunities to teach; and Community Day, an event for anyone to come in and take dance classes.
“I’d love to see us all dancing in some way. Dancing is core to our human nature,” says Cox. “So, I’m looking for ways to tap into that because when we dance together, joy is generated. It sounds so cliché, but can’t we have more of that in life?”
Yass, girl, indeed.
Navigating the arts in the 21st century
Some arts organizations lose focus, get a case of mission drift, or lose relevance with audiences. Others can’t attract young or diverse audiences. They might chase foundation dollars with community outreach initiatives that fail to connect because they are simply add-ons. Or the brand and marketing is fuzzy and doesn’t grab potential ticket buyers. There’s lots of ways any organization can go wrong.
These are not the days of milk and honey for arts organizations to prosper. While the city has a rich history of startup experimental and independent performance companies—from the TLA in the 1960s to Fringe Arts in the 1990s—the financial climate that supported them has contracted. Government funding has been reduced substantially, so nonprofits fight for limited dollars from foundations and private donors.
“There is always more demand for funding than there is available funding in arts and culture,” says Judilee Reed of the William Penn Foundation, a major BalletX supporter. “In Philadelphia, it’s felt more acutely because it’s a sector built when there was more robust resources for those in the arts and culture sphere. There used to be more banks anchored here, more foundations of size here. That has changed over the last decade.”
But sweep all that aside and take a look at an organization that’s navigating through the minefields of arts and culture in the 21st century. More precisely, it’s Cox, a West Philly native who never went to college or took an arts management course, who is leading the company she founded with fellow retired Pennsylvania Ballet dancer Matthew Neenan. (Neenan stepped away from the company four years ago, but continues to choreograph for BalletX.)
Cox is determined to make audiences love dance, her company, and the lineup of world premieres as much as she does.
“She’s a force of nature,” says board president Janet Averill. “Christine sees opportunities and knows how to seize them.” The relentless belief in BalletX’s mission (original choreography that expands the vocabulary of classical dance) paired with its desire “to cultivate in audiences a collective appetite for bold, new dance” help to ensure that BalletX’s message stays on point. Strike up a conversation with Cox on the playground—she has two young sons—and she’s likely to hand you a postcard for the company’s next show.
“I never discount the power of a conversation so I never put down my director’s hat,” she explains. “I encourage people to come to a show, not just to sell a ticket. I’m encouraging them to come for an experience in the arts they might never forget. I’m encouraging them to come to create a memory with a family member. I’m encouraging them to come to engage in community with us.”
One thing that has clearly struck a note with funders is the company’s desire to connect. Reed of the William Penn Foundation, says, “When you look at work by BalletX, it’s really exciting that you have this accomplished dance company thinking about bringing work out to the neighborhoods, for free, and what it means for a ballet company to play a role in the public school system. It helps build young learners’ appetites for dance and for learning in general… They see it as their mission to build the next generation of arts participants.”
By all signs—robust ticket sales, engagements at the Joyce Theater in New York City and dance festivals, such as Jacob’s Pillow and Vail, attracting in-demand choreographers (Jorma Elo, Val Caniparoli, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Trey McIntyre, Lil Buck)— BalletX is connecting with audiences. The New York Times’ notoriously critical chief dance writer, Alastair Macauley, described the company in his recent June column: “Its dancers are among America’s best.” In a March review, he praised the dancers, describing them as “wonderfully engaged and textured.”
“Christine is blessed with a clarity of mission,” says Nick Stuccio, president and producing director of Philadelphia’s FringeArts and a friend of 30-plus years who danced with Cox back in the 90s at Pennsylvania Ballet. “She is very sure what dance she likes. It’s very physical with warmth to it. Christine’s an emotional person, which is great, and she likes dance that makes you feel something.”
This week, the company finishes its season with the Summer Series running July 11 through 22 at the Wilma Theater, where it is the resident dance company. That space creates a different kind of relationship between dancer and patron than one would find at the Merriam or the Academy of Music. It’s intimate. Sit up close and you can see the dancers’ sweat.
This is one of the differences between classical and contemporary ballet: BalletX dancers show off not only their technique, but also their individuality. When done right, it can be electric. Nick Stuccio describes that connection this way: “We’re social people and that level of intimacy in a performance is intoxicating.” BalletX audiences, Cox says, have grown to expect this experience with every show.
This week’s program has new ballets from choreographers Penny Saunders (with original music from Rosie Langabeer), Matt Neenan, and BalletX choreographic Fellow Andrew McNicol. “There are things people can relate to in the program,” says Cox.
“For me, having lost my father and sister last fall, hearing Mozart’s “Requiem” [in McNicol’s work] and watching the dancers allows me to think about my family and hold them in my heart. Matt’s piece, to Mendelssohn, takes me into a story that really connects me with the dancers as a community. And Penny’s work is about time and how we hold onto it. So, in this evening, you’ll go back and forth in time with memories and relationships.”
Cox has commissioned other works that connect with audiences. Think of BalletX’s appealing performances of Matt Neenan’s “Sunset, 0639 Hours,” the story of pilot Edwin Musick’s 1938 inaugural airmail flight across the Pacific, or Nicolo Fonte’s “Beautiful Decay” that explored aging and the body. Fonte choreographed the company dancing with Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck who are both in their late 70s and the founders of the seminal dance troupe, Group Motion. This Spring’s “The Boogeyman” by Trey McIntyre was another easily relatable piece set to music by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Audiences have created enough consistent demand for BalletX work to maintain a dance company, and enough support to create a home for the company that opened in April. The space, once an auto body repair shop, is perhaps the best example of BalletX reaching an inflection point in its growth. Before, the admin staff had been crammed into tight quarters in various locations and the company had for years traveled around town rehearsing at the University of the Arts, The Performance Garage, Pennsylvania Ballet, and the Rock School. (The company will still perform at The Wilma.)
But Cox identified that the time was right for the company to get its own digs. BalletX has strong foundation support, almost a thousand subscribers, a $2.6 million budget, and a 12-year-track record of staying within its budget. The idea moved fast into reality. “Christine pulled it off within two years,” recalls Averill, a professional fundraiser. “In the annals, of fundraising, that’s remarkable.”
Cox raised $750,000 to renovate the 5,000-square-foot space, named the Center for World Premiere Choreography. The company rents the space on a nine-and-a-half year lease. Cox raised $1.6 million as a part of her commitment to sustainability that includes health insurance for staff and dancers that begins this August. “I did enough penny-pinching along the way,” says Cox, “that my goal now and into the future is about raising the kind of support so that we can give artists the lives they deserve.”
“Now, I have a vision for the company”
On a recent visit, I’m buzzed into the studio. The huge front windows allow light to pour into the big 43 x 70 square foot front room. Cox is leading company class counting time and giving notes as the dancers move through the steps. She stops and hurries over with a welcoming smile to escort me to the casual wooden risers that edge the floor. I’m watching the final moments of class before we talk.
“Make sure to own these positions,” she urges the dancers as classical music fills the room. They work on jumps on the diagonal, crossing over the high-end Harlequin flooring. “Keep your chest elevated!” Cox says, “Like, ‘Do you see me flying?’” Cox adds, “I used to love jumping. It made me feel so powerful.” After a pause, she adds, “Pirouettes, on the other hand, didn’t make me feel as powerful.”
When class is over, Cox gathers her dancers around to introduce them to me. It’s unexpected, but sweet. It’s second nature for Cox to foster this sense of informal connection.
Cox raised $750,000 to renovate the 5,000-square-foot space, and $1.8 million as a part of her commitment to sustainability that includes health insurance for staff and dancers that begins this August. “My goal now and into the future is about raising the kind of support so that we can give artists the lives they deserve,” she says.
Later in her office when she is describing the journey that got her to this place Cox says, “When BalletX started, I wasn’t thinking this was going to be something that would be a future organization that participated in the cultural life of Philadelphia. I was just putting one foot in front of the other…. Now, I have a vision for the company. I have more experience to understand what dreams look like. I know I have to dream forward at least five years.”
Despite all the concerns that well-wishers raise about running a dance company—the intimidating cost basis, fickle funding and audiences—Cox is resolute. Her recent personal losses have added to her determination. Last fall, her father died at age 90 after failing health and her sister, 59, died unexpectedly.
“When my dad and sister passed away,” Cox’s voice cracks and tightens. “I was like, I have nothing to lose. I’m going for it. Going for it in the sense that life is so precious and I’m going to hold them in my heart every single day and push.… I feel their energy. When they left, I felt so invigorated by life somehow.”
Cox pours her creative energy into pushing BalletX forward. The company has seven world premieres scheduled next season, including Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s new, evening-length ballet, inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. Cox plans to do a minimum of 40 world premieres by the end of the Washington Avenue lease.
“This isn’t the time to start retracting from the type of work that we do and go safe,” says Cox.Header photo: Bill Hebert