July 21, 2020; Philadelphia Inquirer
Last week, BalletX, a contemporary dance company based in Philadelphia, but with a growing presence nationally and internationally, announced a full season of new works beginning in September. The company will mark its 15th anniversary season with world premieres by 15 choreographers. At least through the fall, performances will be presented virtually because of the pandemic. But if public health concerns subside, live performances could resume by spring or next summer.
As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Ellen Dunkel, the season has been designed as “a subscription-based film festival, with nine shorts and six features.” The shorts will launch September 10th on a new platform on the company’s website, BalletX Beyond.
Because of social distancing, much of the filming is being done by the dancers themselves. The longer features are being planned as live performances but could also be turned into films. Subscriptions start at $15/month, with discounts for an annual plan.
BalletX artistic director and co-founder Christine Cox explains how the plan evolved: “There was a panic moment. At first, you’re managing the crises by shutting down your performances, which is something we did early. And then slowly as the season was developing, in my mind, [there was] this idea of going big.”
Ballet X has largely built its reputation on new works made on the company by guest choreographers, so this anniversary season is typical in some ways. But the 2020–21 season plan innovates on many other levels. Technology enables BalletX dancers to work virtually with choreographers from around the world—some of whom they would not have crossed paths with otherwise. In addition, Cox notes that many company members are now learning both new dances and new technologies.
“A lot of them are learning a whole new skill set,” says Cox. “Not only are they filming themselves, but some of them have taken this opportunity to learn how to edit, learn how to code, [or learn how to] choreograph for film.”
BalletX was quick to pivot to digital strategies to keep audience members engaged when the pandemic shuttered performing arts spaces in March. Archived works were offered weekly to email subscribers for free (although donations were encouraged) during the spring. Classes and workshops were offered virtually from the company’s studio. At the same time, company members were able to stay in shape by dancing at home, using ballet barres and sections of dance flooring sent to them by the company. Now, they can rehearse in the studio—two at a time, separated by a divider, taking direction from choreographers and artistic staff through Zoom. Many of the performances in the 2020–21 season will be solos, although film editing will sometimes make it appear as though dancers are sharing a stage. Two sets of BalletX dancers who live together may perform together sometimes.
Perhaps most remarkably, the season plan allows the BalletX dancers to maintain their 38-week contract through this extraordinarily challenging time for the performing arts. The company’s budget has been reduced from what was planned for the 15th anniversary season, but at $2.5 million, it is still higher than last year’s budget.
As Cox notes, the virtual platform does allow BalletX to grow its audience beyond its typical subscribers in the Philadelphia area. She welcomes the opportunity “to potentially meet new audience members in their city in their homes.” And her dancers seem to agree. In a posting on the BalletX website, longtime company member Zachary Kapeluck commented, “I’m most excited for the opportunities that our new virtual format will allow us to explore in ways we never have before. BalletX has set a precedent for innovation, and I think that our 15th Anniversary Season will be a new milestone for us in that respect. We continue to persevere and create in times of uncertainty—that is what makes us tick and will continue to fuel our growth.”—Eileen Cunniffe