Developing a new ballet company is like working on a puzzle, says Christine Cox, one of two artistic directors of BalletX. There are many problems to solve on the way to success.
"You know when you're filling out a puzzle and all the tricky parts start to fill in, and then you can put in all the other pieces of the puzzle?" she asks.
This year, she and partner Matthew Neenan - both former Pennsylvania Ballet dancers - filled in a large section of that puzzle when their two-year-old troupe was named resident dance company at the Wilma Theater, where it will perform tomorrow through Sunday, and again next spring and summer.
"To have a theater that you can call home [for performing] is something any company would want," Cox says. "It allows us the opportunity to really fill in those other components to the puzzle, and to say to foundations, 'This is where we're at, we have this part. So now we need staffing and we need a home' " - a year-round studio.
BalletX is a labor of love for its directors, but they feel it also fills a real bare spot in Philadelphia's dance landscape.
"This city needs contemporary ballet," says Neenan, who was just named choreographer in residence at Pennsylvania Ballet. "People want to see new work. Jorma Elo" - the Finnish-born choreographer currently at the Boston Ballet - "should be here. These great choreographers should come and work. And it's just our mission to bring new work."
Last year, to that end, BalletX commissioned Elo to make a ballet. This season they have brought in Adam Hougland, who has created work for American Ballet Theatre Studio Company and Limon Dance Company.
Other bits of border and sky are coming together as well: For the first time, Cox and Neenan auditioned dancers, as opposed to simply borrowing from Pennsylvania Ballet. And this year's company is up to 10, including alumni of Philadanco, Complexions and, not surprisingly, Pennsylvania Ballet.
Cox, 38, and Neenan, 33, have a bit of a leg up on other start-up companies. Besides their history with Pennsylvania Ballet - where they picked up tips administrative as well as artistic - they also learned lessons from Phrenic New Ballet, a troupe they ran for five years with another two directors.
"It was just a summer gig," Neenan says. "We were applying for the Fringe Festival. . . . and we needed a title, and we needed kind of to be a company. And so we were like, 'OK, let's be a company, hahahaha.' And then the ball got rolling, and before we knew it - we had a company."
But eventually, he says, it was too much, and the four-person partnership split in two. (The other duo, Amanda Miller and Tobin Rothlein, now run Miro Dance Theatre.)
"It's one thing when Christine and I have to call each other to check on something like, 'Is this OK with you?' 'Yeah,' " Neenan recalls. "But to check with three other people just got tiresome."
Cox agrees. "What's so nice about working together is that we're long-time friends. We have a nice balance together. There's really never ever any battle between each other. We want it to be smooth, it is smooth, and we're pretty much always on the same page."
The dancers feel it as well.
"I love to work with them," says Anitra Nurnberger, who commutes from New York to rehearse and perform with BalletX. She has known Cox and Neenan for years from Pennsylvania Ballet and Phrenic. "Not only their rep, but they work great together, too."
"I'm the youngest one, and there are lots of great dancers to look up to," says Rosalia Chann, 22, who graduated from the University of the Arts in May. She says if she had joined a larger company, she'd probably have smaller parts and be doing less interesting dancing.
But for every piece of the puzzle that falls into place, there are challenges to work out. BalletX is able to offer 20 weeks of work among rehearsals and performances, but that work is not contiguous. As a result, some of the dancers are already booked elsewhere in March, when the company's spring season is scheduled, and will have to be replaced.
The two directors also must rely on other jobs to help pay the bills. Neenan danced for 13 years with Pennsylvania Ballet, until Oct. 14; two days later, he was back with the company in his new role as choreographer.
Cox, meanwhile, works all over the map: She teaches at five colleges and dance studios, and rehearses children for Pennsylvania Ballet's annual Nutcracker. It's a time commitment she knows she can't maintain forever if BalletX is to thrive.
"I just have to be a little poorer and a little more available for this thing," she says.
Both she and Neenan choreographed new ballets for this week. His, called Once Again, is set to a mix of 17th-century trumpet music recorded by Wynton Marsalis.
"It's just kind of a fun, lighthearted piece," he says, the result of a July/August impulse. "It was the summer, and I was anticipating a really heavy fall season with the ballet and with this. And I was like, I just want to have a ballet that was fun, fun music."
Cox took a more serious route - and is a little more stressed out.
"For me, I feel like such a young choreographer," she says. "This is my first full piece on the company, so I'm a little nervous. But I definitely inside have something to say, so I just keep evolving and honing. . . . I still feel like it's the first time I've choreographed."
Hers is an autobiographical piece called MOM - for "My Own Memory" - about the issues that arise in dealing with the aging of a parent.
Hougland's piece, Risk of Flight, also explores emotional family matters, accompanied by solo cello music by Zoe Keating that is multitracked until it sounds like percussion. "The real meat to the dance," he says, is a long duet for Heidi Cruz-Austin and Meredith Rainey, about a couple who suffer a loss, possibly the loss of a child.
"The relationship doesn't usually survive that. Rather than feeling support from each other, you can't stand to be around each other, because it reminds you of that horrible event. You know it's destined not to work, but they're still trying."
As for their own partnership, Cox and Neenan say their eventual goal is to work full-time on BalletX, and then one day hand it off to successors.
"I'd love to look down when I'm dead and see BalletX as a major company," Neenan says, "something beyond whatever we thought it could be. That would be great."
Contact writer Ellen Dunkel at firstname.lastname@example.org.