Philly kids offer ‘building blocks’ for classical music, ballet

A classical composer and a modern ballet choreographer, looking for ideas on which to base their new work, are tapping kids’ imagination at Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia.

Matthew Neenan, co-founder and co-director of BalletX, has been collaborating with middle school students, many with diverse ethnic backgrounds.

“We were hoping we would get them to talk about music from their heritage,” said Neenan. “But most are into pop music. They’re 12 years old.”

The collaboration is a two-way street. The artists are seeing the perspective of a younger generation with little or no exposure to classical music and ballet; while the kids are learning the process of creative invention, rife with playfulness, frustration, and discovery.

“We were asking them for the building blocks. And if they didn’t give us any bricks, we weren’t going to be able to make a building,” said composer Robert Maggio. “So we were begging them for bricks.”

Maggio got his bricks, and added mortar. Using rhythms and chord progressions from the youngsters’ choices–“Black Horse and a Cherry Tree” by KT Tunstall, “Never Forget You” by the Noisettes, a traditional folk tune from Nepal–he composed music in a classical vein.

“I hate to feel that writing classical music or making ballets is for people who always go to classical music and always go to ballets,” said Maggio, a professor of music at West Chester University. “So coming to a public school in Philadelphia and saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to help us make new classical music and ballet,’ for kids who don’t typically hear classical music or go to ballet–that’s exciting.”

The next step will be to ask the kids to invent physical movements, which ultimately will be used as the foundation of a fully realized ballet. The yet-untitled work will debut at the Wilma Theater in November.

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