BalletX incorporates the music and commotion of Philly youth

A modern dance company has created a new work with the help of 13-year-old kids. It’s not just for kids.

For months, BalletX has been gleaning ideas from an eighth-grade music class at Andrew Jackson Public School in South Philadelphia.

First, composer Robert Maggio met with the group to listen to what they were doing. He boiled the rhythms and harmonies of pop, hip-hop, even a folk song from Nepal, into an original work for two cellos.

Sajan Lama, 13, originally from Nepal, played for Maggio a traditional song on acoustic guitar. That became a recurring theme in the composition.

“We worked together, I loved that,” said Sajan. “I wish I could do more of that.”

Maggio was able to work with the kids, musicians from the New Music Network, and choreographer Matthew Neenan through a grant from the American Composers Forum. He and Neenan, co-founder of BalletX, returned to the classroom to ask the children what kind of dance moves inspire them.

“I’m one of those people who dance in their living room when they’re home alone,” said Vanny Hean, 13. “I’m not much of a dancer.”

But Neenan was not after polish that afternoon. The resulting dance only tangentially uses the movements made up by the children. It’s more rooted into the whole experience of being in the midst of a middle school.

“We were always there when school was getting out to work with the group after school, and that’s when it was just chaos,” said Neenan. “Kids leaving, kids lined up in the hallway, teachers going crazy, noise, kids talking, kids flirting. It brings you back to that time.

“I didn’t like school as a kid, so I had some tense moments being there,” Neenan said. “But I used that in the choreography.”

The technically challenging dance is ostensibly about the innocence of youth; Neenan created it with an audience of adults in mind.

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