In its first holiday-themed dance program, BalletX takes a somber tone in ’12 Bells’

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For the first time in its 14 years, BalletX is presenting a holiday-themed dance program.

But it’s no Nutcracker. Philadelphia’s prominent contemporary ballet company takes on the sense of depression some people have during Christmastime.

Matthew Neenan was one of the founders of BalletX in 2005, he’s now a choreographer for hire. When asked to create a dance for the holidays, he went to a darker place, where the end of the year is a time to contemplate a loss you might have suffered.

The scene Neenan sets with his dancers is a Christmas spent alone in your apartment, hearing a party thrown by your neighbors.

“It’s the apartment down the hall, and you were invited to this party but you chose not to go because you’re decorating your tree and you’re thinking about everything that you went through this year with your loss,” he said. “And your past holiday experiences, which were wonderful, but this one is not.”

Dancers (from left) Francesca Forcella, Zachary Kapeluck, Stanley Glover, Chloe Perkes, Roderick Phifer, Caili Quan, Richard Villaverde, in BalletX Fall Series 2019. (Photo by Vikki Sloviter, courtesy of BalletX)

For his dance, called “12 Bells,” Neenan’s initial inspiration came from a 2001 picture book, “The Red Tree” by Shaun Tan, describing a little girl moving through depression.

“Not everyone is like, ‘The holidays! It’s wonderful!’” said Neenan. “It can be a really, really difficult time for people, and we need to acknowledge that.”

Neenan partnered with musicians Rosie Langabeer and Tara Middleton to create the music for “12 Bells.”

Ironically, Langabeer composed music to be played on a 47 year-old analog synthesizer called The Fun Machine.

“I really wanted to incorporate the Baldwin Fun Machine into the piece because I just thought it would be really cool if it was in a ballet,” said Langabeer, with a chuckle. “Everyone needs one. It’s beautiful.”

The Fun Machine is a 1973 electric piano built into a wooden console. It’s a full-sized piece of furniture designed for a living room or a small chapel. With two tiers of keys, a bank of switches, and a programmable, rudimentary drum track generator, it’s very mid-century.

“It has an old-school tone to it, which I love,” said Neenan. “My grandmother played the organ. At holiday times, the kids were around her and we would jam with her and play Christmas carols.”

One of the songs in “12 Bells” is mash-up of Christmas carols. The lyrics, sung by Middleton, are titles of popular holiday songs strung together into couplets:

Once in royal David city, oh holy night,
Lo how a rose ere blooming.

It came upon a midnight clear,
Jolly old Saint Nick was there.

 I heard the bell on Christmas Day,
Hark the herald angels sing.

The words are familiar enough so they remind you of Christmas, but set into a slower, more somber melody. It delivers a holiday mood without insisting on being cheerful about it.

“It’s not that it isn’t festive, but I think it’s real,” said Middleton. “Some people experience the holidays in a way that you don’t feel you’re having the best day ever, or the best year ever.”

“We also didn’t want to do an ironic take on Christmas,” added Langabeer. “We can all be cynical about Christmas. It’s easy to fall into that irony of making fun of it. We wanted to get to a point of sharing that loneliness and isolation.”

The BalletX Fall Series, which includes the dance “12 Bells,” continues through this weekend at the Wilma Theater.

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