New dance from Philly’s BalletX honors unforgettable patron, inspiration

A modern dance company in Philadelphia will premiere a new work based on the unpublished writings of arts patron Toni Hamilton, who recently died after battling Alzheimer’s disease.

Choreographer Matthew Neenan is the co-founder of BalletX, a company that was helped — financially and artistically — by Hamilton. Neenan said his patron always encouraged him to push the envelope.

“What I loved about Toni the most was her praising of my more risk-taking work, the darker, eerie works of mine,” said Neenan. “She was, like, ‘I love when you do that kind of stuff — it means you are experimenting with your craft.'”

After Hamilton died in 2015, she left Neenan a cache of journals she kept in the 1980s when she was in her 40s — the same age Neenan is now. Hamilton tended to be reserved, as he is, Neenan said; the manuscripts connected him more deeply to a woman in a way he could not in life.

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It inspired him to create a dance in her honor: “Identity Without Attribution,” a phrase Hamilton used in her writing.

“It was something that stuck with her,” said Neenan. “It was about, how can we be individuals in the way people see us without all these attributes in the way. How can someone just see us as a person and not let all these other things about us distract from who we are?”

In 2010, at age 70, Hamilton was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She immediately set about learning to cope with dementia before it progressed.

She was involved with the Memory Center, a clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, where she began collecting testimonials from doctors and patients for a book project. During that time, she agreed to be interviewed for the Memory Center’s web page.

“This is what I’m living with now. I’m not going to grow very much older — I imagine — and I want to get it right,” said Hamilton in a web video interview. “I hope I will be able to get off this planet without much trouble.”

She managed to get off the planet, as she said, on her own terms. According to published obituaries, Hamilton killed herself when she felt the diseased had progressed far enough. She had the support of her family but not her doctors, as assisted suicide is illegal in Pennsylvania.

The dance, “Identity Without Attribute,” is not about Alzheimer’s or the end of life, but about how Hamilton lived her life — the life she wrote about 30 years ago, the life she wanted Neenan to know about.

“I wanted to make a piece she would be proud of, that she would like to watch,” said Neenan. “There’s a dark tone. She admired and enjoyed those types of ballets of mine. I was not going to do a big, happy piece to honor her. She liked mystery and conversation.”

“Identity without Attribute” will accompanied by music and video projections by the Klip Collective. It is part of BalletX’s summer program (with another premiere by choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa) at the Wilma Theater through July 17.

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