Philadelphia school inspires a ballet

Adam Hundt and Laura H. Otto of BalletX perform "Jackson Sounds" at the Wilma Theater with Jackson students in the audience.
Adam Hundt and Laura H. Otto of BalletX perform "Jackson Sounds" at the Wilma Theater with Jackson students in the audience. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 21, 2011

Danika Shinn, a pink-haired eighth grader at Andrew Jackson Public School in South Philadelphia, dreams of becoming a rock star.

Though her cheeks, also pink, perhaps suggested a touch of nervousness, Shinn confidently flipped into her "head voice" last week when she and a dozen other eighth graders in the school's rock band warmed up the audience with the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black," just before a ballet performance at the Wilma Theater.

The rock concert and the ballet were the culmination of a six-month collaboration among the school, choreographer Matthew Neenan, and composer Robert Maggio, to create Jackson Sounds, a ballet inspired by the movement and sounds of the 400-student school.

Last spring, the Philadelphia chapter of the American Composers Forum awarded Maggio a $10,000 Community Partners Grant,which challenges composers to engage a community in the creative process and compose a work reflective of that community's culture. In May, Maggio and Neenan, of BalletX, the Wilma's resident contemporary company, visited Jackson for the first of six sessions with the school's rock band.

Music teacher Chris Argerakis, 37, of Northeast Philadelphia, started the rock-band program two years ago after acquiring several dozen acoustic guitars from DonorsChoose.org, a website that connects needy classrooms to prospective donors.

Argerakis has since received two electric guitars, a bass, and two drum sets for the band, which on weekday afternoons forms a semicircle to practice the tunes of Cheap Trick, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones.

"It's the best part of my day," he said.

Of Jackson's students, in kindergarten through eighth grade, 75 percent come from economically disadvantaged households. They are culturally diverse, representing heritages of 24 countries, and speak 14 languages.

"For a little school like mine, it's exciting," Jackson principal Lisa Kaplan said. "Not every school has their own ballet."

At show-and-tell-style meetings, where two groups would swap playground hand-clapping routines for pirouettes in the basement music room, Maggio found inspiration for Jackson Sounds' 33-minute score for two cellos.

Sajan Lama, 13, performed a guitar folk song from Nepal, which Maggio incorporated into the final movement of the work.

This fall, Maggio and Neenan returned to the basement at 12th and Federal Streets to play the completed score for the rock band, all eighth graders, who acted as dramaturges, providing adjectives and movements they associated with the piece.

"The first movement they said sounded like a suspense film, with objects moving in and out of a camera," Neenan said. "So there's a lot of movements on and off the stage."

Childlike energy abounds in Jackson Sounds, which was performed four times recently at the Wilma. BalletX dancers wore khaki-colored costumes inspired by the school's uniform. At one point, the dancers formed two circles on stage, one male and one female, taunting one another in a nod to playground dynamics.

"For us, it's kind of a distant memory of being that age again," Neenan said.

Though the ballet has ended its first run, the school rock band plays on.

Jackson student Vanny Hean, 13, said she practices guitar for two hours every day after completing her homework and favors the heavy-metal band AC/DC.

Though her parents have urged her to pursue a more conventional academic path, Hean said she plans to continue playing rock and roll.

"No matter what they say, I'm going to keep it as an important part of my life," she said.

As for Shinn, 13, who is preparing for auditions for performing-arts high schools, music and hair color will persist as sources of self-expression.

"I'm dyeing it blue next," she said.


Contact staff writer Reity O'Brien

at 215-854-2917 or reobrien@philly.com.

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