Ballet Fleming choreographs American flair


Christopher Fleming has a ballet about the nine-innings of baseball. That production, as well as others in the Americana genre, is demonstrative of the signature style of the 50-year-old choreographer and dancer who makes his home at 15th and Dickinson streets.

“Baseball is an American tradition. You can say what you want about the game, but I’d bet 99 percent of the population has seen some part of a baseball game,” Fleming said. “There is nothing wrong with a ballet being a comedy. Film can be a comedy, or a drama, or whatever it wants. Why can’t a ballet be all those things?”

The artistic director of Ballet Fleming, 1802 S. Broad St., Fleming is premiering three new works for the upcoming 2012-13 season, launching this fall in conjunction with the Fringe Festival. The premiere work, which will be staged at Old City’s Painted Bride Art Center, expands on another American tradition.

“Rock music is so American and so Philadelphian. I like to pursue things that make sense to us now — or that make sense to me,” he said. “When I was a kid growing up in New York City, it was very similar to South Philly. I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen. It was the same buildings, the same stoops, same everything. Every four or five stoops you’d hear music blaring.

“I wanted to explore music from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. You had that transformation from ‘Groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon’ to ‘Hey, stop! What’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.’ Rock music went from being very sophomoric and took a turn from being fun to a bit more socially aware.”

Taking its name from an iconic work of the time, “Dancing in the Streets” will include performances Sept. 21 and 23. While prepping for the new season opener Fleming and his company were offered a unique opportunity to participate in a feature film, which began shooting this week.

“It’s a holiday thing but it’s not traditional Nutcracker at all,” Fleming said of the work entitled “Christmas Dreams.” “There are 45 scenes and no dialogue — all dance. … My character is a working-class dad who comes home to find his kid, the Little Drummer Boy, hasn’t shoveled the snow. I do this whole solo with a shovel. To tell you the truth, not having a lot of experience with the green-screen format, I’m anxious to see what it’s all about.”

Fleming, along with his dancers, will perform various pieces in front of a large blank green-colored backdrop on a soundstage in North Philly. This will allow the filmmakers to digitally place the dancers into various scenarios.

“The images of what it will be will be a very fantastical journey. They can really put us anywhere,” he said.

Practices at the company’s Newbold home continue, and being a newly formed troupe, Fleming is working tirelessly to keep up with the its growth.

“Being new, our planning is really based on a lot of volunteers. I have a board and a company manager/administrator. We’re always working ahead and also trying to keep up,” Fleming said. “So much has happened so fast. We’re moving faster than we can keep up with. It’s nice, I shouldn’t complain, but it gets tiring.”

As the first son of five children to a father, who was a dancer-turned-film-director, and mother, a dancer who founded a theater company with Fleming’s uncle, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Of the five siblings only one did not pursue dance, and she, Fleming said fondly, “was the odd sister that is a hairdresser for films.”

Though a flair for the performing arts was in his genes, his first venture into the ballet studio was a fluke.

“My mom was in the hospital having my brother. And my friend was like, ‘Do you want to go ballet class? It’s free,’” Fleming said of a New York City-based ballet school that was, at the time, free for boys. “Up to that point I wanted to be a drummer.”

Once he began dancing, he never looked back. By age 16, Fleming was accepted into the American Ballet Theatre.

“The thing is it is almost impossible to achieve perfection. So you have something that you got to work on till you die,” Fleming said of why he was drawn to the art form. “It depends if you stay in it or not. You can only dance physically for so long. I was choreographing — I did my first ballet when I was 19.”

Two years after American Ballet Theatre, Fleming joined the New York City Ballet which, he said, “was really where my career was.” The schedule was demanding in a decade with the company, even for Fleming who prides himself on his own intense training.

“I think the Pennsylvania Ballet does 14 ballets the whole year. We used to do 38 a season, with two seasons a year,” Fleming, who was concurrently trying his hand at writing for television, said. “That’s a lot of ballet.”

When he felt fulfilled with his time at the New York City Ballet, he left to write, which didn’t pan out, and eventually moved abroad to choreograph, something he continues to do to this day.

“I know we get upset with America, but after you live somewhere else, you are like, ‘Ya, we got it really good here,’” Fleming who created 20 ballets in three years while living in Colombia, said.

Returning to the States in 1990, Fleming arrived in Philly nine years later to take the position of assistant director at The Rock School, 1101 S. Broad St. A decade into that role gave way to the recent opportunity to begin his own company with a space, formerly Rebecca Davis Dance Co., already in place close to his residence.

“I started a school in 2010 to train people — the work [I do] is hard and physically demanding,” he said. “I like South Philly ’cause it’s not pretentious. [Our studio] was all set up. I’ve got the mirrors and the bars and the dance floor. It was kind of a no-brainer.”

Entering their third season, Fleming and his dancers have hit the ground running, and Fleming is always trying to draw inspiration from being present in the moment.

“I try to look for things that are interesting to me. A full-length ballet evening doesn’t have to just be ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Giselle’ or ‘The Nutcracker,’” he said. “Why not use the resources that are available to you? People can expect a different repertoire that draws from American influences.”

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