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A Pennsylvania Ballet Sendoff to Retiring Dancer/choreographer Matthew Neenan

by Merilyn Jackson
October 15, 2007
Philadelphia, PA
In certain roles, a dancer can break a critic's heart. Watching him or her begin to inhabit a role that seems tailor-made, growing into it over the years until it becomes a second skin can be so satisfying, a critic could overlook flaws in the performance. Fresh to The Pennsylvania Ballet 13 years ago, Matthew Neenan took his debut role as the Bugle Boy in Paul Taylor's tribute to the Andrews Sisters and our WWII veterans, Company B. Although he danced ably, as a newbie in a company premiere he was understandably a tad unsure. Since then, he's steeped so deeply in it, I don't see who could follow him.

Bugle Boy was not Taylor-made for Neenan. Jeff Wadlington in Taylor's own company had the honors in 1991. The second time I saw Neenan in it was the night of March 26, 2003; days after the U.S. invaded Iraq. His boyish profile enhanced the poignancy of his silhouette as he slo-mo marched to war in single file with the other male dancers. They moved across the backdrop as other dancers jitterbugged or polkaed blithely in the foreground. In his core solo, he danced militarily, infusing Bugle Boy's personality with a James Cagney-like hubris, as if to say, "You want a soldier boy? This is what you'll get."

On opening night of this 2007 season, he jauntily executed a series of off-axis, feet-to-the-front leaps but mostly, he replaced hubris with bittersweet humility, knowing it would be the last time in this role. This was Neenan's final run with the ballet as he retires to direct his own company, Ballet X, and continue choreographing for PAB.

James Ihde reveled in the Tico-Tico section. A tall dancer who makes a good lifting partner, he rarely gets the chance to dance this kind of happy solo. He danced more loosely and lightly than I've ever seen him, taking full advantage of the opportunity and wowing the audience.

Sorry to say, but the Pennsylvania Polka looked more Tennessee Waltz. Heels need to be kicked up to the back of the thighs and then stamped back down, "Hey Krajewski" style, not gliding along with refinement.

I first saw Balanchine's 1941 Concerto Barocco at the Pennsylvania Ballet's inaugural concert. Probably PAB's first principal ballerinas, Barbara Sandonato and Patricia Turko, danced the roles of the music's contrapuntal strings. Current principals, Arantxa Ochoa and Amy Aldridge danced more of a duel than a duet, with Ochoa disdainful, even dourly dainty and Aldridge elated with a mysterious inner joy. Newly made principal Sergio Torrado partnered Ochoa uneasily, bobbling on a liftdown and, with her arm slung over his neck and shoulder, hauling her along like a wounded battlefield buddy.

Though often on demi-pointe and full-pointe, the corps de ballet was curiously not fizzing, save for Gabriella Yudenich and Barette Vance who each danced with rubato throughout the evening.

Recently appointed soloist, Yudenich is the daughter of Sandonato and the late Alexei Yudenich, also an early principal of the company. In Neenan's piece, As It's Going, she steals a bit of fire in a trio with Ian Hussey and Vance. Neenan's choreographic accent has become unmistakable. For one, he plays on what he's done before. In 11:11 (also made for PAB) he has a girl thrown offstage. In As It's Going, he has one thrown onstage, eliciting laughter even from audience who hadn't seen the earlier work. For another, and despite his musicality, he intuits moves that are counter to what you might expect, filling his dances with dozens of little mental wake up calls.

John Hoey's lighting played well for Company B and As It's Going, creating character and mood. But Concerto Barocco is an old work that I'd like to have seen in a new light.

No further performances.
Pennsylvania Ballet's Matthew Neenan in <i>Company B</i>

Pennsylvania Ballet's Matthew Neenan in Company B

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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