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Toeing The Line and Breaking The Rules - an interview with Matthew Neenan of the Pennsylvania Ballet

by Merilyn Jackson
August 19, 2005
Philadelphia, PA

Toeing The Line and Breaking The Rules - an interview with Matthew Neenan of the Pennsylvania Ballet

Merilyn Jackson
August 19, 2005

Ballet may still be on its toes, but choreography like Matthew Neenan's could knock it on its ears. Neenan, an 11-year member of the Pennsylvania Ballet began choreographing both for the PAB and for his own breakaway company, the now defunct, Phrenic. Neenan formed Phrenic with PAB colleague Christine Cox, and former PAB ballerina Amanda Miller and her partner, award-winning videographer, Tobin Rothlein. In less than five years, the small company made quite a critical splash with a name as eccentric as Neenan's choreography.

All of Neenan's works charmingly blend insouciance and penetrating insight, and playfulness and sophistication with keenly crafted literary and musical choices as inspiration. These qualities keep the watcher guessing what could come next. In Die Menschheit, set to Mozart, for instance, Neenan hinted at foppish minuets and courtly mincing but accented all that with hip hop-like popping and locking.

Last year, despite its artistic successes, Phrenic was dissolved. Rothlein and Miller both wanted to make more edgy, technology-oriented work and founded Miro Dance Theater. Neenan and Cox wanted to cleave more closely to classical idioms while infusing them with fresh, youthful and idiosyncratic phrasing and formed ballet x. Both companies debut at Philadelphia's Live Arts Festival on September 7 at different times at Philadelphia's Arts Bank. Miro calls its evening Hurdy Gurdy, with choreography by Miller, Jessica Lang and Johannes Wieland. Ballet x has a program called "2 Different" featuring work by Neenan and London choreographer, David Fielding.

Feeling's work, said Cox in conversation earlier this summer, "Is very clarified, clean and precise. He keeps your attention, using music by Steve Reich and accordionist Lydia Kaminska."

In their work, Cox and Neenan each use classical ballet as a tightrope throughout their choreography and, contemporary as it looks, they use pointe shoes to walk across it. I wondered why they cling to the classical look and continue to use pointe shoes.

"We are both very passionate about ballet and love what we do for the Pennsylvania Ballet," said Cox. "But there is a void in Philadelphia for contemporary ballet and we have always wanted to fill that. So we are going to try to do that with ballet x now. Whatever happens with what we're doing we don't want to get stagnant. We don't want it to change the world. We want it to change us.

"As for the pointe shoes, I'll answer that since I'm the one in them," she continued. There is nothing like the feeling of dancing on pointe, even when it hurts. It is a connection to the floor, a grounding into it. Often, you're only in the shoes 20 or 30 minutes and when you are in love with ballet, you ignore the pain. Then, when you are dancing more consistently throughout the year, you don't notice any pain.

"Sometimes, though," added Neenan, "I put the dancers in flesh colored pointe shoes with no ribbons, just a thick elastic band. It can be hard to tell if they are wearing pointe shoes, but it's the only way to achieve a dramatic height and line.

I note how strikingly they maintain a balance between the crisp refinement of the classical look and the throwaway casualness of modern dance.

"Yes," Neenan said, "We break a lot of rules, but in classical ballet, you have to finish every movement phrase. So no matter how contemporary a phrase I am using, it gets a finish. It doesn't just trail away."

For the Pennsylvania Ballet, Roy Kaiser, the ballet's Artistic director has commissioned six works from Neenan to date.

Nowhere is the audience put more delightfully off-guard than in his most recent success, the Pennsylvania Ballet's premiere last January of his 11:11. Set to the pithy lyrics and haunting melodic lines of six Rufus Wainwright songs, the six dance sections reflect courtship, lovemaking and heartbreak as we experience it today. As Wainwright's plaintive voice sings, "My phone's on vibrate for you," five couples led by a duet for Julie Diana and Meredith Rainey mesh, meld and split apart as lovers might in the first blushes of a crush or the final touches of an affair.

In a thrilling throw, Rainey tosses the perpendicular Diana off into the wings to the unseen but awaiting arms of Zachary Hench, who in real life has become Diana's fiancée. But as for Rainey, he is done with her.

The music for 11:11 is obviously a very deeply personal choice. I cannot resist asking Neenan if he is love smitten.

"Yes," he replied with a shy smile, "when I began work on this I had just begun a relationship with an actor here and the ups and downs of a new love greatly influenced the sense of longing, fun and fulfillment you see in the dance. I had known Wainwright's music for some time, and I knew it was right for this dance. Very romantic."

Pennsylvania Ballet just released its 2005-2006 season and say they are bringing 11:11 back by popular demand. They've put it on a bill with Ulysses Dove's Red Angels and a world premiere to be announced for next June.

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