Continuing the Legacy: Balanchine Répétiteur Colleen Neary returns for Philadelphia Ballet’s Dancing With Gershwin

Philadelphia Ballet continues to honor its Balanchine roots with the spring production of Dancing With Gershwin. To prepare, the company engaged repetiteur, Colleen Neary, to work with the dancers. From 1969 to 1979, Neary danced as a soloist with New York City Ballet under the direction of George Balanchine. Balanchine personally selected Neary to stage his ballets for other companies as a Répétiteur for The George Balanchine Trust.

[Kimmel Cultural Center’s Academy of Music] March 16-19, 2023;

Debra Danese: What does it mean to be a répétiteur of Balanchine ballets? 

Colleen Neary: Being a répétiteur for Balanchine ballets means that I have the honored responsibility to teach his incredible ballets to companies around the world. I can work with the beautiful dancers of today, and bring Balanchine alive through his choreography. I worked with Mr. Balanchine and danced many roles in the ballets I teach. I remember everything he said to me, and try to make sure that dancers understand clearly what they are dancing, and what the style, technique, and intention is.

DD: Can you share a memory of Balanchine from your time at New York City Ballet?

CN: I have so many memories of him, it is difficult to share just one. He was fascinating and wonderful to work with. When he choreographed, his inspiration came from not only his dancers, but from the music, first and foremost. During the Stravinsky Festival in 1972, he choreographed a number of ballets within a very short amount of time as he was unbelievably inspired by Stravinsky. They were also very good friends. He choreographed Stravinsky Violin Concerto within one week. He would walk in and say, “I spoke to Stravinsky on the phone last night and he told me that this ballet was a tribute to him and our friendship!” Many of the movements, especially in the finale movement, are very folksy in flavor. He would say “like we are having dinner at The Russian Tea Room,” a famous restaurant in New York in the day where he and Stravinsky frequented many times! His inspiration transpired and he choreographed the steps faster than we could pick them up! It was just a wonderful experience working with him when he was creating. 

He choreographed Kammermuisk #2 on Karin von Aroldingen and myself, with Sean Lavery and Adam Luders. This was also a fascinating experience of learning the music, and how he syncopated the first movement with the two women and a corps of men. It was like “Kammercomputer,” as Karin would call it.

DD: You worked with Philadelphia Ballet in 2022. What was that experience like? 

CN: I first worked with the company actually in 2018 with Stravinsky Violin Concerto. When I returned in 2022, I staged an entire Balanchine program for the company. I love the dancers in Philadelphia Ballet! I know them very well, and they work with me very well! They are beautiful, disciplined, and pick up the style of all the Balanchine ballets beautifully. It is such a pleasure to come here, teach these ballets, and watch the dancers grow and live up to the challenges of each piece.

DD: What was your approach when working with the company this season? 

CN: As I always do, I approach teaching them each piece with as much clarity as I can. Each ballet is very different. Firstly, it is to get them to know the piece musicall; then the style and technique. And have a good time in the learning process while doing it. Then it is enjoyable for all.

DD: Which of the program’s three ballets did you find most exciting to set? 

CN: They are all exciting to set, and for different reasons. Ballet Imperial is a gorgeous classical ballet and has its challenges technically due to the speed and precision it takes. It goes back to his Imperial days in his youth and has the elegance of the time. Agon is musically challenging and has a specific style, which is a Balanchine neo-classic style. That entails a certain confidence, and exaggerated movement and physicality. It’s a great piece and a collaboration with Stravinsky. I love to see the dancers master this ballet! Who Cares? is a lot of fun and brings back the Balanchine Broadway and Hollywood era that he also loved. It is full of energy, fun, and a romanticism that Balanchine often referred to as the simplicity, casualness, and beauty of the “Fred Astaire” days. Definitely a lot of fun to teach also.

Dancing with Gershwin runs from March 16-19 at the Kimmel Cultural Center’s Academy of Music.

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