BalletX’s Matthew Neenan downshifts for THERE I WAS

Published by The Dance Journal. Reprinted by kind permission.

Earlier this month BalletX dancers Chloe Felesina, Francesca Forcella, Jaime Lennon, Caili Quan, Andrea Yorita had their pointe shoes ready for a  rehearsal for Matthew Neenan’s ballet There I Was. It is on the company’s Fall premieres program with two other premieres – If the heart runs by dancer-choreographer Adam Barruch and HeedfulNeedful by Gabrielle Lamb.

Matthew Neenan
Matthew Neenan. Photo credit: Tara Keating.

Even though it is weeks before the opening There I Was looks ready, Neenan only moved around to cue a specific music change, apologizing to the dancers for the pause. The piece showcases how inventive, within and out of specific pointe shoe classicism, Neenan can be. Even though Neenan had not notes for the dancers after the run-through he commented that he’s “kinda” done tinkering with it with weeks before the opening to go.

“It is done, well, pretty much, actually, I finished it a while ago,” he observed it looked “kind of rough, because they haven’t danced it in two weeks. It’s something that was brewing, then it sat for a while, and so it needs to brew again and I’ll bring it to a new level,” he said, with a fiendish laugh, indicating that he had time for what he refers to as  ‘surprises.’ “It’s long, a bit epic, which really wasn’t really the plan, but just turned out that way and I’m kind of glad it did,”

BalletX’s co-artistic director Christine Cox, also observing, said that this program also marks the return of BX dancer Colby Damon to the dance stage, recovered from a knee injury a year ago. He will be dancing in all three works and in “There I Was” he is playing his on music on guitar.  Cox commented that “Everyone is really thrilled that Colby is dancing in this program, he has been missed so much,” she said.

Neenan often has a floating narrative in his work, but with There I Wasit is more about building pure movement at a certain technical level and, his connection with the music.  Neenan likes to work directly with composers-musicians and he originally conceived the piece with Damon’s music in mind.  Some of the styles include Damon moving around the dancers’ ala Flamenco and some recorded parts, including a sousey ballade by Tom Waits laced in.

“Colby loves playing tango,” Neenan commented, “then there’s a cowboy section, it will be interesting to see when it’s onstage. It may work and it may not- I didn’t want costumes,“ Neenan noted, “I wanted them to be wearing their own stuff, but I’ll have strategic suggestions for them.”

Photo credit: Tara Keating
Photo credit: Tara Keating

In the past couple of years Neenan has stated that he was creating choreography more directly in the studio with the dancers, with fewer concrete ideas and letting the process unfold more organically. “Course it all depends on the time we have,“ He likes this process of choreographic exploration but, for practical reasons he has to work in more conventional ways. In 2014 he has seven premieres scheduled, with various companies, so for as much as he like real time creative exploration, he will be working in more conventional ways in terms of preparation. He will be making work for Ballet West, Milwaukee Ballet,  Oklahoma Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Memphis Ballet and a full-length for Ballet X next summer.

“I was at Memphis Ballet last year. That was a piece I prepared well in advance. It was based on a book, I had a few surprises, but they are really quick, because they do new material all the time there.” He has also started his premiere for the PB’s 50th Anniversary season.  “I’ve finished it,  because with my schedule I had to do it this far in advance, because it was the only time I had…to have the dancers ready. I have a base with them. It definitely will need a little touch up,” he admits.

For now and working on There I Was, Neenan wanted to be in that the development moments with the dancers “It has lots of duets. Which I haven’t done in this manner much. It may work, it may not- It has a stripped down, pure music, pure dance feel to it. this is a piece I need to do at this time, a kind of raw look at where we are with the company and I don’t want pressure on me or them. We had time so I said let’s just explore. With that attitude, I think, that’s why it’s longer, and I wasn’t married to set music. So it was about their chemistry and what came out that day.”

Fortunately, Neenan and the dancers were working quickly “each day I was coming up with 4 or 5 minutes of choreography. A lot of pieces I have coming up have narrative, so have get music rights, etc, but with this I just wanted to see what happened. So I had no music planned and Colby was in charge.   I initially was just doing couples, and didn’t start any of the group choreography until later in the process,” he said.

“I wanted it to set me up for what’s to come. I wanted to use this time to see what evolved. You want it to be good, of course, but I mostly wanted it to be more about an experience,” adding “Work on new vocabulary, which I can do with our dancers or  just say, ok today you can be a ballerina. And kind of bringing back ballet a little. We’re kind of making fun of it, but we’re definitely being loyal to it, in a lot of moments. I wanted to bring certain things out, with the girls in their shows and perfectly classical. I thought that was important,” Neenan observed.  One of his choreographic signatures is turned out legs with flat-footed steps. Many, if not most of BalletX’s danceworks have been off pointe and but made a dramatic return this summer in Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay. 

Photo credit: Tara Keating
Photo credit: Tara Keating

Both directors have been tracking guest choreographers work in New York for a while and the premieres program was the perfect opportunity.  Lamb was a soloist with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal before moving to New York in 2009 to join Christopher Wheeldon’s invited her to join his company Morphoses.

“Gabrielle did piece with us last spring and the dancers loved her,” Neenan said. “We’ve been following Adam’s work for a while.  He’s exactly what you want, he’s giving and great to have around, challenges the dancers.” Cox described Barruch’s work as being “incredibly intricate, beautiful and fluid, all at once. It has been great working with him, Adam is such a lovely person inside and out.”

Barruch currently is a dancer with Sylvain Émard Danse in Montreal and has his per project  company in New York.  Their work on this program is made possible by  support from the Jerome Robbins New Essential Works (NEW) Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Neenan was the first recipient of the Robbins Fellowshipin 2009. BalletX FALL SERIES 2013, November 20-23, 2013,

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