Matthew Neenan loves ballet, and it shows in everything he does. Early in his career, training at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York and dancing with the Balanchine-inspired Pennsylvania Ballet, Neenan absorbed the technique of the Russian-trained master who transformed classical style into something uniquely American: fast, focused, simultaneously accessible and imperial. As a choreographer, he has a particular knack for storytelling that we associate with early “ballet theater” choreographers like Jerome Robbins and Agnes De Mille, and he acknowledges being excited by Nederlands Dans Theater, where Jiri Kylian made his reputation, and by contemporary ballet choreographers like Ohad Naharin, Nacho Duato, and William Forsythe.
In the 17 years since his first major commission for Pennsylvania Ballet—Vicissitudes (1997) to the music of Samuel Barber, which premiered when he was just 23—Neenan has made 13 more pieces for Pennsylvania Ballet, 14 for BalletX, and nearly 20 others for a dozen companies around the country. Founding artistic director at BalletX since 2005 and resident choreographer at Pennsylvania Ballet since 2007, Neenan is now in great demand, making new dances on troupes across the country.
Neenan’s 2010 masterpiece, The Last Glass, shown across the country and still active in BalletX repertoire, marked a leap in his stylistic growth for its theatricality and technical diversity. To raucous tunes by the band Beirut that combine elements of indie rock and world music, the dancers, in what might be a post-prom haze, swirl and swivel, stumbling through spherical movement, some of them on pointe, some in flat shoes. A central couple—she in pants, he dressed all in white—seem to spend the whole piece breaking up. Critic Alastair Macaulay, in the New York Times, called the dancers “touchingly impulsive” and picked this work as one of his top-ten favorites of 2013, after BalletX performed it at New York’s Joyce Theater last summer.
How do steps communicate feeling? How does the body speak? Neenan’s strength is bringing a contemporary feeling to ballet, finding ways to let the human side of his dancers come out, to let them look more like who they are. He thrives on a collective creative process, he says, “because my choreography revolves around people.” His process gives his dancers an opportunity to open themselves up.
Audiences can read the stories Neenan knits into his choreography. Recently he’s been “into duets and small groups and building relationships; creating a narrative with the dancers.” He’s also collaborating with musicians, venturing into commissioned scores and live music. Earlier this season he made There I Was on BalletX, for which company member Colby Damon played original compositions on guitar. In the spring, for Milwaukee Ballet, he launched his retro, swinging Something Borrowed to songs by the band Pink Martini. Sunset, o639 Hours is Neenan’s second collaboration with New Zealand-born, Philadelphia-based composer Rosie Langabeer; they first joined forces in 2011 on Proliferation of the Imagination, a vaudeville dance theater piece with BalletX and The Wilma Theater.
Macaulay recently called Neenan “one of the freshest and most remarkable American ballet choreographers based outside New York.” “I’m liking the journey I’m on,” Neenan says. “When ballet is done right, when the acting is grade A, the dancing is grade A, it’s really magical.”
BalletX Summer Series 2014 July 9-13 at the Wilma Theater.
Tickets available now.