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Matthew Neenan: “I Always Need to Try New Things.”

July 7, 2017


BalletX begins their summer series next Wednesday, featuring three pieces, including two world premieres. 

Choreographer Jodie Gates, a former principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet, returns to Philadelphia with a brand new piece. The music for the performance was created by Ryan Lott of the electronic trio Son Lux.

Matthew Neenan, who co-founded BalletX with Christine Cox in 2005, will also debut a piece. And the troupe will bring back “Castrati,” which they debuted in 2011.

The Wilma Theater, the company’s regular home, is undergoing renovations, so this series will take place at the Prince Theater

Our G.W. Miller III attended a rehearsal and then spoke with Neenan about his new piece and what makes this company so special.

This production will be at the Prince. Does that change the way you created the performance?

It totally changed my whole thinking. I had a while different idea for a dance in mind. The piece I had in mind involved a dinner table but I think that would work better at The Wilma. What I love about that theater is that you always feel like the audience is kind of hugging the performers. If there’s going to be a table and all, that would be more intimate. At The Prince, the audience is kind of further back.

But they have these rafters on the sides of the stage, which I’ve always liked. So, I thought, how can I utilize that? I came up with a concept that takes advantage of that – people higher and lower. For me, that kind of represents power, authority. Within that, more ideas came to mind about power struggle and authoritative nature, and why someone’s in charge.

Of course, that got me thinking about our political scenario going on – not just in our country but the whole world. It’s just been such a sensitive subject for all of us, around the world.

Is that an overarching theme for the three pieces in the summer series?

No. I think Jodie’s kind of touches on it. You kind of can’t right now. We’re all feeling this.

The one piece, Castrati, has been done before. It deals with, well, you know.

My piece definitely is taking on that theme. I have the song “My country ‘tis of thee” in the piece, which represents our country but it can take on a deeper meaning.

When you design a production for a particular venue, does that limit your ability to take it elsewhere?

Well, that’s the thing. With this, I think we could have a small set. We could probably just build something. I know I’m taking the risk that the piece can’t tour. But this piece is a little strange, a little out there, a little awkward, and I’m not sure how people are going to respond to it.

I just can’t always be doing the same thing. I always need to try new things. It may not always be your best work but it becomes part of another layer as an artist.

I also want to make sure all the pieces are very diverse. Jodie Gates is really using ballet techniques. Not that we aren’t with mine but we are allowing it to be a little more awkward and out there. We’re developing a new vocabulary.

It’s always important to me that if you have three different works on the program, the audience should experience three different meals.

How did you wind up working with Jodie and Ryan Lott?

This will be her third work for the company. She and Ryan know each other from Los Angeles.

I was working in New York while they were rehearsing her piece but I know that both of these world premieres are extremely different. Even costume-wise and stuff.

How do you prepare people for what they’re going to experience when they’re seeing three different performances like that?

You can’t, really. You just have to trust that they’ll understand.

One thing we’ve gotten better at as a company is doing more full-lengths, with one thread line from beginning to end. Five or six years ago, when I was directing the company, a lot of the choreographers we were bringing in were doing the same things. Everything was kind of dark. The lighting was dark. The costumes were dark, jet black, sweats and a tank top. All the movement was very harsh.

That was interesting. You want to let the choreographer have their own voice. But now that there are so many pieces in the repertoire, we can bring works back. That means we can do that and a new choreographer can say, “Oh, I’m going to do something completely different.” That makes your piece stand out on its own.

And from the audience perspective, they want to see everything. They want to see something light, something on point, something off point, maybe something a little more weird or abstract, and maybe something that is more simple, and another that is a complete reflection of the music, like a beautiful Bach piano concerto.

Your new piece seems to maximize the silence.

It starts with a kind of eerie feel and then it gets into more of a melody, a little jazzy, a little fun. Then it goes into the silence. Then I have this classical sounding piece that Wynton Marsalis is playing.

Is that something that makes BalletX special, different from more traditional ballet? The diversity of styles and arrangements?

I’d say yes and no. I’ve done that for even big classical companies. Sometimes, I’ll do a hodgepodge of different music, especially if you’re using recorded music. When I have live music, I do stuff from the same composer.

And taking advantage of the silence, is that a hallmark of BalletX?

You don’t see that as much in traditional ballet. But a lot of choreographers do take advantage of the silence. I really love those moments of silence. I think it’s nice for the audience to just kind of sit back. It allows the dancers to become a little more human. They become the music. They become the voice of the piece rather than the music dictating them.

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