Matthew Neenan’s re-entering premieres

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

“Dance…dance or we are lost” are the emphatic words from choreographer Pina Bausch inspiring dancers lost in the suspending fog of pandemic uncertainty and industry shutdown.  Finally, there is some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel as dancers and choreographers attempt to pick up where they left off, mentally and physically, and return to regular training, rehearsal cycles, and live performances.

This shared experience is the basis of the theme of choreographer Matthew Neenan’s ballet ‘re-entering,’ which had its virtual premiere on the Annenberg Center LiveStream performance series. The Annenberg Center, now in its 50th anniversary year, has been closed to audiences since March 2020. It is eerie to see it so ghostly as this work by Neenan commences through the venue’s back stairwells, sterile hallways, and shadowy landings.

It is a chamber dance piece created for Caili Quan, former BalletX dancer; Michael Trusnovec, a veteran of the Paul Taylor Company; Telmo Moreira, who trained at the Vaganova Ballet Academy and is a Prix de Lausanne prize-winner; and Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, an alum of the Rock School and member of Pacific North Ballet. Neenan’s quartet all returning to the stage, perhaps as he suggests, “with fresh eyes” after such an extended period away.

They also evoke a movement study by Neenan of the state of dance art regaining its equilibrium. Neenan approaches this with his well-honed vocabulary of pedestrian body language and his contemporary ballet styles. Of course, Neenan’s non-narrative abstract expressionism speaks volumes.

As he has in many of his previous contemporary works, ’re-entering’ is sound-tracked to a mix of disparate music that Neenan noted was “all over the place” in an interview after the performance with Annenberg Director Christopher Gruits.

The opening scene is set to a baleful tune called ‘Uchan’ as Caili Quan tentatively moves out of a shadowy corner, lingering over an Exit sign, before moving to a stairwell where the other dancers join in coming up the stairs in tentative fits and starts.

Then, “La Strada” by Italian duo Ilaria Graziano & Francesco Forni set the pace as Quan and Trusnovec bounce off the walls trying to ascend a ramp in a narrow hallway, avoiding mirroring each other’s moves. Trusnovec collapses, and Quan brushes him up with her foot. Only when they clasp hands are they able to move forward again.

“Anthems For a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” by Broken Social Scene is the backdrop to a solo danced by Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, expressing the caged-in feeling many of us have been experiencing. At various points, she is seen pulling her hair up to stay standing. Later Ryan and Telmo dance a ballet breezy pas de deux, scored to Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ performed by Hawaii’s ukulele virtuoso Harry Kalahiki, and off to the side of the stage, Quan and Trusnovec remain locked in a long embrace.

Trusnovec expresses his caged-up and frustrating emotions to the teasing lyrics of Syreeta’s snarky 70s hit “Your Kiss is Sweet” (as candy) as he slams his body down to the floor in a plank and then jackknifes up again.  Other tunes on the playlist includes music by Manuel de Falla and a rare recording of Elvis singing the Rogers & Hart classic ‘Blue Moon.’  It is Neenan, at his most warm and meditative. He is a solid enough choreographer to expose his own ponderousness to get to that moment.  

The dancers wind their way through to the Harold Prince theater within the Annenberg complex, appearing on the stage, in the seats, and along the balcony railings.  The work closes with Neenan lacing in more recognizable social dance moves that bloom to the samba beat of Peggy Lee’s ‘I Can Sing a Rainbow.’ This quartet is more than ready to dance a rainbow in Neenan’s charming, joyous romp and trip the light fantastic back onto the live stage.

16 minutes with Matt Neenan

Choreographer Matthew Neenan was, like most of us, in suspended animation, waiting out the dance industry shutdown and the larger issues of surviving a global pandemic. Instead of pivoting to online platforms to produce dance pieces for the virtual stage, he bowed out to regroup artistically and to focus on other aspects of his life.  

For the first time in his career, he was on an indefinite break from his art. This had not occurred since before his many years as a principal dancer with The Pennsylvania Ballet, his work as the co-founder of BalletX with Christine Cox, and his juggling of choreographic commissions with companies all over the United States. Even his premiere as a choreographer in residence with the PA Ballet has been put on hold until 2022.

Instead, this pause provided him, for the first time, a chance to focus on building a life at home with his soon-to-be husband, Dito van Reigersberg, aka actor, director, and cabaret diva Martha Graham Cracker.

“I definitely took a total creative mental break at the beginning of the pandemic,” Neenan said in a phone interview last week. Adding that, he had little interest to create work via Zoom or virtual platforms.”  

Neenan was skeptical of his ability to produce ballets and rehearse dancers virtually.  From a creative standpoint, he had little interest in even trying.

He did jump back in over the summer. “I did a short little dance piece for BalletX that was in the summer. And I returned to teach at the Juilliard School for a gig that I did for the seniors that will be for an upcoming film.”

But mostly, Matt said that he stopped his otherwise prolific dance life for a major change. “Dito and I just got used to this quite different lifestyle that, actually, we have never had because of our careers. We took walks, did a bit of traveling and I was home working on my garden and working on my relationship.”

For the last few months, Neenan was getting back up to speed. “And I was just in Ballet West, and we were back in a live theater for the first time.”

Neenan was completely in the creative zone, being back in the studios and once again engaged with the dancers. He felt that he was re-entering with fresh eyes for the dancers and him as well.

“I felt like I was starting from scratch. I had to just create something and know that it can be anything, and to have that indulgence again. Maybe it’s time to go back to basics…the sheer joy of just picking a piece of music and making a dance.”  

Neenan will premiere in June for BalletX’s performances at the MANN Center, and he continues to look forward to his rescheduled production for Pennsylvania Ballet. As for the couple’s wedding date?  Neenan said, they were still planning and “We’re really happy. We want to do it soon.”

***photos courtesy of Matthew Neenan

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