Matthew Neenan is decked out in the ballet finery of a 19th- century European prince, but something very contemporary and intercultural is going on. His stage is the concrete courtyard of a Philadelphia public school, and his court is a pick-up group of inner-city youth. While they teach Neenan to boogey “Philly style,” he teaches the kids to pepper their pops and locks with battements. Little do they know that waves and bumps have already found their way into Neenan’s choreography, or that he is a triple threat: rising choreographer, established dancer, and co-founder and artistic director of Phrenic New Ballet in 2000, and BALLET X, an offshoot of Phrenic, in 2004.
This month, Neenan has two pieces premiering, one at Pennsylvania Ballet (PAB), where he dances, and another at the Opera Company of Philadelphia. While it’s fun watching him in this site-specific setting—part of PAB’s educational outreach program—it’s sheer exhilaration to witness the way he weds a choreographic idea with a musical score to make magic on the stage. At 30, Neenan has choreographed five works for PAB since 1997, five for Phrenic, and more for other companies.
Neenan began training at age 8 with the Boston Ballet School in his native city, and later moved to New York to attend the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and the School of American Ballet. He joined PAB in 1994. Although still a corps member, he dances principal roles and is the company’s unofficial resident choreographer. In both capacities he brings an ironic wit to the stage. From the waist up he is boyishly taut and lifted, yet stretchy and surprisingly double-jointed in the limbs.
Choreographically, Neenan creates bilingual works for a multicultural world. His classical grammar is filled with contemporary vocabulary. Like the hip hop generation, he is sometimes “in your face,” raw, and edgy, but, like his artistic heroes (Balanchine, Taylor, Kylián, van Manen, and Morris), his work is based in ballet technique. What Neenan loves most about Balanchine is his corps work, evident in Neenan’s facility with groups.
Neenan says he was drawn to choreography from the beginning. “My sister was in the Boston Ballet under Bruce Marks while I was in the school. I loved watching rehearsals and was obsessed with casting and putting on a ballet,” he says. Neenan made his first professional dance in 1997 for PAB’s annual AIDS benefit.
PAB dancer and BALLET X co-artistic director Christine Cox has worked with Neenan for 10 years. “I trust his opinion and his eye,” she says. “He knows what he wants, and he’s not afraid to use every part of your body—even simple, childlike gestures.”
Neenan says his sources reach beyond the ballet world: “I had choreography in my mind when I’d be out dancing in clubs.” Another aspect of his work is the texture of relationships. Vicissitudes, The Crossed Line, and Wonder Why are witty, brash, yet penetrating encounters with the highs and lows of the ties that bind.
Neenan’s works for PAB, made on the ensemble by one of its own, fit the company like a glove. Roy Kaiser, artistic director of the company, says that sometimes he has to remind himself “that Matt’s a dancer first with PAB. As a choreographer he’s kept my attention because of his fertile imagination.”
Neenan’s PAB career runs a parallel course with his work in BALLET X, and commissions are coming in to choreograph for other companies as well. Whether he is making chamber dances with BALLET X—an experimental playground for his ideas—or commissioned pieces for the big field players, this young man is at the top of his game.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild is a senior advising editor of DM. Her latest book is The Black Dancing Body .