Matthew Neenan, Pennsylvania Ballet’s terrific resident choreographer. Plus, a note on Performa 07.

I promised to write something about Matthew Neenan– showcased in Pennsylvania Ballet’s one week, two-program visit to City Center last month. So before I forget any more, this:
It probably tells you less about Neenan than about the current state of ballet choreography that his “Carmina Burana”– to the gorgeous and dense Carl Orff cantata about fickle Fortune– could cause me such pleasure and relief without actually making a deep impression.
It was the work’s playfulness, in all its parts, that seemed so rare. The steps, the choreographic design, the translucent boat-tent-wedding canopy by set designer Mimi Lien, Oana Botez-Ban’s parade of compellingly strange costumes, from monkish wraps with skin-thin folds that worked like wings (see photo below) to lacy asymmetrical tattoos etched into the dancers’ unitards to variations on Moulin Rouge dancing-girl bustles: all fun! without being crude or corny or just plain dumb.
Tone and sentiment have sunk many a contemporary ballet. When a friend who, you know, has a life walks out of the theater never wanting to come back, she hasn’t even gotten to how the piece works as ballet, she’s stuck on its cluelessness: “This guy really needs to get out more! This dance exists in a cultural vacuum! Etc., etc., etc.” Neenan wouldn’t have elicited that response.
And he is an avid choreographer. “Carmina Burana” featured all manner of groupings–large groups upstage with smaller ones downstage, trios with a big mob, everyone together. It was wonderful to be spared the endless duets that have become ballet’s stock in trade. Plus, the steps were interesting. I looked forward to each new section (and there were many!) even though I didn’t really know what was going on. (The dance did seem to be following the lyrics to Orff’s songs, which I would have been better off reading ahead of time. When a dance is to song, could we please have the lyrics printed in the program?)
Finally, Neenan knows a good dancer when he sees one. Most of the Pennsylvania dancers are not top notch, but Baltimore School of the Arts and School of American Ballet graduate Jermel Johnson (above), who entered the Pennsylvania corps after a two-year(!) apprenticeship, was incredible, dancing the role that Neenan made for him with articulate, full-bodied beauty. The company should promote the man, or count on losing him.
Photos of “Carmina Burana” by Paul Kolnik: Jonathan Stiles and Laura Bowman (top); Jermel Johnson (bottom).

For more on Pennsylvania Ballet’s ’07 season at New York City Center, here’s my post on their rendition of Balanchine’s “Serenade.

Note: Once you have thoroughly forgotten Performa ’07, I’ll have time to post something on it. Am interested in the notion of Conceptual Dance–what it is, how it works, or does it? My prompt is not the much-publicized Yvonne Rainer piece, which sucked so completely it’s not really worth discussing, but the more worthwhile pieces of Jerome Bel and Xavier Le Roy.
Also, I will add my voice (and arguments) to people’s complaints that the dance component of Performa was too scant and too scattershot. They might have added, too dull and too sedentary. The contributions all harked back to the ’60s, as if nothing had happened since–or before. (Hello? Heard of Cunningham?)
It grieves me that the art world can’t approach dance without excising the dance part. It grieves me more that despite its evident condescension, the art world’s imprimatur means so much to contemporary dance experimentalists. If art people have to leave out the dance from dance to give it their attention, I say, forget them (and their ooooooooooodles of money)!

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  1. Lori Ortiz says

    Dear Apollinaire,
    Love your last words on Performa. One thing I love about the dance world is its grace. It is an example for us all. It extends from the dancers to us folks in the audience. After that, it’s hard to turn back. You might want to know what performance I just came from–it was Dance Conversations @ The Flea.
    As a critic I always want to follow suit. And when that fails is when I most relate to your blog title.
    Hopefully you will see my Performa reviews in the next Performance Art Journal. In the upcoming Journal, I wrote about “Metropolis” and its similar issues.
    Dear Lori, I look forward to your reviews. Where does one find Performance Art Journal? At St. Mark’s Books? (I’ve read it, but now I can’t remember where or how.) What is “Metropolis”? Pardon my cluelessness. ~Apollinaire

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