Sustaining a choreographic voice with Matthew Neenan

3 minute read
Dancing since his teens in the 1990s, Matthew Neenan talks choreography, the pandemic, and more. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)
Dancing since his teens in the 1990s, Matthew Neenan talks choreography, the pandemic, and more. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)

Choreographer Matthew Neenan seems to be all over town this season. The Pennsylvania Ballet presented a solo from his “Penumbra” in March, and on Thursday, May 27, a new piece will stream live for the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Then in June, BalletX will premiere yet another new piece at the Mann Music Center.

That’s no surprise. Neenan’s choreographic journey began here in the 1990s. The dancers at the Pennsylvania Ballet had started Shut Up and Dance, the annual event to raise money for the AIDS charity MANNA. “My older sister [Corinne Neenan] was in the company at the time," he said. “[She] said, ‘if you come, you will have to do a piece. You’ve got to give it a go.’” He joined the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1994, and in 1998, at the age of 22, he received his first official commission.

In your thirties, you can do everything

In 2005 Neenan and Christine Cox cofounded BalletX almost by accident. They were looking for a way to keep working during summer layoffs at the Pennsylvania Ballet, and they wanted to be part of the Fringe Festival. They talked to Nick Stuccio, cofounder of the festival and a fellow dancer at the Pennsylvania Ballet. “He said, you guys should definitely apply, but you kind of have to apply as a company. So the ball sort of got rolling before we even really knew what we were doing.”

Neenan recalls it as a crazy time. “I don’t know how I did it all. I was in my early thirties, so I still had all this energy, like, ‘I am going to do it all! I can do everything!’” By 2007, though, he was ready to give up dancing and was looking for his second act. That’s when Roy Kaiser, then artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet, offered him the residency, which came with an annual fee and a guarantee of a new or revived piece each year. It meant a continued tie with the company and a chance to experiment with his craft, but suddenly he was balancing his choreography for BalletX and the residency with a growing call for his work from companies around the country. Neenan stepped away from BalletX in its eighth year. The residency continued, until this year after a 13-year run.

Choreographing through the pandemic

Neenan said that as the pandemic progressed, he had his doubts. “Creating through zoom is arduous," he said. "To create something new, it is almost impossible to me.” His process is collaborative; he often starts with the music: “I love working with composers when there’s that total back and forth. You don’t know where it’s headed, but something is going to happen.” He’s done several pieces with composer Rosie Langabeer, including his acclaimed Sunset 0639 Hours for BalletX.

Likewise, he talks about the choreographic process as learning the material together with the dancers. “We’re not solving this all today, we’re just working on something. We’re building it together.” He needed to be in the room, to watch them move. But he’s back now, all over town—the place where, he says, he established his voice as a choreographer.

What, Where, When, and Accessibility

On Thursday, May 27, at 7:30pm, Annenberg Center will host a new, live event by Matthew Neenan. Tickets are available to stream the online event, which will have a Q&A session after the performance. The stream will be available on demand through May 29.

Image Description: A portrait of Matthew Neenan. Straight-faced, his arms are crossed and he's wearing a purple V-necked shirt.

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