Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Matthew Neenan | Choreographer and Dancer for the Pennsylvania Ballet

Interview :: Matthew Neenan
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 Mar 2007

Co-founder of Phrenic New Ballet and Ballet X, his choreography has been featured at the Pennsylvania Ballet, Phrenic New Ballet, Philadelphia Opera Company, The Russian Ballet Theatre and the Juilliard School.

The Pennsylvania Ballet is performing the highly-acclaimed and exhilarating production of "Carmina Burana" from March 8-17, 2007 at the Academy of Music. This WORLD PREMIERE of a new Carmina Burana, choreographed by Pennsylvania Ballet's star choreographer Matthew Neenan, is being heralded as the most sensual and breathtaking ballet to ever grace a stage.

Matthew Neenan can be reached at: 215-888-6558 or [email protected]

Photo credit: Gabriel Bienczycki

PCG: It's been said that many children start taking ballet lessons after seeing their first performance of "The Nutcracker." In the hit show, "A Chorus Line," there's a production number called, "At the Ballet" which details some of the origins and reasons why kids took up dance. What were the early inspirations and motivating factors that inspired you to study ballet and at what point did you know you were going to make ballet your life's work?

MN: My two older sisters danced and I would watch them in their ballet classes. I instantly fell in love with it and could not wait to start myself. I began my dance training at the Boston Ballet School with noted teachers Nan C. Keating and Jacqueline Cronsberg. During my middle school years, I quit dance for awhile and really missed it. I knew I could not stay away from dance. By time I was 14 years old, I decided that's what I wanted to do for a living. I moved to New York City to attend the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and the School of American Ballet.

PCG: How and why did you make the leap into choreography?

MN: During my high school years, I always knew that I wanted to have a stab at choreography. One thing that drew me to the Pennsylvania Ballet was their "Shut Up & Dance" Benefit. It's where the dancers did their own choreography. Before I knew it, I was a choreographer as well as a dancer with the company.

"...I wanted to push myself and go beyond so that the production could have a whole new "look"."

PCG: The Pennsylvania Ballet's production of "Carmina Burana" has always been a very powerful and sensual program; it's my favorite show from their repertoire. This year's production sounds like you're really going to be pushing the artistic envelope. As the show's choreographer, what elements of the existing production did you want to keep and which components did you want to revamp so as to make this year's presentation as stirring as it promises to be?

MN: I wanted to keep true to some of the libretto/poetry. The show's original choreographer, John Butler, did this as well. Yet, I wanted to push myself and go beyond so that the production could have a whole new "look". I carefully studied the libretto and let it inspire me literally in many ways. After reviewing other choreographers' versions of the show, and when meeting with my designers (Mimi Lien-set and Oana Botez-Ban-costumes), we knew we really wanted to capture the humanity of the work. "Desire" and "skin" were two words that came up a lot. We also wanted to let this have a more universal expression. The whole production will have a not-of-this-world demeanor. We also stayed away from the usual medieval presence.

PCG: How did you transform these ambitious changes from a collective concept on the printed page to the stage at the legendary and landmark venue that is the Academy of Music?

MN: This year's new version features a cast of 32 dancers, working in pairs and small groups, as well as in large ensemble sections. For example, the choreography is completely different from any other version, and while I kept some production touches that people are accustomed to seeing – such as robes and red costumes – they will not even be remotely the same as before. We've created minimalist costumes that highlight the muscular silhouette of the dancers. The sets, which were constructed by Quinlan Scenic Studios in Philadelphia, are constructed of orbs, unique shapes and pliable and translucent fabric.

PCG: I respect and appreciate that you clearly do what you love, and love what you do. Yet, dance and choreography are physically and mentally exhausting. How do you chill and refuel from the stresses of your job?

MN: People would be surprised to know that I'm a true loner. I have lots of friends everywhere who I really enjoy spending time with. I've never lived by myself because I get scared at night. However, it's imperative that I have quite a bit of alone time. My favorite time is when I lock myself in my room or better yet, if I have the house to myself, I can blast my music and think about what else... choreography.

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