Choreographer Matthew Neenan
When Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink invited Philadelphia-based choreographer Matthew Neenan to set a piece here, he asked for something that would work well with string quartet. Having ample pieces of this kind, Neenan sent footage for Pink to review. On a whim, he also sent clips of a piece he had just premiered with the company he co-directs, BalletX. Pink took one look and decided this – The Last Glass – would be the one.
Far from the sonorities of a string quartet, the work is set to the music of Beirut, an indie rock band reinventing the sounds of Balkan and Eastern European music. The band played at Turner Hall in Milwaukee last November.
At a rehearsal Thursday, Neenan dissected the piece with pairs of dancers. Verbal cues and physical demonstrations got what he wants from the dancers. He worked like a sculptor — taking apart, polishing, and reassembling.
“It’s just life – it’s not so tragic,” he says, and the dancer relaxed into his character. Bellies conjoined a male and female spiral from their unified core. “Not too disco. Slow it down.” In an ensemble sequence, female dancers push their male partners’ arms away. “Ladies, you can be a little more violent with him.”
Traditional ballet technique blended with modern sensibilities. The dance abounds with intimate partnering, inventive lifts, intricate details and intense expression. Something important is happening. But what?
During the break, Neenan said that the music inspired him to create The Last Glass. The title refers to the Beirut song that drives the seventh episode of the dance. The music gave him the feeling of “a masquerade – a family circus type thing.”
To fully create this effect, he had to develop characters, which is new to Neenan. But he was eager to take it on in preparation for choreographing Proliferation of the Imagination, an original dance theater collaboration between BalletX and Wilma Theatre. That interpretation of surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les mamelles de Tiresias premiered last spring.
Neenan’s five men and five women play roles. A young man struggles to overcome crack addiction. His sister tries to help, but is visibly – physically – affected by him. A slutty girl has a fling with an abusive guy. Another couple battles abusively. The slutty girl straightens up and finds someone more pure. A grieving widow wrestles with the memory – or the ghost – of her late husband. And there’s the odd couple – a young, hip, fun-loving pair.
People have interpreted the piece differently, and that’s okay by him.
The original BalletX cast mixed modern dancers and ballet people. Neenan used this versatility to his advantage, developing movement qualities to fit each character. Just two of the women wear toe shoes. These differences help define the personalities.
Milwaukee Ballet dancers are comfortable with modern, but Neenan still had to coach them a bit.
“Sometimes you have to let go of your ballet technique,” he said. “Relax. Not muscle through it. Let the movement take you.”
When he was younger, Neenan loved classical ballet. Now, he says, “I like to work with less people [and] develop individuality…so that there’s intention behind [a work].” Overall, he says, “The piece is very grounded, earthy.” The ambient, soulful vocals of Beirut’s Zach Condon work well to root the movement. Rather than taking the vocals literally, Neenan’s dancers become instruments alongside Beirut’s resonant renditions of Eastern European folk music.
After the interview, I watched a full run-through. The piece works; the dancers prove to be convincing actors. They draw me into their masquerade. Here is a video sampler from The Last Glass, danced by BalletX.
Extremely Close, set to solo piano by Philip Glass and self-taught pianist Dustin O’Halloran, “explores the limitations of the stage by using movement to show that proximity doesn’t always mean closeness.”
Celts blends Irish folk dancing with contemporary and traditional Celtic music in a physically demanding showcase of strength and agility. Milwaukee Ballet last performed Celts in 2004. Lila York was a key member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company from 1973 – 1985.
Ticket and Performance Info: The Milwaukee Ballet Spring Series runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 29-April 1 at the Marcus Center, 929 N Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $28.50-$96 and are available online , at the MBC ticket line, (414) 902-2103, and at the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.