From a very young age, life has been a dance for choreographer Matthew Neenan.
Matthew Neenan is one of today’s most sought after choreographers. His special gift? The ability to make dancers look hypernatural.
Matthew Neenan: I always say to the dancers, “I want it to look like you made up the steps right there and right then.” I get bored with a lot of choreography where it looks too controlled and everything’s on a certain count. He’s got you and you fall off your foot like so what? Just go with it. It doesn’t have to be this like “I gotta do a perfect ponche and I don’t want to upset him,” you know? Yes! I use the word spontaneity a lot in my rehearsal process. Even if it’s a piece that they keep doing over and over and over again, it always has to look spontaneous I think, for the audience to believe it.
AJC: How do you work with somebody who wants to be that doll-like ballerina?
Neenan: I think maybe I tend to not cast them. You know, it’s when I go to certain companies and companies that I haven’t worked at yet and you have that like two to three day audition day, where you with all the dancers. You can see the ones right away who kind of hide in the back of the room or who just don’t want to, like, explore the movement. They just kind of want to be told what to do. And I usually tend to look at the dancer who’s like investigating it or who goes to the side and starts to find it in their body, how they can pursue it. And then I’m like “Oh, I want to work with that person because I’m gonna learn from them too. I’m gonna learn from their physical being as to where this piece should go.”
From childhood, Neenan was gifted with the unusual ability to comfortably dance both male and female parts. Perhaps as a result, his work today shows a studied disregard for ballet’s traditional gender roles.
Neenan: I always tell the women “Don’t be pretty. Be as strong as the man.” A lot of times the women are partnering the men. There’s a lot of female-female, male-male partnering in a lot of my work which might have been created on a guy, a woman has done it, and vice versa. I love doing that.
Neenan has been immersed in dance for most of his life. By age seven, he was enrolled in the Boston School of Ballet and in his free time began to explore choreography.
Neenan: I would make dances up with my neighborhood friends all the time. But we all kind of did it, so I thought that was just kind of what you did. But I think it was more junior high, high school era, I started to really think about “Oh, I think I’d like to do that when I’m older.” I was also obsessed with different companies. I would see, like, casting and who was given what role and why were they given that role and why other dancers were left out. Like that was kind of fascinating to me. Especially if I didn’t agree with it, you know? This was even when I was a young student at Boston Ballet School and I would always have criticism like “She shouldn’t have done that role, it should have been this woman.” My mom would have been like “Yeah, you’re right.” Like I already was invested with that kind of thinking. Like the other side of it I thought was always fascinating.
Neenan moved to New York with his sister to attend La Guardia High School, the fabled fame academy of TV and film. From there, the School of American Ballet, and then in 1994 to Pennsylvania Ballet, where he would soon be given his first commissions as a choreographer, often directing more senior dancers than himself. A challenge he rose to, eventually.
Neenan: I think when I was younger, especially because I was choreographing on my peers and choreographing on even people who were a lot older than me. So you kinda wanted to say it but you wouldn’t and you were like “Well, it would happen.” But then sometimes it would get on stage and you’d be like “Yeah, but it didn’t happen.” You held back. And now I don’t hold back.
AJC: Because you’re an old geezer now.
Neenan: Yeah, exactly.
In 2007, while still at the height of his powers, Matthew Neenan retired from performing.
Neenan: I loved dancing, but I didn’t love it all the time and performing could be hard for me. I had stage fright, I got nervous a lot, especially with roles I wasn’t comfortable with. I was strong but, you know, I’m super hyper flexible so certain lifts were really hard for me. Which I could do, but I would always stress out about “What if I don’t make it in the show? What if I drop her?” Those things that you think about while you’re putting your makeup on.
AJC: And you’re playing what through in your head? The failures are being played through in your head?
Neenan: Yeah. And that I don’t miss. It would just like deplete me, to the point where I was like “I don’t even think I can go out on stage right now because I’ve just wasted so much energy thinking about it.” As I got older, that got much better. I got much more confident. And I was probably the best dancer and performer I was when I retired. So I also wanted to go out on a bang.
AJC: Are you always going to have to have the ability to speak with your body?
Neenan: I’m grateful for what I can do now and as time goes on, I mean, even you see rehearsal footage of Jerome Robins in his 70s. And he still was moving around. He’d be in his sneakers, but he still was moving around, definitely showing the character and what the character was supposed to do. I’m like, well, if that can be me in my 70s, that would be great.