Pulse: The Arts: One Step at a Time

That’s how Matt Neenan took things with his new Rufus Wainwright-inspired ballet

“Five … six … seven … eight … ”

As Matt Neenan counts off, a young, lithe ballet dancer lunges perilously close to the edge of the stage. He hangs there for an anguished moment, as though about to plunge over, to break free. In the next count, he turns and leaps into the outstretched arms of his seven compatriots; gently, they place him back on the floor, where he rolls into a somersault and looks up at Neenan.

“That works,” Neenan nods. He sighs quietly to himself. “Now what?”

It’s an afternoon in early November, three months before the February debut of Neenan’s latest work for the Pennsylvania Ballet, a 20-dancer send-up to indie folk musician Rufus Wainwright. And for a moment, the dancer/­choreographer is stuck for inspiration. Light and taut, so stock-straight that he seems to arch backwards, Neenan stands where his soloist landed, hearing Wainwright’s languishing ballad “Oh What a World” in his head. Then he shakes free and tells his dancers to “take five.”

Unlike some choreographers, Neenan didn’t walk into the rehearsal room with all his steps written out on a musical score. Instead, he came only with notions — a certain soloist and certain shapes — that had popped into his head the first time he heard “Oh What A World” last summer and knew, instantly, that it would make a good ballet. The details he figures out with his dancers, in the Ballet’s Broad Street rehearsal space, one plié at a time. It’s a slow process: In the last hour, Neenan has choreographed just 45 seconds of his 25-minute ballet, like carefully crafted sentences in a story he’s writing through dance. And when he’s done, the piece will be like a memoir, reflecting this period in Neenan’s life. Right now, though, the choreographer’s still not even sure what he’s trying to say. “Every piece I do is intensely personal,” Neenan says. “It comes from inside. That’s true of everything someone creates, isn’t it?”

Neenan, who joined the Ballet as a dancer in 1994, choreographed his first piece a year later, for Shut Up & Dance, the company’s annual MANNA fund-raiser. Soon after, artistic director Roy Kaiser tapped him to create a dance for the regular season. Nervous and awkward in those days, Neenan directed much more experienced dancers through Vicissitudes, a 20-person ensemble piece set to the orchestral music of Samuel Barber — a hit the company reprised in 2000. “The ballerinas can be really intimidating at first,” Neenan says. “And then when you get to know them, some can be even more so. They had to tell me to relax.”

By last year’s The Crossed Line — his fourth piece for the company — Neenan had developed the stylistic tics that identify his work: lots of circles; certain flip lifts; a dancer running a hand through his hair and down the side of his body; steps that contradict the pace of the music. He was also turning 30, with only a few years of dancing ahead of him. The piece, which ends with his dancers grasping a rod dropped from the ceiling, was a monument to that anxiety. “Probably only the people closest to me picked up on it,” Neenan says. “It was a really emotional time.”

This year, Neenan is much more at peace — with his age, his career, and his future as a choreographer. And he’s certain his latest work, made up of six Wainwright songs, will be less brooding than The Crossed Line. The piece still has no title at this rehearsal in November. Neenan can’t name it until he knows what it’s about. And that won’t happen until he sees it performed as a whole — probably just a couple weeks before its February 2nd debut. “You have to see it onstage to really get it,” he says. “Maybe even for me.”