As a teenage student at School of American Ballet, choreographer Matthew Neenan used to sneak into New York City Ballet performances. "I came to see the ballet all the time as a kid," he says, sitting in a red velvet seat on the Fourth Ring of the David H. Koch Theater. He recalls sneaking past an usher "who was always sweet and would be like, '[Sit] here, Matthew,' and then he'd threaten me with, 'You've been here three times this week.' I would always be here for Sunday matinees."
That love of ballet would pay off, as Neenan performed with the Pennsylvania Ballet from 1994 to 2007, while also pursuing a burgeoning interest in choreography. He co-founded Philadelphia’s Ballet X in 2005, and was named the Choreographer in Residence at the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2007. In the past decade, he’s choreographed for many ballet companies in the U.S. and abroad, and he’s received numerous awards and grants.
He’s thrilled to be working on his first commission for NYCB, a ballet for sixteen dancers titled The Exchange, featuring costumes by English designer Gareth Pugh. It will premiere at the Fall Fashion Gala on SEPT 27, with encore performances on our 21st Century Choreographers program on SEPT 28, OCT 4, 6 eve.
For Neenan, The Exchange started with the music. He’s using selections by Antonin Dvorak, centered on the composer’s String Quartet No. 1 in A Major. "The more I kept listening to it, I felt like it was so right for [NYCB] because [the dancers] are so rich in quality of movement. They also know how to move fast."
In many of Neenan’s ballets, the choreography is often driven by the music. However, with The Exchange, he had to think about the steps in a different way due to his collaboration with Pugh. "It’s still an abstract work, even though you'll find little scenarios throughout, and I told Gareth I don’t just want one design, I want at least four to six different looks throughout." The looks, dramatic harnesses for the men and red "flag" dresses for the women, among others, express some of the ballet’s tension, which Neenan describes as chaotic.
The Exchange has a large cast of both new faces in the Company and seasoned veterans, including Neenan’s former SAB classmate, Principal Dancer Maria Kowroski. "There's a quality about her dancing now that I think is stronger than ever," he says. "There's a virtuosity about her movement quality. It's an ensemble work, but she’s really the matriarch of it. She really is the one controlling things."
Sitting in the "House of Balanchine," Neenan says, "I feel Balanchine's aura, and not just him — but also Jerry [Robbins] and Stanley Williams, who was my teacher. It makes me wanna cry. It’s phenomenal."