Family Portrait: Matthew Neenan

Just like the song in “A Chorus Line,” Matthew Neenan used to watch his sisters dance and exclaimed, “I can do that!” And boy, can he.

Neenan progressed from dancing in the living room to becoming a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. More recently, Neenan has focused his attention on choreography and, in October 2007, was named choreographer-in-residence. Always looking to stay ahead of the curve, he co-founded BalletX in 2005 with fellow dancer Christine Cox. It’s now the resident dance company at the prestigious Wilma Theater. Neenan was also recently named Best Dance Talent by the editors of Philadelphia Magazine’s annual “Best of Philly.”

BalletX wraps up its second season at the Wilma with Summer Series 2009, July 22-26. The innovative program features a world premiere by Jodie Gates in her first BalletX commission, danced to Ravel’s “Bolero,” and two classic BalletX favorites: “Scenes View 2” by Jorma Elo and “Broke Apart” by Neenan. The latter is set to a compilation of songs by female artists: Joanna Newsom, Cynthia Hopkins, Martha Wainwright and female duet She-Haw. The Boston native took a minute from rehearsal to talk about his journey.

PGN: You started off young in the business. How old were you? MN: I started dance training at the Boston Ballet School with noted teachers Nan C. Keating and Jacqueline Cronsberg when I was very young. When I was 14, I moved to New York to go to the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and the American School of Ballet, and I stayed in New York for about six or seven years. At the time, my older sister was dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet (I’m the youngest of five and three of us were dancers). Anyway, I would come visit her here in Philly. I really liked what Pennsylvania Ballet was doing and developed a strong affinity for the company, so I decided to move here. They were smaller, so there was more opportunity. I still kept my place in New York. It was rent-controlled, so I would have been crazy to give it up. In fact, I still have it! I’ve been here about 13 years now. PGN: Were your parents in the arts? MN: No, my father worked for the New England Telephone Company. He was born in South Boston and went to work straight from high school. My mother was pretty much a homemaker once she started having children and we were Irish Catholic, so they started as soon as they got married. She was about 21. But my mom is also a painter: She repairs statues and that kind of thing, so I guess we got some of our artistic bent from her.

PGN: How did you get into the arts? MN: It’s the pretty classic tale — my two older sisters were into ballet. At the Boston Ballet, they were always looking for boys to participate, so I danced in the production of “Nutcracker” when I was 4 years old, before I’d even taken a lesson.

PGN: Do you have those first pair of ballet slippers? MN: I think my mom does. They were these tiny little shoes.

PGN: Were you captivated right away? MN: Yes, but during my early teens I got away from it for a little and then decided that I wanted to take it seriously, and that’s when I moved to New York. My older sister was there and she supported me while I was in school. My sister was a Broadway dancer so I got to experience a bit of that world.

PGN: Did you ever want to do Broadway? MN: I had thoughts of it, but I preferred ballet. I did study other types of dance — modern dance, the Graham technique, the Limon technique.

PGN: What was it like moving to New York at 14? MN: We were in midtown Manhattan and, back then, 49th and Ninth wasn’t such a great area. But I loved living there, I really looked up to my sister and her boyfriend at the time really took care of me. They were some of the best years of my life. Even at that age, I was really focused on what I wanted to do. [Laughs.] Sometimes I look back and think I was more mature in high school than I’ve been ever since.

PGN: What did you first like about New York? MN: Well, I’d been there quite a bit. Starting at 12, I would take a plane by myself to visit my sister and I also started taking classes there, at American Ballet, so I had a taste of the city before I moved there. But I loved the diversity of being in New York. I came from an area that was not only all white, it was all Catholic. In New York, it was so diverse that in some of my classes I was the only white boy, and I loved that. I loved the opportunity to meet and mix with a variety of people.

PGN: Any hobbies other than dancing? MN: I’m getting into a lot of holistic healing, like acupuncture and herbal medicines. I also like to travel quite a bit.

PGN: A favorite place you’ve been? MN: I just got back from Ireland and it was so much more than expected. That’s my heritage, so it was special that way, but the country itself was so beautiful. I’ve never seen green like that before. I’ve seen mountains and cliffs and water before, but there, the mountains are covered with grass of the most vibrant green you’ve ever seen. It was amazing.

PGN: So how did you get started doing choreography? MN: I feel lucky, because I always knew that I wanted to do choreography. Even when I first started dancing, I knew that eventually I wanted to be on the other side of it all. Dancing is very absorbing, so you need to be prepared for what comes after you can’t dance anymore. For a lot of dancers who don’t have that, they have to go back to school and find something else to do, which can be very hard.

PGN: And BalletX? MN: It started with a group of us from Pennsylvania Ballet who were looking to do something during our down time. So we started a company called Phrenic New Ballet. It was great, but there were five directors — a few too many cooks in the kitchen. So one of the other dancers, Christine Cox, and I decided to split off and create our own company, partially because we knew there was a void in Philadelphia for contemporary ballet. People had a preconceived notion about ballet: You said the word “ballet” and they would think tutus. We wanted to expand that and give people who’d grown tired of traditional ballet something new.

PGN: What does the X in the name stand for? MN: [Laughs.] Oh, exploring, experimental, exciting. Christine is from Generation X, so it fits in a lot of ways. Since we’re a small company, we can push the boundaries more than we could with Pennsylvania Ballet. We try to showcase new choreographers in the city. Sometimes we’ll bring in someone more established, choreographers with a name, but ones that Philly hasn’t seen yet, or sometimes we’ll use emerging choreographers from here that haven’t been discovered yet and who need an extra push.

PGN: Do you still dance? MN: No: My official retirement from Pennsylvania Ballet was 2007, but I’d been dancing sporadically with BalletX. Then over the past winter, I was in Italy and I started stressing about an upcoming tour. “Oh no, I have to get back in shape, I have to get back on stage and perform again.” And I realized that on top of creating the pieces off the top of my head and doing the administrative work, I just didn’t want the stress of performing as well. Also, I knew if I wanted to concentrate on getting the company to the next level, I’d have to let something go. And I was ready: I was over that everyday struggle of having to keep your body in shape to have the stamina needed to do a show.

PGN: Are weight issues a problem with dancers? MN: More so with the younger dancers. With our dancers, we don’t want them to be too skinny. Fit, yes, but not skinny. There is a proper aesthetic look you have to have. We are athletes and your body needs to show that by looking strong, not skeletal. I think we older dancers know how to eat well and keep the body lean and fit. If you know that you are going to have to get in a skimpy costume, you don’t wait until the last week and starve yourself. You start to change your diet a month out and start cutting down on the alcohol and junk. Though, when we were young, like most dancers I’d smoke cigarettes to curb my appetite, but I grew out of that. I just realized one day that smoke is not really good food for your organs. If you want to last, you need to respect your body. But at that age, we all thought we were invincible.

PGN: What’s your process for choreographing? MN: Usually it starts with the music. You find a piece that you like and listen to it a few times and then you start creating steps in your head. It’s like it’s calling it out to you. I think there are things around you that get absorbed in the psyche without realizing it that might influence your piece; seeing random things that later come back to you. But it all starts with the music.

PGN: Do you watch “Dancing with the Stars”? MN: No, but I think those type of shows, like that and “So You Think You Can Dance,” are helpful. Kids don’t see dance as something so threatening and taboo. With all these mainstream athletes and guys doing dance, they don’t make fun of it as much as they used to. And they see how much work it is!

PGN: When did you come out? MN: It was after I moved here, in my 20s. I think I always knew, but I fought it. I was raised IrishCatholic, so it was not something I wanted to deal with. I was still trying to have a girlfriend.

PGN: Interesting, even with all the gay folks in ballet? MN: In a way, it did a reverse. A lot of my friends from high school didn’t come out until their 20s either. We weren’t out to each other at all. As gay teenagers, we were all denying it and trying to be “regular guys.” When I did come out, I didn’t hide it from my family — I wouldn’t have that — but it’s still a touchy subject with some of them.

PGN: What kind of things did you like to do as a kid? MN: [Sighs wistfully.] Mostly dance. I loved to dance. My sisters would play the piano and I would just dance around the living room. For hours. Though, I wasn’t the kind of kid to put on a show for Mom and Dad. I was actually quite shy. My parents would ask me to dance for their friends and I would put the stop sign up. [Laughs.] I just wouldn’t do it.

PGN: Favorite toy? MN: Telephones. And anything that I could use my fingers on. This is a little odd, but when I was a kid, my mother had all these bottles of medication that she used to keep on the kitchen counter: a bottle of Advil, a bottle of NyQuil, a bottle of prescription pills, vitamins, etc. At night when the whole family was watching TV and the lights were low, I’d go into the kitchen. I think the counter came up to my chest and I would take the bottles and make them dance. I’d line them up in groups and put certain ones in front, match them up by size and choreograph a whole show using pill bottles. There was just one light inset above the kitchen counter so it was the perfect mood lighting! I always liked things where I could go into my own little world. I had to in order to survive.

PGN: Any early signs you were gay? MN: Oh yeah, dressing up in my sister’s clothes.

PGN: Did you get caught? MN: Well, my mother found one of my sister’s dresses in one of my drawers. I did that “how did that get there?” thing. She didn’t say anything, but she wasn’t too happy. I think my sisters knew. But I would go to my best friend’s house and dress up there. Her mother was much more casual about it: She would dress us up and let us play games. It was nice because I could go there and be myself. I never had any desire to go outside and play sports.

PGN: Any traits you inherited from your mother or father? MN: No — I love them, but no. I was always a little different. Plus, since I left home so young, I didn’t spend a lot of time with them. My mother said she cried for a year, because she knew I wasn’t ever coming back.

PGN: A disastrous stage moment? MN: Well, I’m double-jointed and I have a chronic shoulder injury. It pops out of its socket at various times. It’s happened on stage and I have to take a moment to pop it back in.

PGN: Best time on stage? MN: I think it was my final night on stage with Pennsylvania Ballet. We were doing Paul Taylor’s “Company B” and I had a long, arduous, hard solo that I really got into shape for because I knew it would be my last moment with them. I really embraced it and it reminded me of why I got into dancing in the first place. I put aside all the hard parts and just enjoyed the last moment. It was really apropos because the piece is about World War II and I played a soldier who gets killed. He gets shot and dies, but at the finale he comes back, raises his arm and snaps. At that point all the lights go out and it’s the end. It was a wonderful way to end my last time on stage with Pennsylvania Ballet.

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