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Coast to Coast

Bodytraffic returned to Penn Live Arts at Annenberg during last weekend’s snowstorm to perform the world premiere of Philadelphia-based choreographer Matthew Neenan’s latest work, “I Forgot the Start.” Many people braved icy patches to see it. Patrons were reticketed from the canceled Friday evening show to the Saturday shows, making for full houses in subfreezing weather. Some scooted out as the curtain went down on Neenan’s work, positioned as the penultimate offering leading me to think they’d seen what they came for.

Performance

Bodytraffic: mixed repertory

Place

Penn Live Arts at Annenberg, Philadelphia, January 2024 

Words

Merilyn Jackson

Bodytraffic in Baye & Asa's "The One To Stay With."Photograph by Mark Garvin

I’ve been writing about Neenan since the early oughts. The former Philadelphia Ballet (then Pennsylvania Ballet) star went on to become the company’s resident choreographer for many years, and, as a co-founder of BalletX, he has an ardent following among Philadelphia audiences. A look back at his body of work over the last two decades establishes him as one of America’s leading choreographers.

“I Forgot The Start” and “The One to Stay With,” choreographed by Amadi Washington and Sam Pratt, were the program’s strongest works. The show opened with the Philadelphia premiere of the latter, a bracing and challenging dance that Bodytraffic commissioned and premiered at New York’s Joyce Theater in 2022. The choreographers’ company goes by their grade-school nicknames, Baye & Asa and creates movement arts, project-based dance theater in contemporary, hip hop and African dance idioms. They say their aggressive physicality is a “symptom of our political rage.” They put it to good use in this mood-swinging dance “in response to Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain, that chronicles the Sackler family’s rise to power and their central role in the opioid crisis.”

Sound design by Jack Grabow began with the 1906 Russian waltz, “On the Hills of Manchuria” and ended with Georgy Sviridov’s “The Snowstorm.” Russian and Eastern European musics from a century ago seem an odd choice, but their militaristic heaviness counterpointed and underpinned the intent of the work, suggesting the collateral damage of the military/industrial complex at its worst. Though hip hop is Baye & Asa’s foundational dance language, their choreography moved through every imaginable dance idiom, reflecting the layers of class, age, and gender the opioid pandemic affected. 

Three of the dancers stare at an underlit white bowl, a receptacle for a constant drip of liquid. In Oana Botez’ dreary street attire, Katie Garcia, Pedro Garcia, Ty Morrison, Joan Rodriguez, Guzmán Rosado, Jordyn Santiago and Whitney Schmanski begin joyfully, dancing up a storm, leaping with knees pointed to the flys and flipping each other up in lifts. A dynamo in white, Tiaré Keeno, moves among them, and sometimes seems to control them. Is she a doctor? A corporate executive? Eventually I came to think she’s the only one not affected by whatever is dripping into the receptacle. Did it imply drugs or money, or both?

One by one the dancers peel away crunching over into different versions of pain or awareness of their condition. You see agitated tours and sudden slumps to the floor. Michael Jarett’s lighting design ends the dance with a lightning flash into the vessel. The message of this dance was as loud as a thunderclap.

Bodytraffic in Matthew Neenan’s, “I Forgot the Start.” Photograph by Mark Garvin

Neenan’s should have ended the program. I didn’t want anything blurring my memory of his deeply personal new work. His life partner, actor Dito Van Reigersberg, recently came through a life-threatening illness and Neenan created this barefoot ballet as they endured the uncertainties of recovery, reinterpreting it as if it were the passing of the seasons. His hallmark choreographic style teeters between moods of spirituality, whimsey, hope, and of course love, but never to despair or bathos.

Neenan’s elegance and clarity, his appealing musical choices, and the outstanding teammates he partners with, all help realize his intentions. Christopher Ash’s gorgeous set, lighting, and video design became part of the choreography. His nature-inspired videos backdropped the dancers—the shadowed flowers of spring, starlings swarming before an autumn storm, the icy blue light of winter. The vibrant saffron colored pillars and back shades as they descended at various heights suggested the solemnity and serenity of Buddhist rituals. Márion Talán de la Rosa and Victoria Bek created diaphanous costumes that deftly evoked the unruliness and disposability of hospital gowns and the ephemerality of life. 

The dance opened to Sinéad O’Connor’s “In this Heart,” which I learned post show was Van Reigersberg’s and Neenan’s wedding song. To O’Connor’s plaintive voice the company lined up behind each other as in a procession, arms darting up like pistons, knees bending softly. Ty Morrison and Pedro Garcia face the backdrop upstage arms over each other’s backs, while downstage Tiaré Keeno flips her hands down as if pushing something away and Jordyn Santiago flips hers up as if to ask why.

Bodytraffic in Matthew Neenan’s, “I Forgot the Start.” Photograph by Christopher Ash

Santiago, Katie Garcia and Pedro Garcia on demi-point in first arabesque seem about to fly away as Keeno turns bent over at the waist. Coming from Neenan’s ballet training and his keen eye for quotidian human movement, each dance phrase evoked multiple meanings—confusion, disbelief, resignation, devotion, serenity, heartbreak. Yet many of those moments intimate resilience and resolve. Unity of purpose repeats and dissolves in such tableaux as when the group lines up airplaning arms extended with one dancer falling out of line.

Midway, Morrison and Pedro Garcia return to the stage bare chested, standing hand on hip, one leg in turnout to the side holding this pose as if watching as the other dancers go on with their lives. Once the columns fly up and winter’s blues arrive Guzmán Rosado and Joan Rodriguez, also shirtless, dance their final duet. One lifts the other as he bends a knee to the floor spinning him like a helicopter blade slowing for a soft landing.

This is the second work of Neenan’s I’ve seen on Bodytraffic. They performed his “A Million Voices,” a paean to Peggy Lee’s songs at Scottsdale Center for the Arts In 2019. With this program, the now 15-year-old Los Angeles-based dance company affirm it’s artistic director Tina Finkelman Berkett’s and associate artistic director Guzmán Rosado’s fondness for acquisitioning and commissioning choreography that celebrates American themes and pop music culture.

Bodytraffic in Matthew Neenan’s, “I Forgot the Start.” Photograph by Christopher Ash

Trey McIntyre originally made “Blue Until June” to songs by Etta James for the Washington Ballet in 2000. They danced it at Annenberg in 2002. And I saw it again on Philadelphia Ballet (then Pennsylvania Ballet) in 2004 when Christine Cox opened it with sizzling drama and Tara Keating all but melted the ending. It was fun to see them, along with McIntyre, in the audience giving support to Bodytraffic’s performance. Katie Garcia opened this iteration, dazzling all the way through. Even so, the delightful flowery frocks (Sandra Woodall) and frolicking 60’s Bandstand-style dancing, though excellent, still don’t quite jibe in my mind with Etta James’s story and her soul wrenching voice.

Alejandro Cerrudo’s 2011 “PacoPepePluto” finale comprises three solos for three different men. In near nudity, their thongy dance belts packaged what was necessary to avoid the Full Monty. But Matthew Miller’s chiaroscuro lighting highlighted all the right anatomy. I remembered it from Hubbard Street Dance’s last appearance at Annenberg in 2017. To Dean Martin hits, the three joined up in the middle section dashing between the wings like naughty little pucks. An athletically danced and very funny piece.  

Programming is a difficult art. Of course a company on tour wants to show its versatility. But the gravitas of Baye & Asa’s “The One to Stay With” and Neenan’s deeply affecting work felt trivialized by this choice. It so distracted me from my thoughts on “I Forgot the Start,” I wasn’t happy with the ending.

Merilyn Jackson


Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.

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