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St. Paul’s ballet program showcases range, alumnus’s choreography

  • Philip Neal works with the dancers Amanda Morrison and Andy Dienes at St. Paul’s School in Concord.

    Philip Neal works with the dancers Amanda Morrison and Andy Dienes at St. Paul’s School in Concord.

  • New Hampshire High School Film Festival

    New Hampshire High School Film Festival

  • Philip Neal works with the dancers Amanda Morrison and Andy Dienes at St. Paul’s School in Concord.
  • New Hampshire High School Film Festival

After 23 years as principal dancer with New York City Ballet, this week Philip Neal is back on his old stomping grounds. Neal, who won the silver medal at the Prix de Lausanne ballet competition and was a Presidential Scholar of the Arts while a student at St. Paul’s School in the 1980s, is in town for the world premiere of his own choreographic composition, “A Classic Conundrum.”

The inaugural performance, danced by eight St. Paul’s students tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Memorial Hall on the St. Paul’s campus, is free and open to the public. In addition to Neal’s dance, the program also includes Paul Taylor’s “Junction,” Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Piazzolla Suite” and excerpts from Sharon Eyal’s “Bill.”

Designed by St. Paul’s dance director, Jennifer Howard, the program is intended to show both chronological and stylistic range. She said that Taylor’s piece, a combination of modern movement and classical music, was considered groundbreaking when it premiered in 1961. In contrast, Eyal and her partner, Gai Behar, are the dance world’s current “hot” choreographers, devotees of Gaga, a movement language developed during the past decade in Israel. Bruning, a visiting choreographer in 1990 when Howard was a sophomore in St. Paul’s dance program, falls somewhere in between.

Linking them all is Howard. Introduced to ballet at age 5, she enrolled in St. Paul’s partly because of the reputation of its dance program. After graduation in 1992, she attended The Juilliard School, then danced with several major companies, including Twyla Tharp Dance and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project.

“Even though New York is large, the dance world in New York is small,” she said. “I’ve been lucky to be able to tap into my professional and personal life to bring people here to share their experience.”

For Howard, that sharing includes not only with St. Paul’s students but also with the community at large.

As artistic director of the St. Paul’s School Ballet Company, Howard is passionate about passing her skills on to a new generation, but equally enthusiastic about raising public awareness of the beauty and excitement of both traditional and contemporary dance.

“There are a lot of dance schools and dancers in the area,” she said. “I hope they’ll be interested in coming to this.”

One area dancer, Andrew Dienes, a Concord resident and St. Paul’s freshman, will be dancing in two of the pieces. Dienes studied with the Capital City Dance Center in Concord and Creative Steps in Tilton before enrolling at St. Paul’s. While he says he loves dancing, his future career will more likely call on his math and computer programming talents. Meanwhile, he says that working with Philip Neal has been “really interesting.”

Dienes describes the storyline behind “A Classic Conundrum” as a “pretty standard high school experience,” and Neal admits he used the commission to create a piece that reflected on his own teenage years at St. Paul’s.

“It’s an exploration of what teenagers go through,” he said. “Do they want to stand out or fit into a group? How much do we hold onto of ourselves and how much do we embrace the other?”

As he spoke, his hands and fingers took on the roles of dancers, advancing and retreating from solitude into and out of various relationships.

The real dancers, some in pointe shoes and some in Converse sneakers, were giggling, Neal said, when he first showed them the steps a few weeks ago. As they worked together trying to master everything from classical ballet steps to hip-hop, Neal incorporated student suggestions to use fist bumps and other ways that kids acknowledge each other on campus today.

“Dance has to be play. You have to be willing to try things and take risks,” Neal told them.

As a result, he said, the students went from “ ‘I could never do that,’ to finding out they could surprise themselves, from being nervous to becoming comfortable.”

When Neal retired from the City Ballet in 2010, Roslyn Sulcas of the New York Times said “he has a quiet showmanship, a stylish accomplishment in movement that nonetheless brought the limelight to him, shining on his beautifully honed technique, his impeccable placement and gifts as a partner to countless grateful ballerinas.”

Despite the praise, Neal remains modest about his skills. In his current work as choreographer, teacher and repetiteur (an interpreter and stager, primarily of the works of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins), he has the opportunity to identify new dancers from all over the world and to recommend them for scholarships.

“Talent’s only about a third of it,” he said. “Another third is persistence and intelligence, being prepared and ready to say yes and go in at a moment’s notice. The last third is luck, being at the right place at the right time, having the right person like you.”

As for having the right person like you, both Neal and Howard are more interested at this point in their careers in having the public like dance.

As an example of what he means, Neal recalled a performance when he wasn’t on stage but instead took a seat in the orchestra pit at Lincoln Center. After one dance when the audience was applauding, he heard a man in the front row ask his wife, “Was that any good?” Neal couldn’t help himself from interrupting to inquire, “Did you like it?” When the man answered “Yes,” Neal responded, “Well, then, it was good.”

As for Howard, she looks forward to local audiences expanding their definition of good to include not only the Nutcracker but also more adventuresome programming. To that end, she intends to make this weekend’s performance, with continued support from her professional dance firmament, an annual event.

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