Philip Neal stages Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free”
by Steven J. Smith
Philip Neal has danced himself into a unique and very interesting job. Following a 23-year tenure with the New York City Ballet, 17 years as a principal dancer, Neal reinvented himself as a répétiteur for the Jerome Robbins Rights Trust. Now he stages the late choreographer’s ballets all around the world — including Sarasota where, under his direction, Robbins’ “Fancy Free” will close the Sarasota Ballet’s current season as part of an evening entitled “De Valois, Balanchine & Robbins.”
“This will be the fourth time I’ve staged ‘Fancy Free,’” Neal said. “It’s nice, because I’m treated as a special guest who comes in for a couple of weeks to distill the absolute best of the ballet to the dancers.”
A répétiteur, Neal explained, is authorized to teach and rehearse choreography in the absence of the original choreographer. The répétiteur teaches or rehearses a work at a dance company on behalf or in place of the choreographer if the choreographer is not available or is no longer alive. He or she is considered an expert on the work of that choreographer and many 20th century choreographers, such as Jerome Robbins or George Balanchine for example, have established trusts and appointed conservators such as Neal to serve as répétiteurs of their works.
“I teach the steps as I remember them and I assist in casting,” he said. “Sometimes I get involved in production by advising the creative team what the ballet should look like in terms of sets and costumes. That way it represents the vision of what Mr. Robbins would have wanted it to look like.”
Neal, 49, currently directs Next Generation Ballet at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, a pre-professional training division where students come from all over the U.S. to work with him before taking on ballet roles there. On a recent visit to Sarasota Ballet, he discussed the possibility of staging a ballet for director Iain Webb and his wife and assistant director, Margaret Barbieri.
“I hold Iain and Maggie in the highest regard,” Neal said. “I really admire Sarasota Ballet and how it’s grown. During my visit, we discussed my staging a work from the Jerome Robbins library that would suit their company well. I worked with Mr. Robbins in the last years of his life and I have a deep understanding of his aesthetic. He was a wonderful blend of analytics and yet was comfortable in giving dancers breathing room to bring their own personality to his choreography. As I’m a répétiteur of his works, we all simultaneously came up with the idea of doing ‘Fancy Free.’”
Neal added that although it is his job as répétiteur to see that Robbins’ choreography is accurately represented, it is also important that the dancers are free to express themselves.
“I’m very dedicated to helping the dancers find a way to make the role their own within the confines of Mr. Robbins’ instructions,” he said. “And that’s sort of a delicate balance.”
“Fancy Free,” first performed by the American Ballet Theatre in 1944, features music by Leonard Bernstein and was a precursor to Robbins’ seminal work, the hit Broadway musical “On The Town.” The ballet follows the story of sailors on leave in New York City on a summer night, where they spawn romantic mischief competing over the attentions of a girl. The musical was made into a movie in 1949, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra and is considered a landmark in cinematic history. The Sarasota Orchestra will accompany the Sarasota Ballet’s version of “Fancy Free.”
“What makes Robbins’ ballet different from others at that time is the dancers are playing characters relating to one another on stage rather than projecting out to the audience,” Neal said. “At the time he choreographed ‘Fancy Free,’ Robbins was very active with the Actors Studio in New York, surrounding himself with ‘Method’ actors. This made his approach to dance more natural and realistic.”
Neal likened his work as a répétiteur to that of one who restores paintings in a museum.
“Paintings need to be touched up from time to time,” he said. “With ballet, it’s a living, breathing thing. To maintain the integrity of the piece is why trusts like the Jerome Robbins Trust were established and why répétiteur were assigned to maintain the integrity of a piece after his death.”
“De Valois, Balanchine & Robbins” will perform April 28-30 at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave. in Sarasota. Ticket prices range from $30-$110. For show times or to order tickets, call 941-359-0099 or visit sarasotaballet.org.