In June, Philip Neal officially joined the Patel Conservatory as the artistic director for Next Generation Ballet and chair of the dance department, the position formerly held by Peter Stark.
George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were to American dance what Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio were to baseball. Heavy-hitters, game-changers, larger-than-life personalities, Balanchine and Robbins hold some of the world records of great dance: Apollo, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, Jewels, Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, West Side Story … their list of works goes on and on.
Dancers who emerged from New York City Ballet, where Balanchine and Robbins heralded the dawn of American ballet as an international artistic achievement, included Tanaquil LeClercq, Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Arthur Mitchell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jacques D’Amboise and Edward Villella.
A few generations later appeared a young, focused 12-year-old at NYCB’s training school, School of American Ballet (SAB), named Philip Neal.
During a master class at School of Richmond Ballet, Edward Villella hand-picked Philip for SAB. Philip, who trained at Richmond Ballet until he was 16, cut his teeth in SAB summer classes with the legendary teacher Stanley Williams. Often, Philip found himself in class surrounded by NYCB principals including Baryshnikov.
“My first day at the school, I knew,” Philip said in a recent interview with Caught in the Act. “I wanted New York. I wanted New York City Ballet. I realize a lot of 12-year-olds don’t know what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but I did.”
Philip continued to train at SAB during the summer, attending another school during the year, with his eyes always on a spot with New York City Ballet. At 19, he joined the company, immediately thrown into principal roles because his height matched the rather tall ballerinas suited to Balanchine’s style.
His first rehearsal was with Jerome Robbins. “We were working on a piece of his called Ives, Songs. He put me in a demi-solo role, but I couldn’t do lifts. I was really skinny then. Jerry was hard on me in that rehearsal, so I went to Pumping Iron, a gym in El Barrio on the very Upper East side of New York and started working out. He was hard on me, but he pushed me to be better. I was 19, so in no time I was beefed up, lifting the girls, and like, ‘Jerry, look! I’ve been working out!’ and Jerry got a kick out of that.”
Philip arrived at SAB in the very last years of Balanchine’s life. Philip and his cohort group were the last generation of dancers to grace the halls while Balanchine still worked. When “Mr. B” emerged from a rehearsal room, Philip recalls, dancers silenced, the space filling up in reverential awe. “But, by the time I started with NYCB in 1987, he was gone. Even as a 12 year old, when I got to SAB, I could feel it in the walls, the creative power. The work he created was all around, living inside the place. I got to know Balanchine through the people, and we were the first ones to receive the choreography as it was being passed down.”
Philip performed for two decades with NYCB, touring the world and training constantly in Balanchine’s and Robbins’ styles. “Jerry called me in on almost all of his rehearsals, so I was able to study, to train in his work. He was direct, he was always like “no, it is this way” whereas Balanchine was more of a figure-it-out-for-yourself choreographer, more open to his work adapting to different dancers. Balanchine has a little wiggle room, but Jerry? No.”
The yin-and-yang dynamic between Robbins and Balanchine is well-known in the dance world and often cited in historical accounts of the wildly prolific and popular era of NYCB during the duo’s heyday as the company’s artistic powers. In fact, it’s legendary. So, it is no small honor for Philip Neal, who began his career with NYCB in a Robbins rehearsal, to have performed in the choreographer’s beloved Dances at a Gathering at Robbins’ funeral. “The last thing Jerry worked on was a piece for [NYCB principle ballerina] Kyra Nichols and me, before he died. I know how lucky I am. I know how blessed my career in dance has been, how charmed. Of course there were struggles, and challenges and all that stuff you hear about, but I was so in love with ballet that I had blinders on for any drama that was going on around me. I lived for the dance. I felt more comfortable performing than doing anything else.”
When Philip left NYCB, both the Robbins and Balanchine Trusts engaged him as trust holder of the great choreographers’ works, what is known as a repetiteur, or, someone who has been approved by the choreographers’ trusts to set their works on other companies. Philip joined the direct lineage of these master dancemakers, and, now, he brings this legacy to the dancers studying at the Patel Conservatory. While it remains to be seen whether or not either trust will approve NGB in the lengthy process to get Robbins and Balanchine work staged, the gift of their technique and inspiration has found its way into the exceptional Patel Conservatory dance program.
“I think it’s important for people to know I’m not turning this into SAB,” Philip said. “I’m kind of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it guy, and so much is in place here already. So much is really good. Bringing the Balanchine and Jerome Robbins influence into the program here will help us be better at what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re a preparatory school. When dancers leave here, they should feel comfortable picking the company they want to go into because they’ve been technically prepared. Peter did an extraordinary job building this program, so my transition has been simple. The Popular Dance program is also fantastic. I want to bring more of the dance world here, giving the students as much information as possible. This is a very exciting time as we evolve.”
Truly. We welcome the legacy of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine to Tampa, to the Straz Center, and we are honored to have the living history of these legendary choreographers shape our dance students at the Patel Conservatory.