New NGB Artistic Director and Dance Department Chair Philip Neal Brings Legacy of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine

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.

Jerome Robbins_rehearsal61[1]

Jerome Robbins in rehearsal for West Side Story.

George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell

George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell in rehearsal.

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.

Philip and Wendy Whelan

Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal in Albert Evan’s “In a Landscape.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

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 Neal_NYCB (Paul Kolnik)

Philip Neal in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Photo by Paul Kolnik for New York City Ballet.

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.

Philip Neal with student - photo by Mike Munhill

Philip Neal working with a student. Photo by Mike Munhill.

“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.

Philip, Neal, NGB students

Next Generation Ballet dancers with Peter Stark and Philip Neal.

FROM THE VAULT: Natalie Cole

Friday, March 20, 1992

Natalie Cole from the vault

Natalie Cole performed at the Straz Center on March 20, 1992, a stop on her “Unforgettable” tour.

In the early 90’s, the Tampa Tribune had a “Friday EXTRA!” section, an arts and entertainment tabloid, chock full of local and national entertainment news and events for the upcoming weekend.

The section for March 20, 1992, featured the headliner of weekend events at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Natalie Cole, who competed for space in “Friday EXTRA!” with the shocking psycho-sex thriller Basic Instinct, which opened that weekend, and news of MTV’s Spring Break airing live from Florida’s very own Daytona Beach.

Then 42, in her prime, and ramping into Festival Hall fresh from a series of Grammy® wins for her Billboard-sweeping album Unforgettable, Cole was enjoying a resurgence of fame for the wow-factor of “advanced recording technology” that enabled the singer to record a duet with her late father, the legendary Nat King Cole. The album resurrected not only one of American’s most beloved singers, Nat King Cole, but also Natalie’s career, which had plateaued after her recovery from drug addiction and a string of hits in the late 1980s.

According to EXTRA writer Philip Booth, who interviewed Cole for the feature, Unforgettable emerged at the request of Cole fans—both Nat King’s and Natalie’s. Instantly successful in 1991, the idea has sustained Natalie for more than two decades: even in 2015, “Unforgettable” still serves as the highlight of her evening concerts.

Tickets for the show at TBPAC on March 20, 1992 ranged from $25-$35, and she played Festival (now Morsani) Hall.

If you saw Natalie Cole during this performance, share your memories by posting to this blog.

Sustain: Practical Issues in the Performing Arts

The Straz happened in the 80s, not exactly an era marked by prioritizing green buildings. So, we have challenges as we improve sustainability. Fortunately, we have great local partners helping us figure out what to do next. Here’s who they are, and what’s ahead for The Straz’s eco-lution.

USF sustainability team with Lorrin

Meet our sustainability project team: USF Student Sustainability Specialists who participated in the 12-week internship, The Sustany Foundation Sustainable Business Program Director Janet Hall and the Straz Center’s Chief Operating Officer Lorrin Shepard and Facilities Director Tom Wright. (Pictured from left to right: Bianca Cassouto, Ericka McThenia, Carmen Garcia, Yara Watson, Adit Patel, Steffanie Agerkop, Barbra Anderson, Greg Whitener, Tom Wright, Janet Hall and Lorrin Shepard.)

Sustainable facilities isn’t the sexiest topic in the performing arts, we know that, but it happens to be a pretty darn important one.

In Tampa, where we are, we have two ace programs at the University of South Florida which train students to identify and find solutions to global environmental concerns: the USF Patel College of Global Sustainability and the USF School of Geosciences. Add to them a local initiative to give such students hands-on experience working with a business in the community—The Sustany Sustainable Business Program—and you have the partnership that created the latest sustainability analysis of The Straz.

We were honored to work with The Sustany Foundation and the 2015 USF Student Sustainability Specialists. The project, a 12-week internship, started with a look at what we’re doing already, a waste analysis, then a focus on our energy use and lighting.

green roof_2010

The Straz Center’s green roof, on the second level of Ferguson Hall, was the first green roof in downtown Tampa when it was added in 2010.

Despite our age, the Straz Center was the first building in downtown Tampa to have a green roof (second level of Ferguson Hall), and we also have recycle bins next to our trash cans outside the building. Situated on the banks of the Hillsborough River, we’re naturally stewards of the water and hope to make it very easy for patrons to dispose of trash in cans and easily put recyclables in a separate container.

“Every time we start a construction or building initiative,” says Straz Center Senior Vice President and COO Lorrin Shepard, “we endeavor to utilize sustainability standards when taking on major renovations and capital improvements. Participating in the Sustany Internship showed us that building a framework that blends the arts and sustainable business practices, although challenging, is achievable.”

As a cultural and economic leader for downtown Tampa, we are excited about new opportunities to improve sustainability, and the Sustany Internship gave us practical ways to be more energy efficient. Our kitchens in Maestro’s already reduce food waste, support the local community, source local dairy and produce and make sustainable seafood options available. But we will look to more ways to improve our efforts, and, when we begin to implement changes, we will look to our patrons to help us make greater strides for sustainability, and we’ll let you know more details as our current dreams become concrete practices.

USF sustainability team on Riverwalk

The Sustany Foundation Sustainable Business Program director Janet Hall with USF students on the Riverwalk. (Pictured from left to right, in back row: Barbra Anderson, Greg Whitener, Bianca Cassouto, Carmen Garcia, Yara Watson and Steffanie Agerkop. Pictured from left to right in front row: Adit Patel, Ericka McThenia and Janet Hall.)

“We always try to achieve the best we can,” says Shepard. “Our integration of sustainability as part of the Straz Center is something we want to promote internally and publicly. We want to generate a lot of support and enthusiasm for these changes. It’s important for us to do the best we can for the planet and respond well to the increasing demand for sustainability by our supporters, patrons and visitors.”

We’d like to thank Janet C. Hall of Hall Sustainability Consulting, LLC and board member of The Sustany Foundation for directing the internship and getting us involved with the students at USF. “This was an incredibly successful project,” she says. “The students generated ideas and solutions with solid returns and long-term positive impacts. They will definitely be able to use what they learned in the future.”

We’re happy this project brought together community partners in Tampa to work towards creating positive change, and we are looking forward to integrating sustainability as part of our Straz Center Master Plan.

FROM THE VAULT: Dizzy Gillespie with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra

Friday, April 6, 1990

Gillespie_from the vault

Dizzy Gillespie and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra performed in Festival Hall (now Morsani Hall) on Saturday, April 7, 1990.

Two of the great, Mufasa-esque lions of be-bop era jazz conspired together for a performance on the stage at Morsani Hall on Saturday, April 7, 1990, and, surprisingly, it didn’t blow up.

However, one can only speculate about what happened to the minds of the audience.

Vibes virtuoso Lionel Hampton, with his Orchestra, hosted trumpeter par excellence John Birks Gillespie, best known as “Dizzy,” in a jazz concert for the record books. At the time, Dizzy was 72 years old, a Kennedy Center Honors recipient that year, and, three short years after his Straz Center engagement, would die an American legend in Englewood, New Jersey.

When Dizzy blew, his neck and face puffed like a set of billows, his eyes bugged and his signature up-turned-trumpet bell gave him his distinctive, original look. The beret, sharp goatee and dark spectacles helped.

Dizzy, in the scope of jazz, held a special place as a musician and African-American man who pushed himself to the limits of his imagination and then some, becoming a cultural ambassador, a beloved American icon and a superior improvisational artist. Plus, he was so darn funny. Who else could have convinced President Jimmy Carter, in 1978, to record the lyrics for a rendition of Gillespie’s own famed tune, “Salt Peanuts”?

Dizzy, who credits Afro-Cuban Godfather Mario Bauza as his musical father, assumed the mantle of Bauza’s work and became one of pioneers of Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz in American music. By the end of his career, Dizzy had 14 honorary degrees and a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award. He’d performed with Cab Calloway, Teddy Hill Band, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and personally discovered Arturo Sandoval.

In 1964, Gillespie put himself forth as an independent write-in candidate for the presidential race, citing his Cabinet, which would include Miles Davis as Director of the CIA and Charles Mingus as the Secretary of Peace. Phyllis Diller, he noted, would run on his ticket as VP.

If only we had a time machine.

Gillespie appeared on more than 1,000 records, and, in this one-night-only appearance, in the flesh on our stage with his good friend and equal legend, Lionel Hampton. Hampton also sported an impressive collection of honorary doctorates and would later earn the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. Hampton died in New York City in 2002. He was 94 years old.

The show, billed as “Dizzy Gillespie with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra,” played at 8 p.m. with tickets at $19.50. Again: if only we had a time machine.

Building Instrumental


A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

 The Straz Center invited Los Angeles-based performance ensemble String Theory to turn the riverside corner of Morsani Hall into a working harp with 200-foot strings. This original, site-specific Fin Harp is on display with demonstrations through May 3.

Look closely at the design of the newly-installed wooden harp on the river side of Morsani’s lobby, and you may recognize the shape. Inspired by certain loveable and highly-intelligent marine mammals, Luke Rothschild, one of the founding members of the multi-genre performance group String Theory, designed this harp specifically as an outdoor art/music installation for the Straz Center.

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

“I knew we wanted to incorporate the Riverwalk and more community engaging work here at the center,” says Straz Center Director of Programming Chrissy Hall. “I’d met the agent for String Theory at a convention, so I asked about the possibility of an outdoor long term installment. The agent put me in direct contact with Luke, and we worked on coming up with a concept that would work out in the elements.”

“I’ve been spending a lot of time surfing, and the shape for the soundboard kind of emerged naturally,” says Luke.

His creation, the Fin Harp, takes its curvilinear shape from the dorsal fin of dolphins—perfect for this time of year in Tampa when dolphins and their calves feed in the Hillsborough River. The harp, comprised of cherry wood, red oak, maple, black walnut and shellacked like mad with boat varnish, can withstand the afternoon rains and soaring mid-day spring temperatures.


Stages of the Harp: Sketch, Mock Up, In-Progress, Finished


FIN HARP one_life size mock up


harp in progress_IMG_9418_2


finished fin.s

Installation began at 10:30 a.m. on March 31st as a team effort between String Theory members and The Straz facilities department. Using several ladders and a fair amount of derring-do, the teams secured the 14 brass strings to the Straz Center roof, running them the 200 feet to the instrument bolted to a platform on the grass below. They completed the installation about 4 p.m. that afternoon.


fin harp install w ladder

photo by jeremy scott photography

strings to Straz

photo by jeremy scott photography

Outside of the time, financial and logistical constraints of creating a unique, outdoor instrument, another challenge altogether was how to get the Fin Harp on the plane from Los Angeles to Tampa. “The harp needed to be able to come apart and fit into a very specific size keyboard case approved by TSA,” says Luke. “The base of the harp is in 10 pieces and is quite different from what I thought it would be, different from any other design I’ve done before for other harps. So, the soundboard fits into one 88 note keyboard case, the base breaks down and fits into another identical case. The brass wire, tuning blocks and tools go in a rolling case.” Voila! Ready for travel.

FIN case 1


The harp is played by stroking or plucking the strings with rosin-coated gloves which provide the “tooth” (grip) to create a compression wave—a vibration—which resonates in the soundboard.

During the reception, patrons tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

Patrons also tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

When our time is up to have this incredible instrument, the Fin Harp will return to Luke at the String Theory headquarters in California to be used in future performance installations. The Fin Harp is on display through Riverfest, May 3, and will return to California on May 4.

Many thanks to Luke Rothschild for the use of his personal photographs, except where noted, and his help with behind-the-scenes info for this blog.

To see a free demonstration of the harp and to hear this unique instrument, see the schedule below:

Fin Harp Demo Schedule

April 17- 7pm-9pm (before and during the intermission for Pippin)

April 18- 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 19 – 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 23 – 6:30pm-8pm (before Mythbusters)

April 24- 7pm-8:30pm (before TFO Pops concert)

April 25- 6:30pm-8pm (before Celtic Woman)

April 26- 3pm-4:30pm (before Tampa Bay Symphony)

May 1- 7pm-8:30pm (before Florida Orchestra)

May2- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest

May 3- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest


Why Arts Education Matters (We Couldn’t Have Said it Better Ourselves)

We started to write a blog about why arts education matters, but we found we could not have stated it any more plainly than Tony Award-winner Ms. Judith Light in her blog “Why Arts Education Matters,” which first appeared on the National Endowment for the Arts website.

Ms. Light echoes why we work so hard to make community outreach programs, our field trip series, scholarship opportunities, and create jobs for extraordinary local teaching artists. The Straz Center is always looking for members to help us bring performing arts education, outstanding programming and community outreach to all people.

Students in a Suzuki Violin class at the Straz Center's Patel Conservatory.

Students in a Suzuki Violin class at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory.

You have a standing open invitation to join us in inspiring audiences and artists to dream and discover, create and celebrate.

The following is excerpted from a Judith Light’s “Why Arts Education Matters” blog on the National Endowment for the Arts website.

Why Arts Education Matters

My mother taught me when I was three years old to memorize and recite “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Everybody laughs, but it’s absolutely the truth. My mother was my first teacher of the arts, and I performed “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” for my father, so he was my first audience. Even at that young age, I had a child’s intuition, which I would now say was a simple understanding of how art and culture affect us as human beings and how we can connect to each other through the arts. That understanding is something that defines my life to this day.

When I was growing up, my parents supported my interest in taking acting classes and doing community theater. My father drove me to the rehearsals every day after school, whenever I was doing community theatre productions, and I went to a performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania. I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and my parents even allowed me to go on the train to New York City when I was a young teen to study theater.

My parents’ faith in me at that young an age—and the kind of professional training I was getting from my theater teachers—gave me a sense of purpose, a sense of self-confidence, a sense of discipline. I learned what artistic achievement actually was, what hard work the business was. I didn’t have this rosy picture of what our business was. I was really learning what it would require for me to become a professional.

I was also learning about life. … I learned about having faith in myself and about developing humility. Most people know that this business is all about not getting everything you want when you want it. Since success comes with such incredible gifts, many people don’t realize that, for an actor, most of our lives are actually filled with recognizing that we can’t control things. So I’ve learned, and am still learning as this is an active process, to simply be grateful for what I’ve been given. Those are very, very precious life skills that were all part of my arts education.

I became an actor, but arts education isn’t just about preparing our young people for a career in the arts. I’m on the board of several organizations that work with young people in the New York City area through theater education, including MCC Theater and LeAp OnStage. I recently went to a LeAp OnStage class, and I talked to some of the kids participating. Some of them want to work in theater, and some of them don’t. The program teaches them theater skills, but they also learn about the world around them. They learn about discipline and hard work and what’s required and what they have to do to bring themselves to the work. They learn how they can be of service in the world through the arts. They learn how to elevate the people around them. They learn how to work with a team. By studying the arts, these students are exposed to worlds and lives that they might not have any other way of knowing about or any other way to connect with in their lives the way they are right now. Arts education expands their horizons.

These young people are our legacy. We are passing the torch to them. And I think that’s one of the most important reasons why we need to foster the arts. … I think when we get into the arts as young people, it tends to be pretty much about us and our egos. But as we really learn about the arts we discover that it is all about being of service and all about supporting others in seeing things they would not otherwise see—about themselves as well as other people.

FROM THE VAULT: Alice Cooper

March 2, 1990, St. Petersburg Times

This article, written by pop music critic Eric Snider, appeared in St. Petersburg Times as a feature of the “On The Town” section and profiled Cooper’s dual identity: as husband/father of two Vince Furnier, and as the gothic, be-serpented rock ’n’ roll character called Alice Cooper.

This article appeared in the St. Petersburg Times as a feature of the “On The Town” section and profiled Alice Cooper’s dual identity.

Proto-typical shock rocker Alice Cooper performed in “Festival Hall” (Morsani) on, ironically, a Sunday.

The March 4 show here marked a stop on Cooper’s 1990 comeback tour, the same year a young man the world would know as Marilyn Manson was taking classes at Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale. When the pop music world reeled over Manson’s taking-it-to-the-next-level brand of shock rocker-ism, Cooper famously pointed out Manson wasn’t the first person to ever take a woman’s name and rock out with make up on.

This article, written by pop music critic Eric Snider, appeared in St. Petersburg Times as a feature of the “On The Town” section and profiled Cooper’s dual identity: as husband/father of two Vince Furnier, and as the gothic, be-serpented rock ’n’ roll character called Alice Cooper. “I’m very separate from him [Alice],” Furnier says in the article, “Off-stage, I’m not him. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde situation.” Snider’s feature, an examination of the creation of Alice that also included Furnier’s bouts with excessive drinking and Alice’s almost-murder by “the disco plague” (says Furnier in the interview), includes Cooper’s backstory of building the cult following in Detroit, recording under the tutelage of Frank Zappa and the band’s desire to “drive a stake through the heart of the [60s] love generation.”

At the time of his show here, Alice Cooper was a mere 42 years old—just a baby in the grand scheme of things, but ancient by pop music standards. At the time of this blog, Marilyn Manson is 45 … perhaps ready for a comeback tour of his own? Carol Morsani Hall? Anyone?

Alice Cooper show time was 7:30 p.m., tickets cost $19.75.

Twenty-one years after his stop here for this show, in 2011, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inducted the original Alice Cooper band into its elite pantheon.