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New York City Ballet

Philip Neal Farewell: ‘Serenade’, ‘Who Cares?’, ‘Chaconne’

June 2010
New York, David H. Koch Theater

by Eric Taub



© Paul Kolnik

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Philip Neal retired Sunday after twenty-six years of service with the New York City Ballet. His final moments onstage as a dancer were in a glorious performance of Chaconne. In his solos, with their many low leaps and batterie, Neal danced beautifully, as well as I'd ever seen (unlike this season's other retirees, he's going out on a high note) but it was the onstage bond, sadly parting, between him and Wendy Whelan that'll stay fixed in my mind's eye. The opening “Elysian Fields” section was almost unbearably tender, with Neal the unstinting foundation for Whelan's slow flights through the empyrean sunset. Always a dancer keenly attuned to the space about her, Whelan seemed to hold onto the air a bit longer than usual as he lifted her through the slow-motion floating breast stroke that's the section's haunting final image, as if she were more reluctant to let go of Neal, than Neal was to leave his career.

After the "Field's" mournful flutes came the glowing Baroque court of the chaconne proper. As with Yvonne Borree's emotional farewell the week before, I felt almost a voyeur watching, rapt, through my binoculars at the emotions writ so clearly on Whelan's and Neal's faces. As they traded solos to Gluck's heavenly finale, Whelan's focus stayed fixed on Neal. We could watch, but she was dancing for him alone - an intensely intimate moment before an audience of thousands. It was a fitting way for her to say farewell to the last her long-time partners, after the retirements of Jock Soto and Nikolaj Hubbe. She's always been divine in Chaconne's stately adagios, but this time she was, almost literally, dancing her heart out, and it showed.

The program began with an appropriate and memorable Serenade, with Neal entering to applause as the man who perhaps loves and leaves Jenifer Ringer's Waltz Girl. His last exit was even more poignant as Ringer resisted for a long, extra instant releasing his hand and letting him slip through her fingers as he paced offstage, surmounted by Sara Mearns as the Dark Angel who blinds him with one hand while guiding him offstage with the other, and out of Serenade. It was only three years ago that Neal himself similarly said goodbye to Kyra Nichol's Waltz Girl at her own unforgettable last performance.

 


Philip Neal and Jenifer Ringer in Serenade
© Paul Kolnik


Of the four City Ballet principals retiring this season, I'll miss Neal the most. He's the only one who didn't hang on well past the time he should've retired, but he's al a sort of odd duck at City Ballet. His grace and elegance won him little favor, it seemed, with Peter Martins, who clearly favored a more muscular, aggressive style, epitomized then by Sebastien Marcovici, who wrestled his roles into submission as much as he actually danced them. In the late Nineties, I'd returned to watching ballet after a long absence, and one of my first looks at Neal was as he danced Apollo for Suzanne Farrell's company during a brief New York season. He was a fine Apollo, I thought, but it was a role he never would dance at City Ballet; perhaps he wasn’t butch enough for Martins.

Neal always presented himself well. Slender and gifted with long, tapered legs, Neal showed us the beauty of his line more than the power of his technique. His dancing was an oasis of calm, understatement and delicacy in a company who's style was becoming ever more punchy and athletic. During his many appearances with the famously wiry and angular Whelan, Neal was, well, prettier: he had the better legs, and his soft and understated style complemented her brash sharpness. It was an odd inversion of the usual distribution of graces between a ballerina and her partner, but, as with that Chaconne, as brilliantly successful as it was unconventional.

 


Philip Neal and Wendy Whelan in Chaconne
© Paul Kolnik
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The one thing Neal could not do with his partners was look even remotely interested in them romantically or sexually. He was always the cavalier, never the lover. Since most of Balanchine's ballets call for a cavalier and not a lover, this wasn't as much of a detriment to Neal's repertory at City Ballet as it may have been elsewhere, but it probably kept some plum roles, like Apollo, out of his grasp, and it did lead to one unforgettable bit of miscasting: as the tap dancer in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue he danced with happy brio, but looked as if he had not the slightest idea of what one might do when presented with a supine, steaming platter of Sofiane Sylve other than help her politely to her feet.

That Neal sometimes had to work his way through rough patches onstage only made me appreciate him more, especially when he worked his way through them. I'll never forget his deer-in-the-headlights look at a long-ago Mozartiana in which Darci Kistler (just entering her Late Eccentric Period) let him know, in ways subtle and embarrassingly public, that he had not, perhaps, learned quite the same ballet as she had. You had to feel for a guy being schooled in front of a full house by the boss's wife. You never knew if he was going to spin like a top or a dreidel, and sometimes his double tours would be exciting for all the wrong reasons. I remember, about five years ago, he danced a variation in some divertissment of Martins' that called for a diagonal with three double tours. He finished each perfectly, and his ever broader smile made me think he was as happily surprised by this occurence as me. Since vanquishing that bug in his turning, Neal had a dependable, if not bravura technique, more than sufficient for his refined style.

The evening opened with Serenade, which was followed by a rousing performance of Who Cares?, another ballet long associated with Neal, here led by Tiler Peck, Ana Sophia Scheller, Sterling Hyltin and a happy-go-lucky Robert Fairchild. Neal was to have danced this for his swan song, but a program change (replacing the soon-to-be-forgotten My Name is Ben), let Neal go out with Chaconne.

At his extended, final bows, beneath flying ribbons of confetti, Neal received bouquets from each of the company's current ballerinas, as well as the still-missed Kyra Nichols. Standing alone before the cheering audience, smiling and repeatedly mouthing "thank you" to his admirers. Near the end, he cheerfully mimed flicking beads of sweat from his forehead, as one might at the end of long and arduous labor of love.


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