Rufus Wainwright comes to the ballet Matthew Neenan premieres "11:11," set to the maverick's moody music.

Posted: February 02, 2005

Take two young-30s cultural mavericks: one an unlikely rock star, openly gay, who swirls together classical, folk and show-tune styles to create intoxicating songs, and the other a ballet virtuoso whose choreography is rooted in the classical idiom, but who expands boundaries in a different way with each piece. Mix well, and you have a promising recipe for the new ballet 11:11, which receives its world premiere tonight at the Merriam Theater.

Matthew Neenan, a member of Pennsylvania Ballet since '94, first heard the smart, moody songs of Rufus Wainwright while riding in a car with friends last August.

"I was itching to use his music. I want people to hear it," Neenan says. So his sixth commission for Pennsylvania Ballet is set to six Wainwright songs that reflect the singer-songwriter's bumpy path through the terrain of modern life's dangerous delights. The son of musicians Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright leans to opulent guitar- or piano-based orchestration.

In rehearsal, Neenan's slightly elfin face lights up as he coaches his cast of 20 fellow company dancers. His reddish cropped hair covered by a blue bandanna, Neenan is personable but direct. In smaller groupings - duets, trios and quartets - the dancers zip through a section, tweak a few spots, then move on to the next.

Riolama Lorenzo and Francis Veyette work out exact facings (where in the room they need to be looking), extending the time in Lorenzo's extremely tipped arabesque, and clarify Veyette's tricky poses, which shift from knee to knee. In their duo to "Greek Song," Wainwright sings "you turn me on, you turn me on" as though stepping off a whirling merry-go-round. It's lush, circling music that Neenan pairs with his own arcs and swoops.

To "Poses," Arantxa Ochoa, James Ihde and Zachary Hench run on separate, curving collision courses, meeting midstage to lift Ochoa high. She sails on an upward arc before they all spiral out into other paths. They take turns making the same shape or jump in quick succession (in "canon"), while Wainwright sings:

All these poses such beautiful poses

Makes any boy feel like picking up roses.

A later men's duo has so much running and lifting that the dancers are heaving for breath. (After his duet with James Ady, Philip Colucci makes a joke about keeping oxygen near the stage.) But it'll be doable, everyone assures the choreographer.

With the women off pointe for softness and higher jumps, 11:11 is full of spinal suppleness, deeply folded joints, floor work, and novel lifts. Neenan avoids being too literal with lyrics, instead seeing the dance as parallel to the music.

The catchy "Oh What a World," with its Brecht/Weill oom-pah-pah, is the first Wainwright song Neenan knew he wanted to use. He crafted the ballet to build up to it. Afterward, "the last movement ends on a quiet note. It's a full circle."

Neenan's new work shares the program with Peter Martins' 10-part 1988 The Waltz Project and Twyla Tharp's 1982 Nine Sinatra Songs. Each dance is centered on a different musical style, but what unites them is how they unfold through multiple musical selections. In The Waltz Project, Martins employs various contemporary waltzes. With its ballroom-derived movement, Tharp's suave piece contrasts deliciously with Neenan's, reflecting two distinctly different generations' taste. Tharp's sinuous, formally clad dancers recall the cool elegance of nightclubs; costumed in flowing translucent earth tones by principal dancer Martha Chamberlain, Neenan's dancers move within what he mysteriously describes as a kind of "ghost world" that's all about connections.

It's clear to all that 11:11 is in good shape, and that working with this effective taskmaster is not only demanding but fun. Neenan has known the principals Ochoa and Hench since they were teenage students together at the School of American Ballet in New York.

"He's awesome," Hench says. "He's a friend, a choreographer, a great dancer, the whole package. I'm very proud of him."

Dance

Pennsylvania Ballet

Opens 8 tonight and runs through Sunday at Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Information: 215-336-2000 or www.paballet.org.

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