Repeat to Refine – The Key to Keeping a Ballet Alive is in Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Performances and Artists

Recently, Spotlight received its first French lesson since high school. The lesson? Vocabulary. As in the word repetiteur. We asked Philip Neal, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust (in town to work with Nevada Ballet Theatre a couple of months before their Balanchine production) how to pronounce it, and he did so flawlessly—ʁœʁ (it sounds a lot better than it looks). He then went on to explain exactly what it means. “It’s my responsibility that a dance be preserved. In a sense, you can’t really preserve dance because it’s a live art and it changes from show to show—but I have a distinct impression of what it should look like, sound like, how it should be cast, and how all of those elements come into play,” he said, before addding that it’s basically “A fancy French word for repeat.”

But to say Neal has merely repeated some of Balanchine’s most famous dances is a bit off the mark. Neal spent 17 of his 23 years at New York City Ballet as a principal dancer, performing many of Balanchine’s finest works, including Allegro Brillante, Diamonds from Jewels, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and—most importantly for this conversation—Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which he danced the lead throughout his entire tenure at New York City Ballet.

“I was just a 19-year old kid in the corps de ballet joking around and the director asked ‘can you tap dance?’” Neil shared, explaining how he first got the role. “I said ‘oh yeah, sure.’” The next thing I know I did the lead three days later and I did the lead for the next 23 years.”

When he retired as a dancer with New York City Ballet, the George Balanchine Trust took stock of his experience and talent and hired him as repetiteur for several of Balanchine’s works—including Slaughter.

“I taught them – referring to Nevada Ballet Theatre – the entire ballet in four days because they were so efficient and so good,” Neal said. “And that’s great because the rest of the time I’m here I’m giving them all the pearls of wisdom I can think of.”

The advice included the notion that ballet dancers need to approach the tap and jazz elements of the piece. You see,Slaughter on 10th Avenue was originally the finale to a Broadway musical. Balanchine choreographed the number—a show within a show of a “hoofer” who’s in love with a jazz dancer, who’s the girlfriend of a Russian mobster, who puts a hit out on the hoofer—to be the capstone of the Broadway musical On Your Toes. And while the musical didn’t have too long of a life, Slaughter has. Balanchine rescued the number after the Broadway show closed and expanded it into its own piece. But because of its Broadway roots, it calls for some slightly different skill sets.

“I call it ‘jallet, because it’s a mixture of jazz and ballet,” Neal joked. However, he’s adamant that classically trained ballet dancers are needed for the piece—“Because that’s what Balanchine was working with”—but equally adamant that they have to be guided out of some of their classically trained habits for the piece—the dancers need to be turned in a little more, their movements can’t be lifted up as much as in classical ballet, and their limbs need to be a little looser to make the tapping actually work. Neal said that whenever he would dance this piece, especially after appearing in a classical ballet, “I would just run around my dressing room and shake my limbs and try and get them to relax because it’s a different energy, a different aesthetic altogether. Those are the things I tell the dancers all the time, in addition to what the steps are.”

Neal doesn’t want to scare off anyone who loves their classical, Romantic ballet—and he includes himself in that group. “I was very much the classical refined dancer who stood up very straight and it was just my own personality amped,” said Neal. “Slaughter is going to be a shock to some people because they won’t see it coming, which will be great, because the thing that proceeds it, the Serenade, is the most famous Balanchine ballet of all, very much what you imagine a Romantic ballet to be. When you follow that with Slaughter, it will be a real shock, but it will show the range of the company as well.”

And with that, he concluded my lesson—and headed off to give one to Nevada Ballet Theatre dancers, letting them repeat, and repeat, and repeat the steps of Slaughter, so that Balanchine’s work could once again come alive flawlessly.

A Balanchine Celebration: From Tchaikovsky to Rodgers & Hart to Gershwin was a part of the 2015-2016 season.