Social distancing, fear, and isolation have been the themes of several dance shows in the past year. And now that COVID-19 vaccines are available and pandemic restrictions are loosening, the Annenberg Center closes its virtual dance season this weekend with a Matthew Neenan world-premiere about the return to a new normal.
Neenan’s re-entering was danced Thursday night on stage at the Annenberg’s Harold Prince Theatre, without a live audience, and streamed live. (Ticket holders who have already purchased tickets can continue to view it on-demand through Saturday.) It’s an atypically quiet piece that ends the season on a hopeful note — and shows Neenan’s solos and small group sections to be poignant as ever, even when stripped down to smaller gestures danced in socks.
Neenan is familiar to dance audiences from Pennsylvania Ballet, where he was formerly both a dancer and choreographer in residence, and from BalletX, which he cofounded with Christine Cox. He has become a nationally recognized choreographer, but much of his work has been presented in Philadelphia.
This time, he hired four sublime dancers: Caili Quan, who danced with BalletX until last year; Telmo Moreira, who previously danced with American Ballet Theatre and the Orlando Ballet and is now based in Philadelphia; Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, a Philadelphia native who started at Pennsylvania Ballet II and now dances with Pacific Northwest Ballet; and Michael Trusnovec, who danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company for more than 20 years.
Set to a playlist of songs including “Your Kiss is Sweet” by Syreeta, “Blue Moon” by Take 9/M, and Peggy Lee’s “I Can Sing a Rainbow,” Neenan’s piece is a site-specific work. It starts in a small vestibule of the Annenberg Performing Arts Center building, then moves to one hallway and then to a larger one before proceeding to the stage. At one point, the dancers climb over the seats.
Each dancer is a character reacting to the reopening of the world in a different way. Quan and Trusnovec are learning to get physically close again. Ryan is a teenager who has had enough. Moreira is bursting out of his skin to dance and get back to life. Each has a signature move, most notably Ryan holding her hair over her head and Trusnovec jumping while shaking his body.
The work has plenty of Neenan’s delightfully quirky movements, but re-entering feels more relaxed. In a post-performance talk, he said he wanted to slowly warm his dancers back into moving — and himself back into creating. But his artistic decision also reflects what so many of us feel, this need to ease ourselves back into our previous lives.
The filming follows the dancers through the location. By the time they are on stage, more straight-on shots would have been helpful. As an audience watching from home, we seem to be sitting off to the side, not able to see all the details. Moreira’s solo is shot in dim light. He is wearing black socks, so his feet are often invisible.
By next season, we’ll likely be back in the theater with the dancers.
Tickets are no longer available. Annenberg’s music season concludes June 3-19 with three programs in The Crossing choir’s virtual Month of Moderns. Information at annenbergcenter.org/events.