World Premiere of Philip Neal’s ‘Phoenix Rising’ at Richmond Ballet

Philip Neal builds on the success of last year’s Gargoyles with a new work set to premiere Tuesday night. Spoiler: his interviews are as meaningful as his choreography.

Philip Neal, Richmond Ballet’s most celebrated alumnus, returns this season to choreograph his second world premiere for his alma mater. Now retired from the New York City Ballet, Neal has found his calling as a choreographer, following his wildly successful Gargoyles (2012). His new work, Phoenix Rising, premieres Tuesday, October 1st, alongside Val Caniparoli’s Bow Out,1 which was originally commissioned by Richmond Ballet in 1995.

Phoenix Rising represents recent turning points for Neal, who discussed his cathartic process, paying attention to your passions, and choreographing with one specific company in mind.

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You choreographed Gargoyles here last year, which I had the pleasure to see. If I remember correctly, it was enormously well-received. Why come back to Richmond for your next work?

I asked Val [Caniparoli] for advice about this, and he said “If you’re going to take a risk, take it with Richmond Ballet. They’ll turn themselves inside out for you, and they’ll be there when you need them…If you have an idea and you want to explore it, do it now.”

And that’s what I’ve done, both with Gargoyles and with Phoenix Rising. And it’s paid off. But it’s also been a little scary! Gargoyles came easy in a lot of ways—it was a smaller cast and the music2 was simple, so in my mind, it seemed easier. Phoenix Rising is set to a symphony3 with different instruments to follow on different routes. There’s something asymmetrical about this piece that makes it challenging. I did a lot of things in reverse order this time around.

Tell me a little bit about Phoenix Rising and how you came up with the concept, which you’ve described as a revelation of how “the struggles and challenges an individual may encounter in life’s interactions actually serve to strengthen one’s resolve on a path towards happiness and fulfillment.” Did you begin the process with that theme in mind or did it naturally evolve?

It’s something that I had been feeling, but, as is always the case for me, I pick my music first. There’s a lot of ways you can go with this piece. The first time I listened to it, it almost seemed like it had a tragic ending. But then the more I listened to it, the more it felt like a struggle that goes through a down period and ends on an arc, like a universal story. I’ve been thinking about the kind of things that I’ve been through (and that we all go through)—how you bump around opportunities before you start to consider what of the things you’re doing brings you the most happiness.

And sometimes you just go through a really rough time before, months or years later, you realize that you really needed that experience in order to get to where you needed to go. I was doing so many things and learning so much, and I was really blessed. But I learned that I’m happiest doing one thing very well.

Last year, choreographing for Richmond Ballet was such a big turning point in my life, and I felt, “This is what I really want to do.” I had such a positive experience here, and I spent a year really exploring how I felt about it, and seeing if that is the path for me. I had to listen to my heart, and, just like I did when I was 12 years old, I knew what I wanted to do. I don’t want to turn my back on that passion. So I really went through a sea change, and it wasn’t easy, especially after 24 years of being told everyday where to go and what to do and where to rehearse.

You seem particularly thrilled with Holly Hynes’s costuming. Her costumes for Gargoyles, with that “wet handprints on concrete” aspect were so memorable, and now she returns with Phoenix Rising. Had you always had her in mind? How much direction do you give her?

I’m so lucky. I told Holly how much I loved [Dan Flavin]4 and she knew immediately who I was talking about and how I could mirror the architecture of his angular and parallel lines within the choreography. Then…she asked what I wanted to do with the color.

The costumes are saturated, like neon bright saturated, and I think it leads into my idea of wanting to portray a community of dancers–each one has their own character and own color but they mesh together on an icy, cold background. It could have gone the other way, with neutral costumes against a saturated background, but I’m glad we did it how we did it.

In this ballet, I create a lot of human sculpture. At the end of Gargoyles, the dancers were in silhouette. I loved how that ended up looking, and thought “Ooh, I want to start my next piece this way.” Only this time, instead of looking like creatures they look a little more human.

And Holly enjoys working at Richmond Ballet for the same reasons I do, because everyone is just so cooperative here. That might not make for exciting journalism, but it’s true! The way [Artistic Director] Stoner Winslett leads trickles down, and it allows me to do what I can do in as short of a time as I need to do it.5

You mentioned you had dancer Fernando Sabino in mind for the lead in Phoenix Rising. How did that affect how you created the character?

It’s been very creative and cathartic for me, being able to create this ballet with specific people in mind. His character is the center focus of the ballet. He goes on a journey. Fernando’s really good at getting the emotional part of the character out without being overt. If someone picks up a storyline of the ballet that’s fine, but they don’t have to. I’m trying to get contemporary art out of the ballet, but you should be able to enjoy it just from your reaction more than having to follow a storyline thread.

So Fernando immediately popped into mind from the beginning because I wanted to push the boundaries of my classical technique into the modern world. I knew that he’s the kind of person who can do that—he blends classicism and modernism very elegantly. He has a very creative mind that I can turn to and say, “I want you to reproduce this specific thing,” or “This is the image that I’m thinking of, what would you do to get there.”

You’ve given talks to groups of aspiring teenage dancers about your career. What’s it like talking to young people about your creative process?

I love it, and you know what’s great about talking to children that age and this generation, they’re pretty fearless about what they ask. And a lot of their questions are really heartfelt, genuine, and surprising. They seem like they are getting younger and younger and more mature at the same time. The average age of a New York City Ballet dancer is somewhere between 18-20 now, which is much much younger than when I joined in 1987.

Sometimes you just wake up and you know. I told a student [who asked what direction to take] that once you make up your mind that dance is going to be your hobby or become a career, then that’s going to make up your approach. These are the questions you’re going to have to answer for yourself to find out what you want to do. Instead of getting preachy, I try to just tell them about my own experience, but the fact of the matter is that dancing professionally is brutal. It’s really hard. As a dancer, you come to form your identity a lot earlier than other people. You don’t have all those years in your twenties to figure out what you want to do. And if you don’t have it all figured out, that’s fine. Just give it a shot. The discipline and the organization you learn will serve you the rest of your life and will lead you in whatever field you choose.

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Catch Phoenix Rising and Caniparoli’s Bow Out as Richmond Ballet kicks off its 30th year, Tuesday, October 1st through Sunday, October 6th. Visit Richmond Ballet for more information and buy tickets online. Philip Neal will return very soon to stage Fancy Free6 for the 30th Anniversary Celebration in November.

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  1. Caniparoli has had a few hits that premiered here. His Swipe (2011) returned as part of the program the company performed last year in London. 
  2. A contemporary American composer. Neal was inspired by Liebermann’s piece for piano, Gargoyles
  3. Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1
  4. Contemporary artist known for his fluorescent light tube installations
  5. The company has a shockingly short amount of time to learn the ballets featured in the Studio Series. Like, two weeks short. 
  6. A real coup for Richmond Ballet, as the Jerome Robbins trust does not give permission to perform the work willy nilly, Neal explained. 

Photo by: Sarah Ferguson

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