Philip Neal has danced on the Lincoln Center stage, inside a cave on the southern tip of Spain — while bats flew around his head and pots next to his feet caught falling stalagmite — in Izmir, Turkey where praying chants paused the show and in Korea, London and Tokyo.
Neal was mentored by experienced ballerinas like Patricia McBride during his 23 year tenure with the New York City Ballet, 17 years of which he spent as a principal dancer.
He retired in 2010 and five years later became the artistic director of Next Generation Ballet and chairman of the Patel Conservatory Dance Department.
On Saturday (May 13) he will make his return to the stage in "white jeans, not white tights" as the ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka.
Igor Stravinsky's orchestration commissioned by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is just one piece featured in Masters of Dance: Balanchine and Robbins plus Petipa's Don Quixote Suite, starring 48 Next Generation Ballet dancers between the ages of 8 and 12.
Neal recently spoke to Times Staff Writer Arielle Waldman about the show and Tampa as a place for aspiring dancers.
How does Tampa rank in regards to being a good city for aspiring dancers?
Well, we're here. No, but it's actually great. In addition to what we do at the Straz Center and all shows that come through here, we also have the Orlando and Sarasota ballet both close by, so there's a nice cluster of dance activity going on. It's great for professional exposure.
What was it like being a dancer for the New York City Ballet?
I was lucky, I had that as a goal from a young age. I had been going to their official school since I was 12 years old and I think I was wonderfully naive. Not that I didn't work really hard but I never stopped to think maybe this won't happen. Maybe it was because we had less information than we do now. There's so much on social media so I think children have a good sense of what's going on. I joined the company during a big, huge time of transition. George Balanchine had died just three years before and Peter Martins had taken over. It wasn't uncertainty, just uncharted territory. I was one of the first groups of people who wasn't trained directly by Balanchine. It was interesting to see the company honor tradition, but have to become something new.
What was your proudest moment as a dancer?
When I was invited to guest appear with the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia in that incredible Maryinsky Theater. There were only three Americans invited to perform in that program. It was sort of later in my career, I was 36 or 37. I was looking around going, first of all this is where it all came from. This is where Balanchine grew up before bringing his choreography to America. I hadn't been that nervous in a long time.
How was the transition from dancer to teacher?
It was fine. I wish I had some big, dramatic story to tell you. I miss my friends and the process, more than the performance. I didn't struggle with identity the way some people do. I think the trick to that was just staying immersed in so many different things: fundraising, teaching, staging, choreographing and development. I never had a chance to go 'Oh, poor me.'
How was this year's Youth American Grand Prix? You had more than 30 students participate.
We had the Grand Prix winner again, Abigail. She's 13 now. I also took six dancers to New York. It was so great because it was in the theater I used to dance in, in New York, the David Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. I walked in and the security guards were the same ones as when I was 19 years old and they said 'Hey Philip how are you doing?' I was like this is my home.
What can we expect from Masters of Dance?
It's a repertoire based program. I really wanted to do a ballet that was somewhat familiar and had great sets and costumes. It's a big deal that we got permission to do it, we had to apply for permission. One year ago, I sent videos of their performances to the Jerome Robbins Rights Trust and the George Balanchine Trust in New York. I do work for both of them, but the struggle was does your school qualify. They said yes and it was amazing. We started practicing in September. I kept telling the parents, this is going to be challenging. You'll be sacrificing a lot of your weekend time so know that going into this. The kids have to do three different styles of work in one show. They go from Balanchine, dancing at the speed of light, to Petipa's more reserved tempo. It's a good training experience.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Arielle Waldman at [email protected]