He was trying “to get to the tiger inside,” says Matthew Neenan of his ballet At the border. “It’s pretty aerobic. Twenty sections in sixteen minutes…two lead couples, other couples and trios flying in and out. It’s a marathon, non-stop dance, dance, dance.” What a great finale for OBT’s upcoming American Music Festival.
The ballet’s title is a whimsical reference to the score—a rollicking piano duet called Hallelujah Junction by John Adams, who has a cabin near a truck stop called Hallelujah Junction that is at the border of California and Nevada. Matthew admired the music for ten years before he dared use it. “I’d only been choreographing for about a year when I found the music. I remember getting it at Tower Records, before i-Tunes. I was scared of it because it’s really complex. It has that Adams punch, so it’s got to be danced that way too.”
John Adams spoke of Hallelujah Junction as “a case of a great title looking for a piece… the ‘junction’ being the interlocking style of two-piano writing which features short, highly rhythmicized motives bouncing back and forth…” It’s one of those pieces of American music that has appealed to several choreographers. Peter Martins used it to make a new work for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2001. Modern dance choreographer Doug Varone used it too. “I love Doug’s piece,” says Matthew, “it’s in bare feet with jeans and t-shirts and tons of pedestrian movement, but I knew my ideas for this music were completely different.”
In 2009, Matthew felt ready to do justice to Hallelujah Junction and choreographed it for Pennsylvania Ballet, where he is Choreographer in Residence. Matthew says, “All those dancers running to one side and back again, they’re crossing borders, playing with the idea of borders. It’s like in my own life, I’m always going back and forth between Philadelphia and New York, crossing borders myself.” Watching rehearsals in 2009, Lewis Whittington wrote, “Neenan hot wires the dense keyboard runs…there are delicate piqués next to women sprinting en pointe, thrilling jump sequences next to gorgeous bodyscapes, a cyclonic duet and… razor sharp aerials.”
Tara Keating, who set At the border on OBT, said “You can feel the sections building and building on top of each other. Although the music and the steps get so intense, part of the dancers’ job is to keep a sense of calm. We want to feel that excitement but we can’t let it take over so that it just becomes craziness.”
Just as an interesting post-script, composer John Adams used the title Hallelujah Junction again, for his acclaimed autobiography. In The Boston Globe, David Rollow wrote of Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, “No book I know of better captures the thrill of a moment of artistic freedom and innovation.…this is a book that any aspiring artist, in any medium, should read as a kind of how-to guide to achieving artistic success without losing integrity…”