Here's the challenge: Teach Miami City Ballet's classical dancers how to tap-dance like a Broadway hoofer.
Here's the solution: Bring in Palm Beach's Philip Neal.
The former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet is not only Miami City Ballet’s Palm Beach liaison, but also the repetiteur for George Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," the major showpiece of this weekend’s "Program IV: Broadway and Ballet" at the Broward Center.
"Any fear they had, that flew out the window pretty quickly," Neal says. "Half of them had tapped a little when they were kids, and the others had not. The major difference is that ballet dancers are always elongating their legs all the way through their feet. Tap is deeper in the knee bend. The feet have to be more relaxed to make the proper noise. I think that is more the challenge with ballet dancers."
Additionally, the performance will include "Dances at a Gathering" by choreographer Jerome Robbins, best known for "Fiddler on the Roof" and "West Side Story." The second and last ballet, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," was originally a part of Richard Rodgers' and Lorenz Hart's Broadway smash "On Your Toes" in 1936. In 1968, Balanchine expanded its themes and plot into a standalone ballet.
"This is a role that I'd danced pretty much the entirety of my career at the New York City Ballet," Neal says. "It was my first year in ballet school. I was just goofing off in the wings tap dancing. The director came over and asked, 'Can you tap? Can you really tap?' I said, 'Yes, I can.' And I danced the lead role in 'Slaughter' for the 23 years. I just got lucky, really. The other tap dancer had gone off to do a Broadway show."
He adds that one of his favorite aspects of the role is that "it incorporates so much acting and drama in a musical way. It's a play within a play. It's really challenging to get the part across."
The story is about a vaudeville dancer named Phil who is forced to give up the stage by his parents to become a music teacher. When a struggling Russian ballet company comes to town, Phil can't resist submitting his own ballet titled "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." In rehearsals, Phil falls in love with the prima ballerina, Vera, whose partner, Morosine, is having problems getting the jazzy rhythms. Replaced by Phil, Morosine is so angered he hires a gangster to bump off Phil on opening night.
So in rehearsals with Miami City Ballet, "It’s not enough to do just that step," Neal explains. "I ask them, 'What can you do with your body or your facial expression to move the plot forward?' It’s very challenging for people who have not done it before."
Especially people who are, say, baseball stars. Retired Major Leaguer Mike Piazza will make a guest appearance as a gangster in "Slaughter" when the ballet is staged at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday, May 3.
"There has been a phenomenal amount of interest," Neal says. "But it's not a dancing part. He's a character. He's acting. His wife and daughter worked very hard to make this happen. He's really excited to do this for his daughter, [Nicoletta] who is a student in the Miami City Ballet School."
IF YOU GO -
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 954-462-0222, BrowardCenter.org or MiamiCityBallet.orgCopyright © 2015, CT Now