Critical Dance


Neil Penlington
AMP Dance Captain
by Ed Lippman
September 2001


Dance captain Neil Penlington takes class with the AMP company


What's foremost on Neil's mind today? Planning a quick overnight trip to the desert for a trip to the desert hot springs. And who says dancers can't relax?

Finding Neil at the Ahmanson Theater is easy. If he's not getting ready to go onstage, he's outside on the plaza taking in the afternoon sun. And that's exactly where I found him today. Remarkably candid and forthcoming, Neil's answers are laced with a quick laugh and amusing anecdotes.

EL: How did you first become involved with AMP?

NP: I first saw them in the "Nutcracker." At that time of my life I was really into heavy, heavy, contemporary and hated it. I just thought, "What is this?" It was a farce. Then two years later it was on again in London. I went to see it and absolutely loved it. I thought this is something I really wanted to do. They're up there having a great time; they're dancing, they're acting. I just thought, "Yeah." I was in my third year in college and they were holding auditions for the original cast of "Swan Lake." At that point they were really looking for specific people. I auditioned four times, and every time I got cut down to the last two or three."

They'd started the season, and there was a boy in the company, he was a swing. He had to go on one night and couldn't go on, so they called me and said, "Can you come in?" I said to them, "I'm not going to audition again. You know what I can do." They said just come in. So, I went to see them and they said, "When can you start?" I said, "Now. Today." So I learned the entrance of the swans, saw a photographer, went on that evening. I was like, "Wow, this is it." I remember just standing there looking in the mirror because I hadn't a clue how to put this swan makeup on. And my beak, this thin black stripe on your nose -- mine was, like, the widest beak ever!

EL: What's it like working with someone like Matthew Bourne?

NP: Matthew's great. He's our boss but he never really acts like he's our boss. I think the whole rehearsal process of when you're making a piece, you become so involved in it. It's not like you're going in to learn step after step after step. We've all got creative input. And I think that's why the company seems [like] such a close family, because we work so well together. You feel like you can go up to him and talk about personal things and it won't effect anything that goes on later.

EL: Can you tell me what are the responsibilities of a dance captain on this show?

NP: First of all, when we're doing the piece, we have to start teaching the material to the rest of the company; Vickie and myself. I usually take the boys, she'll take the girls in rehearsals. We have to watch the show and take notes, and make sure everybody's up to scratch. And for this tour, we had four new people starting, three boys and Nina who's from New York. She did "Swan Lake" with us in New York. So we have to teach them their parts, get them up and running. Now everybody's learning their second parts. Last week and this week we had to do more rehearsals.

EL: This is an intense show. How in the world do you keep that in your head for 19 people?

NP: I do four parts in the show anyway, and when we do the mechanic parts, most of the material is very similar. So, on a whole, you can teach the material as a whole. And what we'll sometimes do, we'll call in some of the other boys for some of the other stuff I'm not too clear on. And I guess, watching it time after time and doing it for two years, you start to pick up everyone's material. And I can even do some of the girls material now. For me, I've got this fast paced brain. I need to keep on being challenged and having new roles to do. Teaching people -- I kind of thrive on it. If I had to do one part, eight shows a week for two years, it would drive me insane. Here, I get to do two shows of one part, two shows another part. It's good because you change your acting styles, your dancing styles. It's good.

EL: You've already done "Swan Lake," "Cinderella," "Highland Fling," "Spitfire," and now "Car Man." What can possibly be next?

NP: Well, next year I turn thirty. The big three - O. And there's actually five of us who turn thirty within five months of each other, so we're thinking of having a 150th birthday party. There's lots of new and exciting things happening with the company with Matthew venturing off, starting this new company called New Adventures. I think to be part of something new, even though it will be a lot of the same people, it will be very exciting. There's plans for "Edward Scissor-hands," there's plans for "Nutcracker." And "Nutcracker," for me, I feel I really want to do because that's what made me want to join AMP. So I feel it's really come around full circle.

After that is where I'll have to make my big decision. I'd quite like to go into doing some P.A., event company stuff -- personal Assistant, or doing P.R., press, publicity. Eventually, I'd like to have my own events company. I think to stop dancing, I'd like to find a job where I'm constantly being challenged. Going from this to sitting in an office, I couldn't do. I kind of have an interest also in fashion as well. I've followed fashion for years. My mother's begging me to come home, because I have, like, 12,000 magazines I used to collect when I was younger and she's like, "Please, take them away."

EL: I read you took part in a group that went around England teaching.

NP: We got Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" on the "A" level syllabus [College entrance exams]. So they asked me would I follow the "Swan Lake" tour. I was quite nervous about it, teaching. So we went around to all these schools where they'd have three-hour workshops. I used to teach a quick warm-up session. Then we'd talk a bit about the show, then we'd teach them some rep from "Swan Lake." Which was great fun. Some of the schools you went to had not done any dance whatsoever. When you start the day, they're all very shy. And by the end of it, you feel so rewarded because these kids, for once in their life-time, they have these people coming in, and some of them, they're smiling and going mad with the choreography. Then we get them to interpret the choreography themselves and come up with a few counts. I did that for 16 weeks. We did schools that had never seen any dance whatsoever. The school I went to was a very strict school, they had lots of money there so we had lots of resources. Other schools, they're funding for the whole year for dance was like 100 pounds or something. And out of that money they had to buy a resource pack, buy the video. They had to come see the show. Those kinds of schools I used to put more effort into. I felt I had to because it was their only one time. They all had to bring money in themselves to pay for the workshop. I really got a lot out of it actually.


Neil, right, checks on Adam as one of "the boys" as he calls them before the show


EL: You mentioned the formation of New Adventures, how does that impact you or will it?

NP: I think it will be very exciting. Obviously, it's going to be Matthew again. Hopefully, he's going to start doing small pieces again, which involved 12, 13 people. "Highland Fling," there was only eight of us on it. This show's not to bad. With things like "Swan Lake" you kind of feel like you're on a factory line. Joining something new, and in a way it won't be new because most of the people will come from here anyway, it's going to be exciting. We can go off and do these "Swan Lake" tours and "Car Man" tours and earn lots of money. But as a performer you need to do new stuff, keep on moving on. You can't keep on going back.

EL: You used to sneak off on Saturdays to take a class. What was it that made you start dancing?

NP: This morning "Grease" was on. When I used to go home on holidays, I used to watch that movie everyday. I actually ruined the tape-recorder. My mother said, "Please stop watching it." I knew all the dance routines. I knew everything. I did a lot of drama in school. I was a very sporty person as well, I did a lot of caving and canoeing. I guess just going this one time on a Saturday morning, holding onto a ballet barre just being able to move around -- it kind of hit me there and then: This is me. This is what I want to do.

EL: I know in Los Angeles they have a live orchestra versus a taped track for all the other shows. How is it different for you as a dancer working with a live orchestra versus tape?

NP: We first started using the tape when we were in Europe. To begin with, you miss that kind of buzz, actually seeing the orchestra, waiting for different cues because it's different every night. Having a tape you're guaranteed. You know when you're going to go on, you know when the music's going to start, so it becomes routine. And it was an amazing recording with a 50 piece orchestra. Coming back here again, the first show seemed really dead. We were waiting for these big crashes and drums, and they weren't happening. Obviously, expenditure-wise, you can't have a 50 piece orchestra. I prefer having a live orchestra because, like I said, it's different every night. Sometimes, you're waiting behind the curtain and you hear them tuning up, it does kind of send you. You get the shivers.

EL: What's your best moment on stage yet?

NP: When I did "Highland Fling." Scott, our associate director, he was playing the principal guy James. He really injured himself. We had to cancel the show that evening. Matthew came backstage and said "Would you like to learn it?" I said I'd absolutely love to. I was fairly new to the company, I'd just done "Swan Lake." The next day we had four hours where I could learn this whole principal part. I went on that night and I just remember being kind of pulled around. Matthew was in the wings. Every time I came off he was like, "This way, Come on. On." And at the end he came on with this bunch of flowers and it was like, "Wow, I've done it." And before I went on I was phoning my mother. I said, "I'm really nervous and I don't know if I can do it." She was just like, "Look, just do it. You're never going to know until you do it." And I think for me that was one of my proudest moments ever. The weirdest thing was having reviews about yourself. It was the first time I'd ever seen my name -- Neil Penlington playing, blah, blah, blah… I think that was one of my proudest moments ever.

EL: How about your worst moment ever?

NP: The worst is if you ever start laughing, because if I start laughing I can't stop. I remember once I was doing "Swan Lake," and I had to work with this new girl called Theresa, and we kind of looked at each other because it wasn't going too well, and she started laughing. She could not hold it in. And I started laughing. It's not good to laugh on stage. I can't hold it in. I'm terrible. I have to turn away or go off stage.

EL: Is there a part you'd love to play that you haven't played?

NP: I'd kind of like to do the Prince in "Swan Lake." I kind of like these real good acting stories where they have a journey where they go from "A" to "Z."

EL: This is Los Angeles, so I have to ask -- do you have a favorite dance movie?

NP: "Singing in the Rain." The dream sequence. That was amazing. I love all those Gene Kelly movies, "American in Paris," "Chorus Line," "Grease."

EL: Any pre-show rituals?

NP: It kind of changes, really. I have nothing set, really. They've kind of shorted our pre-show [in Los Angles]. We're just coming on as the music's starting. Because here in Los Angeles the minute the curtain comes up the audience goes completely silent, whereas in England when we did it, everyone talked in the audience. That's how it's supposed to be. Just come out and do this 10 minute pre-show of people just milling about their business, getting character relationships going. But here, it gets to be embarrassing because they're all sitting there waiting, watching this improv going on.

EL: Are audiences different city to city?

NP: Yeah. Very. They clap a lot more in Los Angeles. The first couple of nights they were clapping at things and we were like, "Oh?" And the good thing here is they get it as well. They get all the little jokes, the irony. They get it here. Lisbon, they didn't get it at all; they spoke, they were on phones. Amsterdam, they went mad for it.


Car Man the Show

- An Auto-Erotic Thriller -

Car Man Talk

- Talk about the show -

Designer: Lena Marie Stuart
US Director: Azlan Ezaddin
UK Director: Stuart Sweeney

All photos copyright 2001 Lara Hartley unless noted otherwise

All contributions as noted in each feature.