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A Few Firsts for Neglia Ballet

Sergio Neglia with fellow Argentinean Silvina Vaccarelli in the Neglia Ballet production of "Romeo and Juliet"
Jose Neglia, Sergio's father, dancing his celebrated title role in Jack Carter's "The Witch Boy"

New works, Balanchine, and a son honors his father

In early October 1971, seven-year-old Sergio Neglia was in the audience for his father’s final performance. “It was a Sunday,” explains Sergio. “The next day he got on an airplane with nine other principal dancers from the Colon Theatre [the main opera house of Buenos Aires]. The plane went down and nobody survived.”

Nearly 40 years later, on May 14, during An Evening of Mixed Repertoire by Neglia Ballet Artists at the Rockwell Hall Performing Art Center, Sergio Neglia will finally step into the role of the Witch Boy. This title character, from the ballet by Jack Carter, is a role for which Sergio’s father, José Neglia, won great acclaim, including the Vaslav Nijinsky Prize from the International Dance Association and the gold star at the sixth International Festival of Dance in 1968. It is also the same role in which José last appeared.

José Neglia’s superior artistry in The Witch Boy (El Niño Brujo) can be seen in footage available on YouTube. It is from this performance video that Sergio and other Neglia dancers are preparing an excerpt from the ballet’s opening, depicting the Witch Boy brought into the world by a sorceress. He comes to life, slowly feeling his body come alive in a powerful solo, and then encounters a woman with whom he has an immediate and mutual attraction.

Explains Sergio, “In a sense he is born in a man’s body. He has to portray the innocence of a young child. Everything is new yet he has the body of a man, so, when he meets the woman, he is overwhelmed with everything he feels.”

For Sergio, the character is challenging beyond its physical and theatrical requirements. He describes his memories of his father dancing the role as “quite vivid and dramatic.” The full ballet includes some dark imagery, including the climactic execution of the Witch Boy by hanging. A difficult scene for any child to watch, Sergio remembers, “I was terrified the first time I saw it. It looked so real.” It is also the last image Sergio has of his father alive, making the video and his preparation for his upcoming performance understandably difficult. “It takes me back each time to very difficult moments.”

Looking at the videa, you can see why people were so taken with José and his performance. His artistry and the ability to make any role, from Albrecht to Romeo, his own is the skill for which José Neglia is perhaps most remembered. “Many dancers have tried to copy his movements and facial expressions without really finding their own interpretation,” Sergio says. “My father’s interpretation for each role came from somewhere deep inside him. Trying to copy him can make the performance almost ridiculous.”

Years ago, Sergio learned the part of the Witch Boy for a competition but an injury before the second round kept him from performing it. Still, Sergio insists, “For me his interpretation of Witch Boy is untouchable, like a Picasso or Rembrandt.” Perhaps feeling more prepared than ever to honor José Neglia as an incomparable artist and father, Sergio states simply, “I am my father’s son. I interpret roles much like my father so I think I have the ability to make this role my own. I also think if my father were here, he would want for me to perform this role and he would be proud.”

In August, Neglia will perform the role of the Witch Boy throughout Argentina with a final gala performance at the Colon Theatre in Buenos Aires, which will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1971 accident and the dancers who perished.

This step into a father’s shoes is not the only first for Neglia Ballet to be featured among the seven works appearing in An Evening of Mixed Repertoire.

An excerpt from George Balanchine’s masterpiece Agon will mark the first time in their performing history that Neglia Ballet has staged Balanchine’s work. It is something Neglia’s executive director, Heidi Halt, says they’ve been talking about tackling for some time now. “A dancer that we work with a lot, Natalia Boesch [formerly of American Ballet Theater and Berlin Staatsoper Ballet], has done the piece and also works with Deborah Wingert. So it just sort of happened.”

Wingert, an experienced répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust, staging his works for small companies and universities throughout the United States, is also a longtime friend and colleague of both Sergio Neglia and Halt. Following 13 years dancing at New York City Ballet, she continued a freelance career and began teaching.

The ballet is a specimen of Balanchine’s “Greek” trilogy and one of his most famous collaborations with Stravinsky. “Agon” is a Greek word for competition. This physicality is something audiences are likely to recognize in dancers Natalia Boesch, Jace Coronado, and Mary Beth Hansohn throughout the excerpted pas de troix. Though the ballet is plotless and abstract, Wingert explains, “The music has a great deal of energy and sound and the dancers’ job is to match and make the audience see this music.”

It is Halt’s wish that audience members might also “see” the music through the six female dancers in her work Dohnanyi Serenade, slated to premiere on the mixed bill. “I usually don’t count and I ask the dancers to really hear the music. I find that many dancers are constantly counting which is fine but it doesn’t necessarily make you musical.”

Two contrasting but equally enchanting pas de deux contribute to the classical portions of the evening. Sergio Neglia and fellow Argentinean dancer Silvina Vaccarelli, praised for her recent performance in the title role of Neglia Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, will open the program with a divertissement from Paquita. Later, Lithuanian-born dancers Vilia Putrius and Mindaugas Bauzys are sure to deliver an exciting performance of the technically challenging Black Swan pas de deux. The couple will also perform Viktor Plotnikov’s Breath in A.

Also on the program is Unnatural Selection, an abstract contemporary duet performed by husband and wife, James Graber and Marybeth Hansohn. The Neglia Ballet audience will recognize Graber’s animalistic yet sensual movement style though this time his choreography is set to melodic strings.

Pondering why this kind of mixed repertory program seems to work for Neglia, Halt says, “We put a great emphasis on artistry and the integrity of each piece whether it’s purely classical or completely abstract and the dancers that perform with us all have that same goal.”

Buffalo News and Dance Magazine contributor Steve Sucato described Neglia Ballet Artists last mixed repertory show as “arguably the finest mounted by a local dance organization in the past decade.” Come see for yourself if Neglia will raise the bar again.

Neglia Ballet Artists will present An Evening of Mixed Repertoire at the Rockwell Hall Performing Art Center at Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Avenue, on May 14 at 7pm. Ttickets are $15 for students, $25 general admission, and $50 VIP. For tickets call 878-3005, go to, or visit Rockwell Hall’s Box Ofice at Buffalo State College (Monday through Friday, 9am-5pm, and two hours prior to the performance). For more information, visit or call 447-0401.

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