Every high school has one: the uninhibited kid who dances nonstop at every prom and party. Senior Cooper Neely was that kid at his high school in Throckmorton, population 900.
Neely never took dance lessons growing up — the closest opportunity was hours from his small North Texas hometown — but his hobby was watching dance videos on YouTube and teaching himself the routines. One of his proudest achievements was watching “Ramalama (Bang Bang)” from “So You Think You Can Dance” hundreds of times and teaching it to the cheerleaders.
Today, Neely is one of the stars of The University of Texas at Austin’s dance program, and he’s been accepted to study at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance next year. This weekend, Neely will perform lead roles in the dance program’s spring show, “Catalyst.”
“In my nine years here, I haven’t seen someone like this come so far so quickly,” said David Justin, associate professor of dance.
Neely was salutatorian of his high school class, and he became the first person from Throckmorton to attend The University of Texas at Austin in fall 2008. He began as an anthropology major, and during his first semester, he took a nonmajors Fundamentals of Acting class “to blow off steam.” The class was based on Viewpoints, an approach to acting that emphasizes movement.
“As soon as he started moving, it was like, who is this little monster?” said Neely’s Fundamentals of Acting instructor, Jenny Connell. “He walked in on the first day with access to his body that, in my wildest dreams, my students would get by the last day.”
Recognizing his talent, Connell encouraged Neely to audition for “Br’er Wood,” a play featuring dancers and actors.
“I had talent crushes on all of the dancers,” Neely said. “I watched them and thought: That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Encouraged by a dancer he befriended in “Br’er Wood,” Neely began elementary ballet classes at Ballet Austin. He then auditioned for the university’s dance program and was accepted.
With only six weeks of lessons under his belt, Neely suddenly found himself dancing alongside students who had been taking dance lessons for most of their lives. To make up for lost time, he supplemented dance classes at the university with lessons at Ballet Austin and the Austin School of Classical Ballet. Neely has earned scholarships from the College of Fine Arts, and he says that this support has allowed him to focus on dance without the pressure of a part-time job.
“In a documentary I saw about the Paris Opera, whenever the dancers wanted to move up, they started taking an extra class. Always, they added something to supplement what they’d been doing,” Neely said. “Hard work and dedication can get you the same place that genius can get you.”
Justin says that Neely’s story — entering as an anthropology major, discovering his talent for dance, excelling in academics (he currently boasts a 3.49 grade-point average) and graduating prepared to succeed as a professional dancer — wouldn’t be as likely to happen at a conservatory, where most students come in with years of prior training and dance is often prioritized above academics.
“The University of Texas is unique because it is situated nationally at the pinnacle of academics and dance. Our students are Presidential Scholars, Plan II students, and getting degrees in business at the same time as dance. These are really smart people who aren’t just dancing,” Justin said. “To take someone like Neely and bring him through a dance program in three years fully prepared to be a professional dancer — the circumstances that make that possible are unique to The University of Texas at Austin.”
The university’s dance faculty has a strong collection of skill sets, but, as Justin puts it, “dance is bigger than just the eight of us [on faculty].” So they’ve made it a priority to bring in guest artists. This year marks a milestone. Renowned Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, has allowed The University of Texas at Austin to be the first university to perform his seminal work “Minus 16” in full. Dance Repertory Theatre, the university’s dance ensemble, will perform “Minus 16” during its spring show, “Catalyst,” March 23-25.
“Minus 16” incorporates an innovative movement technique Naharin developed called Gaga. Gaga is the primary training method for Batsheva Dance Company members, and it’s now taught around the world to dancers and non-dancers alike. Justin explains that Gaga helps dancers develop their artistic voices; Gaga helps them break the rules once they’ve learned the fundamentals.
“Dancers who are able to use Gaga as a creative tool in order to let go are going to find themselves employed,” Justin said. “I knew that we needed to have our students experience Gaga.”
Danielle Agami, executive producer of Gaga USA and a former member of the Batsheva Dance Company, visited the university in October to teach “Minus 16” six days a week, five hours a day, for two weeks.
Justin credits the Department of Theatre and Dance faculty with building the trust that led Naharin and Agami to grant the university permission to perform “Minus 16.” Yacov Sharir is a former member of the Batsheva Dance Company. Justin was a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet and has a strong background in remounting productions. Tina Curran focuses on legacy in her dance research.
Agami selected Neely, who had studied Gaga the previous summer at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, for major roles in the piece. Justin said he doesn’t want to give away too much, but he does reveal that one of Neely’s roles involves breaking down the barrier between the stage and the audience. All he’ll say is that the audience should “be prepared for the unexpected. Wear bright colors and comfortable shoes.”
At a rehearsal for “Minus 16,” the students can’t stop moving. While Justin gives one student notes, another student practices a pirouette. When the rehearsal ends, they transform into regular college students. Dance shoes are exchanged for stylish boots and their backpacks bulge with textbooks. Neely’s train of thought switches from “Minus 16” to the test he aced in his Texas government class. They exit gracefully.
A special pre-performance discussion, “Catalyst Decoded,” will be held Friday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m. in the B. Iden Payne Theatre. Guest speakers include “Catalyst” artistic directors David Justin and Yacov Sharir. Admission to the discussion is free for ticket holders for the March 23 performance of “Catalyst.”
Batsheva Dance Company performs “Max” at Texas Performing Arts on Tuesday, March 20 at 8 p.m.
Tickets to “Catalyst” and “Max” are available online or by calling 512-477-6060 or 800-982-BEVO.
On the home page banner: Cooper Neely, Victoria Mora, Ema Watanabe, Amanda Gladu and Courtney Mazeika (left to right). Rehearsal for David Justin’s “Oblivion’s Ink.” Photo: Jeff Heimsath