Neil Haskell, dressed in cut-off sweat pants and a black fleece sweat shirt, doesn't look like a dancer. For one thing, he doesn't wear tights. For another thing, he doesn't have that tell-tale "turned-out" walk of a dancer. In fact, he looks like an athlete -- muscular, strong, and fit.
On stage, he doesn't just leap; he soars, suspended in midair, reminiscent of Mikhail Baryshnikov-style, grace, and strength -- the consummate athlete. But make no mistake about it, Neil Haskell is a dancer, trained in jazz, modern and ballet. Watching him, you see movements that appear effortless; a difficult stag leap, front knee bent, back leg outstretched, back arched, seems to cover the entire stage.
Neil admits that in many ways, he doesn't fit the stereotype of a guy who is a dancer. "I've taken gymnastics; I'm also on the varsity volleyball team in high school, which takes up a lot of time. This season, our team made it to the semi-finals, so the fall season was tough, trying to find a balance between dance classes and volleyball practice. When I had games and dance classes on the same nights, I really had to juggle my time."
"I've been dancing since I was 5 years old; it just stuck with me," he said. "I love the energy in dance; I think I like jazz the best; I have the heart of a jazz dancer, because I think it's more interpretive, but ballet is so cool. If you understand it, it's awesome to watch. I love taking classes; it's fun because all of my friends are there. It's a great place to meet people. And yes, it's a great place to meet girls!"
A senior at Clarence High School, Neil won a Kenny Award for Best Dance Performance in last year's production of "42nd Street." He has also won numerous awards at dance competitions throughout the United States, including Ultimate Gold Medals, the highest award available. In last year's Regionals, he won the Male Dancer of the Year, which qualified him to compete for the title of the Teen Male Dancer of the Year at Nationals.
Neil was accepted last summer to the intensive summer program at the Chautauqua Institution, where he was introduced to a variety of dance techniques and a variety of performance opportunities.
"I danced most days from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m.," says Neil. "Chautauqua is a great community for a young dancer; I learned a lot of little things, but I also learned a lot of new 'tricks' -- new partnering moves and new solos."
"One of the best experiences I've ever had was working with Tiger Martina, a choreographer for the Broadway musical 'Movin' Out.' That's the musical featuring all of Billy Joel's music. Tiger is from Buffalo; he trained at the David de Marie studios, which is where I study jazz and hip-hop. I was lucky enough for him to choreograph a dance called 'Come on Home,' which I plan to use for my college auditions."
Neil has been rehearsing for the American Academy of Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" in which he dances the role of Nutcracker Prince. "It's taken a lot of practice," he said. "I've been working with Joe Cipolla on the partnering for the famous pas de deux. He has been the prince in the Royal Birmingham's production of 'The Nutcracker,' and he has given me a lot of hints. It's all supposed to look easy, partnering a girl on pointe, but it's tricky. If you don't have the exact placement, you can drop her, especially in lifts! Joe's been through it all, and he's really helped me."
"I love the rush of adrenaline I get when I get on stage and start to perform. It doesn't matter what kind of performance it is; all of it gives me a kind of energy that's hard to describe. I think of myself as a strong kind of dancer, and I really feel that kind of energy when I am on stage."
"Some people like to block out the audience when they dance, but not me. The audience gives me energy; it makes me dance better and push myself to be the best I can be. It's kind of a nervous type of adrenaline that kicks in. You can relate it to a football game; the crowd is the 12th man. The crowd gets the players pumped up and gets them going. Well, the audience is my 12th man; the audience gets me pumped up."
You can watch Neil Haskell this weekend at UB's Center for the Arts in the American Academy of Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker." Curtain times are 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets ($14 to $18.50) are available at the Center Box Office, open Monday to Friday from noon to 6 p.m., and at Ticketmaster locations. Or call 852-5000.