Contact

Contact

Lincoln Center Mitzi Newhouse Theater
New York City, New York
October-November, 1999

For anyone aware of Agnes de Mille's contribution to musical theater, Contact is hardly innovative. It's three short stories told with minimal dialogue, substituting dancing to music for conventional musicals' singing to music in order to move the plot along. Director/choreographer Susan Stroman, whose dances for Show Boat and Steel Pier garnered critical praise, is adept at shaping the familiar vocabulary of social dance to advance her narrative.

Contact has all the Broadway trappings: gliding sets on recessed tracks by Thomas Lynch, chic costumes by William Ivey Long, high-tech lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. But the charm of the show is watching the wonderful performers negotiate the intricate choreography, crammed onto the spatially-challenged thrust stage of Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theater. Abetted by John Weidman's succinct dialogue and some brilliant casting, Stroman has concocted a fast-moving entertainment that may elevate dance's role a notch in theatrical visibility.

The curtain-raiser, Part I: Swinging, is set in eighteenth-century France. Young woman (Stephanie Michels) on rustic swing flirts with beau (Seán Martin Hingston). Beau's manservant (Scott Taylor) keeps swing in constant motion, even when—in beau's momentary absence—he and lady have steamy sex on it.

Karen Ziemba is heartbreaking in Part II: Did You Move?, as a fifties housewife who stoically suffers husband's (Jason Antoon) verbal abuse in a Queens restaurant. Each time he exits to the buffet, she waltzes ecstatically around the tables, romancing the headwaiter (David MacGillivray), to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin Waltz, and fantasizes about liberation from her husband's cruelty. When he catches her in one of these flights of fancy, a scuffle ensues, and she shoots him dead—but then he really returns with his manicotti. Ziemba realizes that her triumphal act of vengeance was only a dream within a dream, and her wonderfully expressive face crinkles into a grimace that embodies the desperation of the rest of her life with him.

In the most fully developed section, Part III: Contact, terrific actor Boyd Gaines, a prize-winning TV adman, contemplates suicide. His downstairs neighbor leaves him angry voice-mail messages about getting carpet to muffle his late-night pacing that's keeping her awake. After an apparently botched attempt to hang himself, he flees to an after-hours dance club where he meets the girl of his dreams, The Girl in the Yellow Dress (Broadway newcomer Deborah Yates). When he returns to reality, he finally meets his annoyed neighbor, who turns out to be her incarnation. He realizes what's been missing from his life, and they fox-trot into eternal bliss.

It's especially nice to see a cast of dancers who look and act like real characters, rather than the twenty-something Kens and Barbies who used to populate Broadway musical chorus lines. Let's hope the trend of hiring seasoned, mature, and physically diverse dancers is here to stay.

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Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.

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Ashley Ellis, photo by Albert Ayzenberg, courtesy of Ashley Ellis

Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.

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Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.

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Neumeier's costume rendering for Orphée et Eurydice. Photo courtesy Lyrica Opera of Chicago.

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How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?

It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.

You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?

When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.

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