Debut

Becoming Lola: A Damn Yankees vamp.

 

 

When Gwen Verdon debuted as Lola in 1955’s Damn Yankees, a star was born. Her onstage charisma and sassy flair made her—and the role—iconic. Broadway audiences never forgot. Lola has been a challenge for everyone who has attempted the part since. But in the recent Arena Stage production of the show in Washington, D.C., Meg Gillentine proved that her own star is rising. For her it was a breakthrough; for the role it was a fresh look.

 

Playing Lola calls for a woman alluring enough to seduce a man into selling his soul to the devil. Gillentine succeeded not only in creating a vamp who prowls across the stage in numbers like “Whatever Lola Wants,” but in revealing a more tender side in songs like “Two Lost Souls.” Her poignancy and the conviction in her dancing made Gillentine’s debut a knock-out. Watching her perform, it becomes clear why Susan Stroman calls her “my favorite kind of dancer. She has a fearless quality, loves to learn, and has a very gracious personality. There’s something about Meg that radiates to the back row.”

 

Gillentine found the Arena Stage production to be one-of-a-kind. Set in theater-in-the-round, the show had an intimacy that she compares to working in film (she recently appeared in the movie The Producers). Although she admits she was nervous about the audience seeing every angle of her dancing, the challenge inspired her. “Because I wasn’t playing to a flat audience, it became more real to me,” she says. “Every turn of the head was visible. This made the whole show more believable.”

 

The performer who plays Lola must be equally strong in dancing, singing, and acting. Gillentine’s Lola was distinct because she added a sense of remorse to the character, bringing a more human dimension. She credits the show’s director, Molly Smith, with shaping her take on the role: “Molly spent three days with the cast sitting at a table, reading the script, having us ask each other questions,” Gillentine recalls. “I’ve never sat that long, picking apart a character!” But the work paid off. “The next week of rehearsal was completely different—people had developed their individual characters.” Gillentine was particularly attracted to Lola’s “broken soul and vulnerability. I really liked that about her and wanted to be able to convey it, but it was a challenge because it forced me to look at my own life and find those moments that compared to hers.”

 

As a dancer, Gillentine exudes confidence. She began training at age 9 in classical ballet in Georgia: “I went to a musical arts high school, and coming from ballet, where we didn’t open our mouths, it was great to learn that dancers can speak, act, and sing,” she says. “Then I went to NYU to study musical theater.” During her sophomore year she was cast in the Broadway production of Cats, and turned down an invitation to do the national tour because she wanted to finish college. After graduation, she joined the national tour of Fosse, in part because she hoped to pay off some of her school loans. Now 29, Gillentine’s in Los Angeles, auditioning for pilots and commercials, and making trips back east when a show appeals to her. She appeared in Stroman’s The Frogs at Lincoln Center in 2004.

 

The choreographer for the Arena Stage production of Damn Yankees, Baayork Lee, says, “Meg’s a dream to work with. She has incredible technique and her dancing comes with an acting point of view, which makes my job so much easier. In the audition—there were women from Contact, Fosse, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—Meg stood out. Not a move is made without a subtext. You really can’t teach that.”

 

 

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Debut

From sexy to sassy to Shining Sea.

 

 

With their powerful thighs and boundless energy, Paul Taylor’s women seem more yang than yin. Then there’s Annmaria Mazzini. Her delicate features and physical abandon send a whiff of something different floating out to the audience. She wandered through the recent revival of From Sea to Shining Sea like a wayward time-traveling party girl, giving each vignette a hint of seductive nostalgia.

 

Taylor choreographed Shining Sea in 1965, and it had not been revived in decades. While time and history have lessened its bite, this sendup of American historical and pop culture icons remains a shrewd commentary on this country’s most self-serving impulses. As the piece begins, Superman (Robert Kleinendorf), clad in Mickey Mouse ears, strides onstage with his flapper girlfriend (Mazzini), both toting toy horns to announce America’s discovery. When she beats him to the toot, he throws her down to the floor. Even there, she continues tooting as the enraged Superman tries to silence her. “She just takes the wind out of that supermouse guy,” says Taylor chuckling.

 

“It’s typical of Paul’s twisted sense of humor,” says Mazzini. “Everything’s faked, so it’s all about timing. When Superman punches me in the stomach, I have to do a big contraction.” Molly Moore Reinhart, who first danced the role, coached her in the fine points. “I had to really practice the low notes on the horn,” Mazzini says. “The flapper’s been beaten up, so they needed to sound mournful and sick.”

 

Shining Sea had Mazzini morphing from jazz baby to Southern belle to movie star (“I thought of Jean Harlow,” she says), with appropriate costume changes that took her back to her summer stock days. At 12, after seeing a performance of Cats in Philadelphia and falling in love with live theater, Mazzini started dance lessons at Frances Evers’ studio in Allentown, PA, near her family’s horse farm. By 16, she was getting small roles in summer productions like Carousel, and dreaming of a career in musicals.

 

She attended Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, planning to focus on theater. Then one day in dance history class she watched a video of Taylor’s Last Look and Esplanade. “A switch went off in me,” she remembers. “I felt like he knew me, like he read my soul.” She dived into learning Taylor’s work, reading his autobiography Private Domain, and watching videos of Taylor classics night after night. In the summer of 1993 while still in college, she came to New York, clerked at an Express store, and took classes every morning at the company’s studios in Soho. “I felt my body had come home, like I was where I was supposed to be,” remembers Mazzini, now 33. After she graduated, she returned to the city, eventually landing a slot in Taylor II. In 1999, she joined the main company.

 

Like many Taylor pieces, From Sea to Shining Sea’s challenges lie in the details. At one point Mazzini, dressed in an oversized lacy gown, must waltz across the stage, gazing into a picture frame, then hugging it to her chest in a longing embrace. When she holds it above her head, the audience realizes it’s a mirror. Like many Taylor moments, the familiar gets upended with an ironic punchline. “She’s a young girl dressed up for a high school formal,” Taylor explains. “Maybe she’s the aspect of ego in America—ego isn’t necessarily bad.”

 

For Mazzini, though, it proved difficult. “It was hard to be sincere and make that work,” she remembers. “When I first looked in the frame I pretended that it was a soldier going to war, that he was my love, my sweetheart. I really try to lose myself in whatever we are doing. Sometimes I worry I go too far, I’m showing too much, but it comes from an honest place.”

 

Taylor describes Mazzini as a “miracle of the dance” with a note of wonder. “Annmaria’s an intense person, and she’s so committed to her dancing, to the second, the moment, in which she’s moving. I think she can do practically anything.” 

 

 

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Debut

Leaping into a Limón Classic

 

 

After her initial panic dissipated, Ryoko Kudo settled down to tackle the character Emilia, the wife of the sinister Iago, for her debut in José Limón’s masterpiece, The Moor’s Pavane.

 

Kudo danced two performances in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and two in Germany. Carla Maxwell, artistic director of the Limón Dance Company, said, “It’s a tough role and she had excellent success with her debut. She is going to grow into a fine Emilia because her movement qualities have a deep power, an ability to hold stillness, and a physical lushness.”

 

Based on Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy, The Moor’s Pavane was choreographed by Limón in 1949. He streamlined the cast to four: the Moor, The Moor’s Wife, His Friend, and His Friend’s Wife, called Emilia in the play. Limón performed The Moor for 20 years and modern dance icon Pauline Koner danced Emilia. “The genius of The Moor’s Pavane is that it functions like a string quartet,” says Maxwell. Every role, every step, is essential.

 

Kudo, who grew up in Westchester, New York, entered Emerson College in Boston before transferring to the Boston Conservatory of Music to train with celebrated Limón dancer Jennifer Scanlon. She also studied Graham technique with the indomitable Yuriko and later became immersed in the Horton and Dunham techniques at The Ailey School.

 

A petite dynamo of a concert dancer, Kudo dealt with the intense drama of The Moor’s Pavane by reading Othello and tapping her technical resources. Sarah Stackhouse, another former Limón luminary, told her to think about Renaissance art. Jacopo Pontormo’s painting “Deposition,” says Kudo, “put images in my mind of a soft and voluptuous woman. I loved the angling of the heads, the gestures, how they held their hands, their postures, and the delicate lines of their bodies.”

 

Kudo had to adapt to the strict musical phrasing and rhythm of the movement. Her dynamic needed to be strong but not emotive. “The most challenging part was a simple tendu back,” Kudo says. “It is then that I realize that I am playing a major part in this drama, right before Desdemona’s death.”

 

Wrestling with love, devotion, deception, and eventually murder, Kudo was able to capture the essence of this wicked universal chamber piece. “So much is at the core of this work,” says Kudo. “As a performing artist I’m replenished by Limón’s creation.”

 

 

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Debut

There is something at once elfin and steely about Robyn Mineko Williams. Petite and perfectly proportioned, with a delicately chiseled face that suggests both serenity and hidden mischief, she moves with such fleetness and clarity onstage that she often seems indistinguishable from the light.

Earlier this year when fellow dancer Cheryl Mann suffered a knee injury, choreographer Lucas Crandall, who also serves as artistic associate for Hubbard Street, invited Williams to learn Gimme. He had created the demanding duet for Mann and Tobin Del Cuore (see cover story, August 2005), and they had performed it at the 2004 world premiere at Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium and in its Chicago debut early in 2005.

 

A quirky, acrobatic, almost cartoonish portrayal of a push-pull romantic relationship—in which the woman wears a short red dress and clunky Doc Martens boots—Gimme’s theatrical gimmick involves a length of rope that often tethers the woman to her partner. At some moments it appears that she is on a leash, at others that she is a marionette. Set to jig-like contemporary folk music by the Norwegian group Bla Bergens Borduner, the pas de deux can move from dark to light with just a flick of the wrist or a little comic chase.

 

Crandall says he cast Williams, who has been a member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for six years, and is a very girlish-looking 29, “partly because she had similar qualities to Cheryl—not quite tomboyish, but capable of being both a little tough and soft.”

 

“But she also is just a really beautiful dancer and it was time for her to step up,” says Crandall. Robyn is a bit smaller than Cheryl, so she does some things a little faster. That’s the nice thing about duets; every pair makes the piece look just slightly different.”

 

Williams, who began studying at age 5 and spent four years with the River North Dance Chicago company before joining Hubbard Street, watched when Crandall first created Gimme during a Hubbard Street workshop, but never thought she’d get to dance it.

 

“I’m really surprised and excited about doing it,” says Williams, who began learning the role this past summer.“It’s just so much fun to put on those big boots and feel huge. Lucas says he thinks about the duet as being for Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner, and I love that sense of being a punky cartoon character. Dancing this piece you really feel the yo-yo effect of a couple in a relationship and always fighting about something stupid. But it’s done with a playful frustration more than an ‘I hate you’ kind of quality.”

 

As for trying to dance in the footsteps of the original performers, Williams seems unfazed. “Lucas is very specific, but he also gives dancers quite a bit of freedom, so from the start I felt as if I could walk into the studio and not worry about any pre-conceived ideas,” she says. “This piece feels very comfortable. In fact, I’ve never once thought about the way it was done before, and that’s quite unlike me, because I’ve always been a big observer of my peers, and only recently started feeling a sense of overall confidence as a dancer. I think what is most important in this piece is the chemistry with my partner.”

 

In that regard, Williams’ experience with Gimme has been a double learning process. She was initially scheduled to make her debut in the work at this summer’s Aspen Dance Festival, but her partner, Patrick Simoniello (who has since returned to the Joffrey Ballet), had an injury. Hubbard Street dancer Yarden Ronen has now taken over the role. He and Williams got to alternate with Mann and Del Cuore when Gimme was performed during the troupe’s season last fall at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance. They will also perform it during upcoming tours and engagements.

 

“The back and forth in Gimme is tricky, and so is finding the right tension in that string,” says Williams. “But the most difficult part is the opening of the piece, which is performed to silence. Once the music starts it’s a big relief.” —Hedy Weiss

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