On remaking Agnes de Mille’s classic dances in Carousel
Byrd working with Spectrum Dance Theater. Photo by Nate Watters, Courtesy Spectrum Dance Theater.
Though he’s best known for his highly physical and socially engaged contemporary choreography, Donald Byrd is no novice when it comes to musical theater. The Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director received a 2006 Tony nomination for his work on The Color Purple. Now, Byrd and his dancers have teamed up with the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle for a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic Carousel, running February 5–March 1. The show, which revolves around the ill-fated carousel barker Billy Bigelow, comes with a weighty choreographic pedigree: Agnes de Mille choreographed the 1945 original.
What cues have you taken from de Mille’s Carousel?
I wanted to honor Agnes de Mille because she was the original author, so she’s quoted in all of the dances. If you know them, you’ll recognize them. The choreography is contemporary, but it’s also balletic, like the original. However, our sensibility of how dance numbers work in musicals is different than in the past. Theater used to have a great sense of building to a real climax—the classic kind of arc. I’ve tried to give it that old-fashioned sense of how a number builds, but also include the highly physical dancing that we’ve gotten used to in musicals.
Did you ever work directly with de Mille?
When I went to the Harvard summer dance school, she came to give a lecture. She watched a class and came up to me at the end and said, “Young man, you need to go to New York. And tell them I sent you.” So I did, actually.
What themes of Carousel have you highlighted for the contemporary audience?
One of the things we’re talking about this season at Spectrum is virtue. The virtue of forgiveness and the notion of redemption fit right in with Carousel. Billy’s character reminds me of somebody who is ill-equipped to deal with his circumstances—the way he treats Julie, his wife. He hits her, and her justification is the same one that you hear for domestic violence now. Certainly people weren’t talking about these things then, in the setting of the musical and even in the period it was produced.
What are the challenges of sharing the work in a co-production?
You have to acknowledge the hierarchy in the theater. The director is the boss, so I answer to him, but all of us answer to the producer. It’s a different level of input. At Spectrum, I’m the final word.
What do you look for in your dancers?
I used to say I look for dancers who are fearless, but that’s not true. I don’t think that anybody is fearless. I look for people who can act in spite of their fear. And also I look for people I wouldn’t mind spending a day with, people I wouldn’t mind having dinner with.
Wevers in the studio with Kyle Johnson and Tory Peil. Photo by Bamberg Fine Art, Courtesy Whim W’Him.
As a growing number of dance companies turn to project-based models, Seattle-based Whim W’Him is taking a leap in the opposite direction. This season, the five-year-old troupe, originally project-based, will increase its dancers’ contracts from 16 to 25 weeks. “My first priority was to build a company with a base of dancers and a comfortable series of shows in Seattle,” says artistic director Olivier Wevers. “The next is to expand to touring, pay the dancers more and have more choreographers come in.”
The company has grown rapidly since its small beginnings. It currently boasts a budget of around $300,000—nearly two and a half times its original—and has hired former board president Catherine Bombico as executive director. These benchmarks help Whim W’Him secure its place in the Seattle dance scene, where only two companies, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Spectrum Dance Theater, operate full-time. Wevers attributes much of this success to building a local following; last year, he cut back the touring schedule to devote more time and energy to regional performances.
The lengthened contract has many benefits for the company. Under its former project-based model, repertoire was pieced together with small rotating casts of dancers, many of them guest artists from PNB. Now, the company employs seven dancers, two of them culled from a national audition. With a consistent group and schedule, Wevers plans to create longer works with full casts and add another production to the 2014–15 season. And he’s excited to provide a paycheck that allows his artists to make dance their primary job, though he says it is not yet enough to be self-sustaining, something he eventually hopes to provide.
In addition to putting touring back on the schedule, Wevers would eventually like to expand the company to 10 dancers—but not without steady fiscal support. “It’s all based on budget,” he says. “I can pay my dancers well or have more dancers that I don’t pay as well.”
PNB’s Lindsi Dec in Ratmansky’s Don Quixote. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB
When Lindsi Dec stepped onstage in a dress rehearsal for Cinderella two years ago, a fast fouetté arabesque ended in a torn calf muscle. It was an all too familiar feeling—18 months earlier, she had suffered the same injury on the other leg. “Now I’m even,” she jokes today. More to the point, now she’s a principal. After five years as a popular soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dec, 32, was promoted this past January.
Dec successfully weathered two calf tears that sidelined her for nine and six weeks, respectively, but an injury can be a career-altering moment for a dancer. In addition to making a full physical recovery, a dancer must communicate effectively with the company’s artistic staff to avoid career setbacks. Many dancers tend to dodge discussing injuries. They don’t want to be perceived as weak or unreliable. “Dancers, like other performer athletes, often are taught from an early age to accept injuries as a part of the job and to perform or compete even if there is mild to moderate pain,” says Chicago-based sports psychologist Dr. Steve Julius. After working so long to achieve a professional career, a dancer may be unwilling to sacrifice even a short-term opportunity. In the end, that can hurt a dancer far more—undermining the artistic staff’s trust if she becomes reinjured or cannot perform the role adequately.
Open and effusive, being communicative is part of Dec’s personality, but it’s also a job strategy. She reached out to PNB artistic director Peter Boal with each injury, keeping him updated with her physical therapist’s assessments. There were times when she acknowledged uncertain progress. “I had to tell him I only knew day to day,” says Dec. “From one day to the next, I couldn’t do a pirouette. Then the following day I could.” Boal did not hurry Dec. “I never want to push a dancer beyond her comfort level,” he says.
No matter how sympathetic the artistic director, there are times when both the dancer and the artistic staff must face tough decisions. Even though Dec was on the mend after her first calf tear, she and Boal agreed that it would be better for her to withdraw from her roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to focus on her debut as Myrtha in Giselle. When a dancer gets injured, Boal always looks at the particulars of an upcoming performance. “We will discuss specific steps that can be executed or still need to be avoided,” he says, “and then we’ll discuss which roles are possible.” In the end, Dec, who had already earned praise for her neoclassicism, felt that Myrtha stretched her stylistically and artistically, and was among the performances that contributed to her promotion.
Every company director has their criteria for how they measure a dancer’s recovery. For Boal, company class is the ultimate testing ground. “Once the dancer can complete grand allégro with confidence, it is only a question of stamina,” he says. Some dancers prefer working slowly in company class during recovery, skipping the parts that stress their bodies. Dec opted to take PNB School’s open classes while she was coming back. “I didn’t want to put pressure on myself to do more than I could.”
Dec believes that her openness with Boal, and her efforts to involve him in her recovery decisions, helped to keep her on track at the company. She says her promotion came as a happy shock, but it was the clear path for a dancer with an ever-growing list of talents that now includes knowing how to come back—all the way back—from injury.
Sparking discussion: The Minstrel Show puts race front and center. Photo by Nate Watters, Courtesy Spectrum.
Donald Byrd’s Bessie Award–winning The Minstrel Show has a history of creating controversy: Past performances have even sparked shouting matches between audience members. His Spectrum Dance Theater premieres a restaging of the 1991 work—the centerpiece of the company’s season, “America: Sex, Race, & Religion”—February 20–22 at Seattle’s Cornish Playhouse. The update is inspired by the February 2012 death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent trial and acquittal of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman. “The fact that I’ve chosen the Martin/Zimmerman shooting and trial is enough comment on why I’m reviving the piece,” says Byrd. “Americans in general are uncomfortable talking about race.”
Performed by both white and black actors during the Civil War era, minstrel shows used stock characters, music, comedy and blackface to lampoon black culture. The first act of Byrd’s version, with music ranging from Scott Joplin to rapper Le1f (new for 2014), presents this format traditionally to give the audience historical context.
Act Two uses minstrel shows to confront current racial prejudices—in one now notorious segment, audience members and Byrd read audience-submitted racial jokes aloud. The new version includes a recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call the night of Martin’s death, as well as his public interviews. In this section, Byrd says the movement embodies Zimmerman’s unemotional tone, and aims to provoke the audience to face uncomfortable realities about race in America. “What I’m hoping to discover,” he says, “is the nature of dialogue—how we talk about race. That can never be a reality until we are able to have a serious, honest, fearless conversation about it.”
The PNB corps member has more than a hint of bravura.
Late fall afternoons at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet mean Nutcracker rehearsals, and Angelica Generosa throws herself into the choreography. Despite the fast directional changes, rapid turns and shifting patterns that make up choreographer Kent Stowell’s steps for Snowflakes and Flowers, her port de bras remains crisp and she looks unflustered. This clarity has become a Generosa hallmark—serenity with just a hint of bravura neatly tucked away.
Right: Generosa with principal Jonathan Porretta in Andrew Bartee’s arms that work. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
At 20 years old, Generosa has emerged as a PNB corps member to watch, and choreographers working with the company—like Twyla Tharp—have begun to take note. But even as a student, she stood out. Artistic director Peter Boal remembers her performance at a School of American Ballet annual workshop (he subsequently invited her to join PNB as an apprentice). “She took the stage as a last-minute fill-in for Stars and Stripes at age 15,” says Boal. “She was not only fearless but technically accomplished, and she won a lot of hearts with her darling stage presence. She’s all that and more now.”
Generosa, whose parents come from the Philippines, started dancing at age 4 in South River, New Jersey, when they put her in dance class as a way to channel her energy. Soon she was studying ballet, tap, jazz and lyrical. Her first big opportunity came at 12, when she performed the role of Clara in The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. It was then that she realized she would have to decide, she says, whether to be a “Broadway jazz kid” or a ballerina. After a summer at SAB, and an invitation to stay year-round, ballet won out. She commuted from South River to SAB for four years, receiving the school’s prestigious Mae L. Wien Award upon graduation.
When Boal offered Generosa a PNB apprenticeship, he suggested she spend a few months in the PNB School’s professional division to help her adapt to the company’s style. She had never even visited Seattle, but, ready for something new, she came and gave it her all. A year after her apprenticeship started, she joined the corps. That season, she was chosen for a small featured role in choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote.
Though it’s only her second year as a company member, this season may well represent a breakthrough for Generosa. For one, she caught the attention of Twyla Tharp, who featured her in the premiere of Waiting at the Station in the company’s all-Tharp season opener. Generosa cites her experience with Tharp as formative. The combination of Tharp’s “positive vibe and criticism” appealed to her, and Tharp’s notably high expectations pushed Generosa into new territories of movement. Originating a Tharp role also helped her grow in a creative sense. “Twyla likes to let personality shine through a dancer,” says Generosa. “Of course, she wants what she wants, but she allows us to express ourselves through her steps.”
Though she relished the contemporary quality of Tharp’s movement, Generosa sees herself as “a virtuoso classical dancer,” a lover of big jumps and technical feats. This comes as no surprise given her assured stage presence, and the way her upper body retains its ease no matter what her feet do. PNB has a varied repertoire, however, and with her well-rounded training, she has the potential to shine in a range of roles.
Shuffling between classical and contemporary is becoming the new norm for Generosa. In addition to learning the Gold and Silver variations for The Sleeping Beauty, she will learn Molissa Fenley’s State of Darkness, a 34-minute solo set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which is on the company’s lineup for March. Generosa is hungry for new experiences, and Boal is confident in her ability. “Her technique is so secure that she doesn’t need to worry about it; she’s free to focus on musical phrasing and interacting with her partners and her audience,” he says. On top of that, “her presence literally jumps over the footlights. She’s on the cusp of a brilliant future.”
Anna Waller lives in Seattle, Washington, where she performs, teaches and writes about dance and edits for seattledances.com.