Inside Katrina Lenk's Latest Broadway Gig: The Band's Visit
When Katrina Lenk says her feet never touched the ground in her Broadway debut, as a replacement in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, she's not telling you how deliriously happy she was—though she was.
Lenk is being literal: Playing Arachne, the show's magical spider-woman, she was suspended in a gigantic web throughout. Her ability to fly and enjoy it—crucial to landing the role—was honed with a summer job "swimming" over the heads of the audience at Universal Studios. "You just never know where random experiences are gonna take you," she says.
Her resumé provides a good example: her ability to play the violin and dance at the same time was on view in Once; in Indecent, she fiddled (again), performed David Dorfman's vivid choreography and spoke and sang in Yiddish.
She adds Hebrew and a heavy Israeli accent to her lexicon in her latest show, The Band's Visit, which starts previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre this month. And, instead of dancing on air, this time she will dance sitting down. "She's a Renaissance woman," says Patrick McCollum, the show's choreographer.
The Band's Visit. Photo by Ahron R. Foster
Lenk is Dina, the seemingly hard-boiled Israeli who welcomes seven stranded Egyptian musicians to her hole-in-the-wall desert cafe. She created the role off-Broadway last December, winning the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical in the process.
The show, which was named Best Musical by the New York Drama Critics' Circle, uses a refreshingly casual style to tell interlocking stories as its mismatched misfits connect. The approach accurately represents the laconic 2007 Israeli movie on which the show was based.
Lenk "loved, loved, loved" the film, she says, but her first thought was "How is this gonna be a musical?" Music, and its power to communicate across cultures, is at its heart, but the movie seemed too full "of silence and awkwardness" to translate well to the stage. "Somehow," she says, "David Yazbek [the composer] and Itamar Moses [the book writer] made that work."
The challenge for McCollum was to make numbers move without resorting to what Lenk calls "the thing that happens in musicals—suddenly we're singing and dancing!" David Cromer, the director, wanted the show firmly grounded in everyday reality.
To that end, the Israelis speak Hebrew amongst themselves, the musicians stick to Arabic, and when the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra must communicate with the locals, or vice versa, they use English.
In one of the show's most magical numbers, Dina and the bandleader, played by Tony Shalhoub, sit opposite each other in a restaurant. She tells him how her lonely girlhood was perfumed by two of Egypt's most celebrated cultural exports, the singer Umm Kulthum and the movie star Omar Sharif.
Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub. Photo by Ahron R. Foster
As staged for the Atlantic Theater Company premiere, Lenk sang Yazbek's sinuous, Middle Eastern melody while curving her arms and curling her long fingers, tracing lacy, arabesque patterns in the air. Tossing back her head and shoulders, her torso ecstatically arched, she expressed Dina's complete surrender to an intoxicating memory without ever getting up from her chair.
In the run-up to starting rehearsals for the Broadway production of The Band's Visit, Lenk and McCollum were planning to spend some time together doing Gaga technique. Choreographing on Lenk, McCollum says, "is a dream—she's so cool and relaxed."
And Lenk returns the compliment. She's quick to credit collaboration for the show's success, citing the Israeli Americans and Arab Americans in the cast, and even getting in a plug for the Moroccan-born Egyptian-dialect coach. "There was a lot of sharing," the Midwest native says, "and the movement came out of all of that."
Yvonne Rainer's Parts of Some Sextets (AKA "the mattress dance") hasn't been revived since it premiered in 1965. Nor has Rainer had any wish to do it again, to ask performers to heave 10 mattresses around while carrying out 31 tasks that changed every 30 seconds. It was an unwieldy, difficult dance. (Even the title is unwieldy.) But Emily Coates, who has danced in Rainer's work for 20 years, became curious about this piece and was determined to see it again—and to dance in it. She will get her wish November 15–17, when the mattress dance will be performed as part of the Performa 19 Biennial.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.