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May 23, 2008

"A Chorus Line," "A Byline" what's the diff? Let's put on a show

Sometimes you don't know what's wrong with something until you see what's right.

I feel so depleted trying to defend dance, when really the nature of the beast is that it is dance, which means it has to be felt in order to be done. Even if you subscribe to Balanchine's credo, "Don't feel just do," I would still maintain that the people dancing must have an interior life that illuminates the movement if only for the satisfaction of themselves. Merce Cunningham's dancers report the same -- that as disconnected as movement might seem from narrative or explicit purpose, in fact, there is connection, intellectual and physical, aesthetic and organic. A connection that each dancer creates. That's what sustains the choreography's beauty: the individual.

"A Chorus Line" is precisely about this connection: individual life and its important relationship to the group, the chorus line, the choreographer's idea of "One." 

Last night Broadway's touring production of "A Chorus Line" came to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Nikki Snelson (Cassie) -- what she does on that stage had me thinking, because she is so good. Why is she good? She pushes and interprets just a little beyond what is given to her to do, BUT it's her own world she is in. She not once - not once, I tell you -- made me look at the outside of her body and say, "Oh, what technique. I bet she put in hours on that bod, that line, that mirror reflection." I don't want to be trite here. This is serious business, because dance is, in so many respects, going down the tubes. But, honestly, I did not expect to find such authentic personality through movement at "A Chorus Line."

 Of course, that is what this show is about. Therefore, kudos to director Bob Avian on this production and to the casting agents whom practically every single cast member thanks profusely: Jay Binder and Nicole Vallins. This is a musical about casting and they were letter perfect.

poster.jpgMichael Bennett got it about dancers and musical theater dancers, in particular. The story of Paul -- even if it is not told by the original cast member in this production -- is timeless and painful. He's the boy whose only recourse is to perform as a woman and whose father says, "Just take care of my son," when he leaves for a touring show and that's the first time that Paul has ever heard his father call him "son" -- oh, the pain and the pain and the pain again. Was there a dry eye in the house? Think not. Kevin Santos, who played Paul, was as credible as the original has to have been in my imagination.

Speaking of originals...In the audience last night was the original Maggie (Kay Cole). She lives and works in L.A. and last winter taught my NEA Insititute in Theater and Musical Theatre fellows and blew their collective minds by having them dance and having them recognize what is individual about each of their bodies and selves as expressed in dance (try doing that in a class. It's a tall order and she did it without any prompting. Call it Michael Bennett training in the flesh). But Kay was in the audience last night and seeing "A Chorus Line" with her in the row behind me added something. An extra set of eyes and heart. Her replacement Maggie ( Hollie Howard) was to my mind sensational. She sustained the final notes of "At the Ballet." She had a gorgeous voice and she was willing to be innocent and surprising and non-egotistical. Hard to do in a show like this. 

 But I would argue that "A Chrous Line" puts the ego where the ego is supposed to be. It is about service to the art.

When asked at the end by Zach (Michael Gruber, who also was in the original company and whose line as a dancer sets the bar, by which I mean the line if you traced "a line" around his body at all given times), "What would you do if you couldn't do dance?," the answers and temperature of the them is so exactly like journalists are feeling right now. The dancers respond with how Broadway is dying and how they'll dance until they can't dance no more. Ultimately they wind up singing ""What I did for Love" and I thought to myself, this is just like us. This is arts journalism.

Newspapers are dying. Broadway is dying. Did you honestly get into this business of writing dance criticism or any form of arts journalism for the money?? Did you? Why are you doing it? What are you willing to sacrifice? Could we put up a show about us "A Hedline" and have it be any different than "A Chorus Line"?  All vying and training and for a part in the newsroom. "A Byline"?

Now I ask, has Broadway died? How does information and training  get passed down? Will standards honestly lower as the Internet intercepts us? Should we give up writing? Can we?

I think we are drawn to write about the arts because we love them. Times are different. Not necessarily bad. But they are changing and they are different. When I see Nikki Snelson move with all the fortitude of Patricia McBride and the character of Violette Verdy and the amplitude of Mikhail Baryshnikov, using her energy points, I know dance is not dead. And just as I know that, I also know journalism, arts journalism, is not dead either.

May 23, 2008 4:00 PM | | Comments (4)

4 Comments

Wow. What a moving piece in so many ways. First, you're so right about technique vs. inner life: The physical performers I respond to are the ones who make you look at their eyes, and understand what's happening inside them; the technique just folds into that.

Second, yes, that *is* how we feel as journalists! What we do for reasons other for love, though, isn't really worth doing. Thanks Sasha.

I had to comment on this and not only because we happen to share a mutual (though selective) love of reality television.
The other night my partner walked in on me watching "Step It Up And Dance" which I, in writing, claimed not to regularly watch. But I kind of do just as I watch "So You Think You Can Dance" when the opportunity presents.
It's not that I think either of these are particularly great television...and the purist in me (if you can use the phrase) misses the kind of wonderful, scripted programs that first made me fall in love with television (Bewitched, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the Canadian series Beachcombers)...but how can you not love any program that actually causes a young studio audience leap to their feet to cheer a quick step number? Or one that I imagine has countless tweens trying to mimic a modern dance move in their living rooms?
While I would love for every young person who has that thing inside them that makes them want to dance or paint or write to spend time with someone as lovely and brilliant as Kay Cole, for now I'll simply be content with them spending time with a group of pretty-enough-for-television young dancers...not realizing that they are the next link in a chain that won't soon finish.
I hope.
Wonderful piece Sasha.

Arts attract us , whatever the differences may be and the way of performing. I like the interconnection that you wrote about personality, differences and self performance due to character and abilities.

Thank you for such a good article. I'm interesting in arts, music in everything can make people happy. And your feetback is very ineresting and pushes me to get know something new about new arts.

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