Carpe Diem, and All That

Ballet Workshop Clock

When you discover two of your favorite people are performing in the same weekend in separate but (kinda) nearby venues, albeit in completely different kinds of shows, and you think you can somehow make it to see them both, you tell them, Heck yeah, I’ll be there. Every opportunity to go to the the theatre for a performance of merit is a golden one, more glowing still when you know somebody on the stage. And if it requires travel to two cities (and neighboring states) in the same day, well so be it. Maybe it is a function of age, but more and more I feel a sense of urgency about doing things, and seeing people who are important to me. I would not go so far as to call it a bucket list. Just urgency.

See that ugly flower clock up there? It was part of a most impressive collection in a Massachusetts dive where Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I stopped on our way down to his sister’s on Friday night. The place was full of clocks and plates and needlepoint, a lifetime supply of them, clearly somebody’s labor of love. And there were wagon wheel light fixtures for days. This funk-vibe little eatery may have been firmly rooted in about 1972, but it was clean as a whistle, staffed by earnest young folk, and offered a superlative and surprisingly forward-thinking menu. Here is the authentic-tasting falafel sandwich I had as evidence (trust me):

Wagon Wheel Falafel

Betcha it was not on the menu when they opened.

Anyway, that clock. It struck me (ha ha) I’d seen it somewhere before: that clock was one and the same hanging on the ballet classroom wall at my mom’s small 1970s school, the erstwhile Ballet Workshop in Memphis, Tennessee, where I trained for a few years of many, from about age twelve ’til fifteen or so. Hideous clock. But it brought back a groundswell of memories.

Like the first time my mama took me to the theatre as a spectator. I imagine I was held in her lap, but what I recall was the tiny sliver of glowing blue escaping from the bottom edge of the curtain as the house lights came down—magical. It was a beautiful mystery that held so much promise.

Hanover Theatre II

Or the moment when I first saw the stage lights come up behind a scrim that seconds before seemed opaque, but now revealed an entire world behind it. Magical.

Or the boom of a live orchestra in the pit when you least expected it.

Or the smell of the theatre; it changes when the cutain opens, whatever lingered behind it spilling into the house. (You can see the air moving whenever there is fog; fog will always tell you which way the wind is blowing as it curls over the lip of the stage. I’ve always wondered how it feels to the musicians in the pit—does it mess with their instruments? Make playing more difficult? Or do they get caught up in the magic, too?)

That silly clock made me think about the ballet. But as HCB and I sat in the Massachusetts dive and ate dinner, I also thought about whether we could realistically make both performances: a Broadway show in Worcester at 2 and a 7:30 ballet in Providence. HCB was powering out of a week of illness, and I was feeling its first symptoms.

Damn.

We warned his sister we were sick; she was a saint for still taking us in for the weekend. We decided we’d keep our date for the first show (and our breakfast with Ryan Carroll, my friend in the show), and then reassess afterwards how we felt about going to the ballet in Providence later that night.

HCB Deb Ry

That is moi, sandwiched between Handsome Chef Boyfriend (a rare sighting, I know), and Ryan. I’ve known Ryan for about a decade or so; he more or less showed up out of the ether in Knoxville looking for guest teaching gigs early in Knoxville Ballet School’s history. Southerners to the bone (Ry is from Montgomery, Alabama), we became fast friends and our connection continued to grow through the years with his frequent visits to the school. He always stayed at my place and we enjoyed late nights watching videos and talking ballet trash.

I also saw him on several occasions in NYC (where he lives) over the years when I was in the city for teacher training at American Ballet Theatre. We both had the proverbial rug yanked out from under us (in different ways), and in more or less the same time frame. He is a dear person who was always a champion of Knoxville Ballet School; so many young students, even outside the immediate school community, benefitted from his generosity.

Ryan is also a beautiful ballet dancer with impressive Broadway credentials. At the moment he is touring with The Producers in the role of Carmen Ghia.  The first time he guested for me I had the great fortune of observing him teach Bye Bye Blackbird from Fosse (a show he had danced for a very long run with the likes of Ben Vereen, et al.) to a roomful of teenage girls. That was magical, too, and I shall never forget it.

Producers Playbill

By Saturday morning my voice was already gone. I tried to cram three years’-worth of questions and narrative into an hour-long coffee date with HCB and Ryan at Starbucks. Then quick as a flash it was over. HCB and I had a little rest and made it to the theatre for the 2:00. We made it through the performance with discreet coughing, but it was abundantly clear by then the ballet would have to wait.

Insofar as The Producers—and J. Ryan Carroll—I will only say you should drop what you are doing, check this schedule, and find tickets for a city on the tour near you. Sieze the day: you never know when you will get another chance for a wonderful little piece of magic like that. (‘Til soon, Ms. Gwynn Root.)

Hanover Theatre I

Works & Process

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I love the theatre—lobby, house, backstage, on the stage—it does not matter. I have clocked time there since before I could walk. Friday night I had the chance to be there again at the small and mighty Paramount in Rutland, Vermont. A quirky and entertaining NYC-based company called Bedlam was reading a new play by one Tony Award winning Steven Sater (Spring Awakening), called New York Animals. And if you have never heard of nor seen this fantastic little company, drop what you are doing right this second and find them. This event was an exceptionally good call by Handsome Chef Boyfriend, who heard this broadcast on VPR and suggested it.

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This time the audience sat on the stage with the actors; it had been converted into a black box mini-theatre for this interesting run-through ahead of the play’s opening in NYC later this fall. We were all up in their business during the show, a small but enthusiastic audience, at times moving our feet out of the way of the action unfolding practically in our laps. A company member stood by to prompt forgotten lines; it was a rough cut to be sure, but in a beautiful venue on a delicious summer night in Vermont.

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House lights came up for intermission, a chance to examine the theatre more closely. It reminds me so much of this other small theatre in Knoxville; I’m guessing they must be roughly the same vintage, although the Paramount is smaller. It’s pretty; sometimes I think Vermont is underserved and a little forgotten when it comes to performing arts. I’m glad the Paramount is not too far from home.

When it comes to performance, I know the play’s the thing, and all. But I have always loved the process more. For me, the same is true of classical ballet. The final year in the life of my small ballet school in Knoxville, Tennessee, before I knew its doors were closing for good, my student population at last had exposure to the stage, an important milestone in the life of any young dancer. We mounted a lecture demonstration at the Knoxville Museum of Art, showing the progression of training from the lowest to the highest levels at the school.

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The young enrollees demonstrated movement vocabulary in a way I hoped made sense to the audience, who were shown not individual choreographed pieces prepared a level at a time “recital” style, but individual movements as they are taught to children over a period of years, in a natural progression. It was my intention to demonstrate how we get from point A to point B, in a careful age-appropriate way that made sense. I used the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series as a model, and judging from the standing-room-only crowd and surprise visit by local news media, we were successful. I think people are naturally curious about how things work.

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KBS 2B

Friday night was all about process. After the play we had a chance to give the company feedback—to ask questions, comment about character development that seemed confusing, say what we liked and didn’t. Steven Sater himself came up from NYC to talk to us directly, and even asked us questions while he made notes. He was erudite and funny, gave us a glimpse of how this particular play came to be, explained how he has been writing music for it in collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and told us among other things how he thought the music would ultimately fit into the script.

People in attendance made some good points and a few good suggestions. One man in particular wanted to know whether the play—New York Animals—was written expressly for New Yorkers, as he had grown up in the city and retired to Vermont. Without blinking an eye, Steven Sater quipped, Well I heard the show did very well in Vermont.

Yes, it did.

Vermont has plenty of endearing qualities. One is that it tends to attract talented people out of the city and into the beautiful countryside in the summertime, as it does this particular company each year. I love seeing the ballet in big venues in big cities; ditto the theatre. There is no substitute for that experience.

But I am just as happy—maybe even happier—to watch the process unfold right in my own back yard.

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Photos belong to the author and to Knoxville Ballet School; it ain’t nice to steal, so don’t do it.