Playing Favorites (Act I)

| 10.20.16 |

Today I’m going to play favorites.

At the end of many a workday, Twyla makes a habit of asking her dancers to report on our favorite part of rehearsal. It is often a quick-thinking exercise in creativity for those of us eager to impress her with our wit or memory (I LOVE THIS GAME). It is also an invitation from Twyla to her dancers to look back, have a good group laugh, and marvel at all the ground we’ve covered in the span of one short afternoon in a small studio. It’s usually a lot.

“Are you having fun?” Twyla will then ask, in pursuit of an enthusiastic answer in the affirmative. I am still sometimes surprised by my own resounding – and genuine – “yes.” This work, for the most part, is really f***ing fun. More than I sometimes know how to have.

So I’ll take another stab at communicating how much actual fun I’m having and what these dances mean to me: I’ll collect (a few of) my favorite moments from the work we’ve done on this repertory since we started staging it in early March. The dances are discussed in program order – because from among them I cannot actually pick a favorite – and include a very brief, very KG-centered, and very basic description of my “duties.” Very basic, of course, since we’ve already read what happens when I try to show off. (See previous post, “Some Unnecessary Program Notes.”) TT 3, KG 0.

While checking in with me on one travel day last year, Twyla informed me that I’m “a slow-time thinker.” She then banished me to the back of the bus to mull over a question she’d asked that had left me completely stumped. At the time, I was a bit miffed and determined to disprove her assessment of my mental agility. But a whole twelve months later, I’m still chewing on what she said and coming to realize just how right she was. (“Well of course I was right, you ninny,” might be her retort here.)

So although with Twyla this game of favorites is usually a rapid-fire activity, I’m going to go sit on the back of the bus, stew a bit, and savor this work one dance at a time.

 

Hanging Lights in San Louis Obispo
Hanging Lights in San Louis Obispo

 

COUNTRY DANCES (1976)

Music: The Hired Hands, The Kessinger Brothers, The Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, Johnny and Albert Crockett

Costumes: Santo Loquasto

Our cast: Daniel Baker (John Selya at The Joyce), Ramona Kelley (Eva Trapp at the Joyce), Amy Ruggiero, me.

Dancerly duties: Opening square dance with the group, which feeds into a sequence of duets with Dan and the ladies, then more energetic group play (everything from do-si-do to “Red Rover,” in this case sending Kaitlyn right over). After some offstage rest comes my quirky, playful solo, a girls’ trio with Amy and Ramona, a trio with Amy and Dan, another brief offstage rest, and then a quick-footed dance-off with Ramona leading into a lively group finale. This dance is quite puffy* in the beginning and towards the end.

*causing certain difficulty breathing due to sustained physical exertion

Favorite rehearsal moment:

Working with Shelley Washington, a longtime and legendary Tharp dancer and original Country Dances cast member (Amy now dances her role). Shelley came to NYC in June to coach us and to remount some of the dance after we’d initially reconstructed it from archival video during a spring Catskills residency. She is exceptionally charismatic and vibrant on video and even more so in person, and I was so star struck sharing a studio with her after studying her on a tape for so long that I could barely function in our first few days of rehearsal.

Shelley shared with us corrections, choreographic adjustments, and detailed stories about the piece’s creation and the dialogue within it. She also encouraged our cast to develop its own genuine chemistry, an ever-challenging task for us despite the authenticity of our offstage friendships. Stage sincerity requires at least a dash of well-placed subtlety. I’m still learning when and where to calm down.

But I eventually calmed down in rehearsal, at least, and passed along my greetings to Shelley from my mother. Mom remembered so well standing next to “beautiful Shelley” in a certain well-attended, well-respected New York City ballet class many years ago, and Shelley remembered mom very well too. Oh, the look of surprise on her face: “You two are so different.” Our world is a very small world.

Twyla sat in on all of our rehearsals with Shelley, and I was so moved – but not so surprised – to observe the respect these two women have for each other after many years of working together. I teared up many an afternoon, basking in the glow of two greats and the many great stories they have to share.

Favorite performance moment:

In the dance’s final song, I do a brief but very fast duet with Ramona Kelley, in which Twyla has her dancers playfully hoofing, skipping, and attempting to outrun each other’s fast footwork. There’s a slightly competitive but always sisterly repartee here, best delivered with a kind of unpremeditated goofball glee. Easy to access when dancing opposite Ramona.

There’s also a pretty striking height difference between the two of us that reverses the striking height difference between the two women who originally danced these parts.

 

Goofing off with Ramona after rehearsal at DANY
Goofing off with Ramona after rehearsal at DANY

 

Goofing off with Ramona before Country Dances in Tuscon
Goofing off with Ramona before Country Dances in Tuscon

 

Favorite source of “danspiration”:

Christine Uchida, the original dancer in the part I’ve inherited. On tape she is brilliant: spontaneous, unmannered, and technically spot-on. I still check in with her (watch the video) regularly.

Biggest (favorite!) challenges:

Keeping the dancing — as Ms. Uchida does so well — spontaneous, unmannered, and technically spot-on while not mugging too much to the audience. I am reminded, as I watch the third presidential debate, how tremendously disastrous a misplaced and exaggerated facial expression can be. That’s one note I’ll take from Trump.

Favorite Twyla moment: Succinct post-solo observation on a particularly off-my-leg day: “Very Flannery O’Connor, but not very on your leg.”

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