Category Archives: Events

IN HAMLET AND IN LIFE, RUTH NEGGA DOES NOT HOLD BACK ·

(Robert Ito’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/17; via Pam Green.)

The Ethiopian-Irish actress returns to a “completely destroying” stage role. Next: a film adaptation of a 1920s novel about passing for white.

LOS ANGELES — What stage actor wouldn’t jump at the chance to play Hamlet? Ruth Negga, for one. When she was offered the role at Dublin’s Gate Theater in 2018, her first impulse was to say thanks, but no. Too tough, too daunting, “too much,” she said. In 2010, Negga had tackled Ophelia at the National Theater in London — surely that experience would give her a leg up?

Nothing helps you play Hamlet,” she laughed.

Negga ultimately took the role, however, earning rave reviews. The Guardian praised her “priceless ability to savor the language,” while the Irish edition of The Times of London called her performance “a stunning gift for Irish theatergoers.”

If she made it all look easy, however, it was anything but. “It nearly killed me,” said Negga, who is perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated turn in the 2016 biopic “Loving,” in which she played a woman who endures jail time and exile for the then-crime of being married to a white man in 1950s Virginia. “If you ask anyone who’s played Hamlet, it’s completely destroying,” she said. “It cracks you open, and you feel like you’re this mass of nerves and open skin.”

(Read more)

Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

REVIEW: ARTHUR MILLER’S DYING ‘SALESMAN’ IS REBORN IN LONDON ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/ 2; via Pam Green.  Those who like Death of a Salesman may also enjoy End Zone, playing at Dixon Place, 2/25.)

An electrifying revival, starring a heartbreaking Wendell Pierce, reimagines Willy Loman as a black man in a white man’s world.

LONDON — The tired old man has had an unexpected transfusion. And he has seldom seemed more alive — or more doomed.

What’s most surprising about Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s beautiful revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which I mercifully caught near the end of its West End run here at the Piccadilly Theater, is how vital it is. As Willy Loman, the title character of this epochal 1949 drama, lives out his last, despondent days, what has often felt like a plodding walk to the grave in previous incarnations becomes a propulsive — and compulsively watchable — dance of death.

Portrayed by a splendid Wendell Pierce (“The Wire” and “Treme” on television), Willy lacks the stooped shoulders and slumped back with which he is traditionally associated. (It’s the posture immortalized in the book cover for the original script.)

This electrically alert and eager Willy nearly always stands ramrod tall in this production, which originated at the Young Vic Theater, though you sense it’s an effort. When we first see him, newly returned to his Brooklyn home from an aborted road trip, he bends to put down the sample case he holds in each hand. And for a painful second, he registers how much it hurts him to straighten up again.

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Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

THEATER RESOURCES UNLIMITED JANUARY PANEL DISCUSSION NEW YEAR, NEW RULES:  THE UPDATED EQUITY AGREEMENTS AND CONTRACTS THURSDAY, JANUARY 16, 2020 ·

(via Michelle Tabnick)

BE A PRODUCER!

Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU) presents the January Panel, New Year, New Rules: The Updated Equity Agreements and Contracts, on Thursday, January 16, 2020 at 7:30pm at Polaris North Theater, 245 W. 29th Street, 4th floor, NYC. E-mail TRUStaff1@gmail.com or register online at https://truonline.org/events/new-year-new-rules/.

Equity is constantly evolving in an effort to serve their members fairly, and also keep up with the realities of the business. There have been some recent new understandings that have come to light, as well as some new interpretations of existing rules, and all of it will impact the way we approach early development of new work. This panel will help us learn about the new Equity development contracts: Tier 1, 2 & 3. What do they mean? How do they replace the previous terms “Workshop,” “Laboratory,” and other developmental contracts? Equity is changing their rules, and every producer needs to be up to speed on what the new rules are.

Panelists to include general manager Evan Bernardin of Evan Bernardin Productions (National Tours of Million Dollar QuartetCharlie Brown Christmas Live; Off  Broadway  AfterglowMustDiasporaCounting Sheep); TRU literary manager Cate Cammarata, director, producer (My Life Is a Musical, The Assignment, My Father’s Daughter), Martin Platt of Perry Street Theatricals (Dames at Sea on Broadway, Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike; off-Broadway: Bedlam’s Hamlet/St. JoanSense & SensibilityGeorgiean oak tree, In the Continuum; Lend Me a Tenor the musical in London); plus a representative from Equity.

Doors open at 7:00pm for networking and refreshments, roundtable introductions of everyone in the room will start at 7:30pm – come prepared with your best half-minute summary of who you are, and what you need. Free for TRU members; $13.00 for non-members ($16 at the door). Please reserve online at https://truonline.org/events/new-year-new-rules/, call at least a day in advance (or much sooner) for reservations: 833-506-5550, or email TRUStaff1@gmail.com.

Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU) is the leading network for developing theater professionals, a twenty-seven-year-old 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization created to help producers produce, emerging theater companies to emerge healthily and all theater professionals to understand and navigate the business of the arts. Membership includes self-producing artists as well as career producers and theater companies.

TRU publishes an email community newsletter of services, goods and productions; offers a Producer Development & Mentorship Program taught by prominent producers and general managers in New York theater, and also presents Producer Boot Camp workshops to help aspirants develop business skills. TRU serves writers through a Writer-Producer Speed Date, a Practical Playwriting Workshop, How to Write a Musical That Works and a Director-Writer Communications Lab; programs for actors include the Annual Combined Audition.

Programs of Theater Resources Unlimited are supported in part by public funds awarded through the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, as well as the Montage Foundation and the Leibowitz Greenway Foundation.

For more information about TRU membership and programs, visit www.truonline.org.

Photos (top to bottom): Evan Bernardin, Cate Cammarata, Martin Platt; photos via Tru site. 

 

 

DIXON PLACE ANNOUNCES 2020 SEASON AND CRIMINAL QUEERNESS FESTIVAL CO-PRODUCTION WITH NATIONAL QUEER THEATER ·

Dixon Place is thrilled to announce our 2020 season, featuring nine commissioned original productions and four puppetry productions, including Concrete Temple Theatre, Sara Juli, Eszter Balint & Stew, Shayna Strype, Rachel Klein, Nora Burns, Marga Gomez, Maria Camia, Andy Manjuck, Dorothy James and Arif Silverman. 

Additionally, Dixon Place is proud to co-produce and present the Criminal Queerness Festival with National Queer Theater in June. Following the success of last year’s inaugural Criminal Queerness Festival—featured on “Best of Pride” lists in The New York Times, The Advocate, and Thrillist—the 2020 Festival will feature original works by four renowned queer playwrights from around the world. Dixon Place is located at 161A Chrystie Street in Manhattan, for tickets and further information please visit www.dixonplace.org 

 

THEATER, PUPPETRY

January 31 – February 14, 2020

Concrete Temple Theatre 

Packrat

Created by Carlo Adinolfi & Renee Philippi

 

Set deep in the Sagebrush Desert, this visually stunning puppet-forward play contemplates humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Puppetry, projections and an original score elegantly come together to create many layers of meaning and emotion, presented simply and elegantly with engaging and captivating puppets ranging from Bunraku to Pageant styles. 

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DANCE, COMEDY, THEATER
February 21 – 28, 2020
New York City Premiere
Burnt-Out Wife
Created & performed by Sara Juli

With her comically idiosyncratic text-driven dance style, Juli takes on monogamy, intimacy, loneliness, sex deprivation, and other impossibilities of marriage. In a pepto-bismol pink bathroom, this dance-theater-comedy tackles the taboo and urgent social topic of the detritus of committed partnerships, sparking intimate conversations while blowing up the marital institution with humor, controversy, and explicit personal musing and disclosure. For mature audiences only.

 

 

MUSIC, THEATER
March 20 – 28, 2020

I Hate Memory
Written by Eszter Balint

Songs by Eszter Balint & StewFeaturing: The Musicians 

Directed by Lucy Sexton

Media Design: Tal Yarden

Musical director: David Nagler

 

An anti-cabaret co-starring the Streets of New York and the Late 20th Century, the show features appearances by family, film, fame, immigration, joy, theater, shame, dance floors, open doors, papaya ice cream, and the Shah of Iran’s wife. This reluctant memoir is served on a bed of song and dirt, with a punk aperitif and Jimmy Carter for dessert. 

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THEATER, PUPPETRY

April 10 – 25, 2020

MINE

Created & performed by Shayna Strype

Live Feed Camera/Dramaturgy by Desiree Mitton 

 

MINE uses a variety of puppetry styles, live-feed projections, stop-motion animation, wearable sculptures, and humor to weave together themes of nostalgia, excess, and the destructive human urge to colonize land, bodies, and minds. 

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DANCE,THEATER

May 1 – 16, 2020

Breaking Glass

Conceived & Directed by Rachel Klein

Choreography by Rachel Klein, Danielle Marie Fusco, & the ensemble

Aerial Choreography by Summer Lacy and Chloe Goolsby

Featuring: Danielle Marie Fusco, Summer Lacy, Chloe Goolsby, Federico Garcia, Shoko Fujita, Joey Kipp, Manuela Agudelo, Connor Dealy, Stephanie Nobel, Amy Mack, Ricardo Barrett, & Andrea Dusel-Foil

 

Breaking Glass follows the plight of the Furies, three tenacious heroines who enter a land of Kings, confronted with outrage from the ruling class as they fight to earn their place as respected leaders. Through an allegorical dreamscape, this deeply personal piece inspired by true events serves to break down the barriers of intolerance through profoundly inspiring performances.

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THEATER, DANCE, QUEER INTEREST

May 20 – 30, 2020

The Village, or A Fag*, A Hag*, a Drag*, a Hustler*, a John*, a Junkie* and a Jew* Walk into a Bar (*sorry, *I know, *wrong, *dated, *what, *stop, *really?!) 

Written by Nora Burns

Directed by Mike Albo

Choreographed by Robin Carrigan

 

1979, New York City. Trade, a hustler living in “Old George’s” apartment, brings home his latest trick, Steve, an earnest NYU student, as friends, neighbors and addicts come by to drink, drug, flirt, dream and dish about love, life, death and taxis. A Village, or… is a dance-filled disco comedy with an ensemble cast of eight (plus gorgeous go-go boys!), a meta musical with high jinks, low kinks, softcore porn and rock hard abs very loosely based on Our Town, with apologies to Thornton Wilder. 

 

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THEATER, QUEER INTREST

June 2020

Criminal Queerness Festival

Curated by National Queer Theater

Bringing together renowned queer playwrights from around the world, National Queer Theater and Dixon Place are providing a platform for artists facing censorship, shining a light on critical stories from across the globe. In order to build a truly global queer community, these writers are inspiring activism and shaping our culture towards the equitable treatment of LGBTQ people around the world. A Mayor’s Grant for Cultural Impact awardee, the festival is proud to partner with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs for community engagement and outreach. Don’t miss The New York Times and The Advocate recommended theatrical event of the Pride season!

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THEATER, QUEER INTREST

July 16 – 25, 2020

Spanking Machine

Written & Performed by Marga Gomez

Directed by Adrian Alexander Alea

 

In Spanking Machine, GLAAD Award-winning writer/performer Marga Gomez shifts across gender, latitudes and generations in a darkly comic memoir about the first boy she ever sloppy-kissed and how it made them gay forever.

 

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THEATER, PUPPETRY

September 18 – 26, 2020

New Mony

Created by Maria Camia

Puppeteers: Leonie Bell, Maria Camia, Connie Fu, Marcella Murray, Leah Ogawa

 

Step into the colorful, comical, spiritual, sci-fi world of Aricama where we explore duality and ancestry with puppets, Toy Theater, body costumes, original live music, and projections in this full-length workshop production. 

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THEATER, PUPPETRY

October 2020, dates to be announced

Bill’s 44th

Created & performed by Andy Manjuck & Dorothy James 

 

Drawing from Bunraku and character driven object theatre, Bill’s 44th examines the loneliness of one man puppeteered by two people. He throws himself a party which isn’t well attended, and attempts to cheer himself up by creating some friends out of crudité and party balloons. Against all odds he succeeds and finds himself having a grand old time, but when a “real” guest arrives a wave of shame comes over him and he quickly destroys his newly created friends.

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THEATER,PLAY

November 6 – 21, 2020

World Premiere 

Dream of Rays 

Written by Arif Silverman

Directed by Lillian White

Featuring visuals by Julia Melfi

 

Not all is as it seems aboard Commander Viola Nightfire’s ship The Mad Wraith. Nightfire and her crew have been tasked by the Queen of the Silvercliffs to sail west and capture a school of singing Manta Rays, in hopes their ethereal, transcendent voices will restore the dying waters of their seaside kingdom. Grudges and deceptions run rampant, exacerbated by the presence of the Queen’s mysterious ambassador. With a cast of ten, Dream of Rays is a wild new play that explores the different ways humankind can react to the prospect of a crumbling world.

 

Dixon Place

An artistic incubator since 1986, Dixon Place is a Bessie and Obie Award-winning non-profit institution committed to supporting the creative process by presenting original works of theater, dance, music, puppetry, circus arts, literature and visual art at all stages of development.  Presenting over 1000 creators a year, this local haven inspires and encourages diverse artists of all stripes and callings to take risks, generate new ideas and consummate new practices. Many artists, such as Blue Man Group, John Leguizamo, Lisa Kron, David Cale, David Drake, Deb Margolin and Reno, began their careers at DP. In addition to emerging artists, Dixon Place has been privileged to present established artists such as Mac Wellman, Holly Hughes, Justin Bond, Karen Finley, Kate Clinton and Martha Wainwright.  After spawning a salon in her Paris apartment in 1985, founding Artistic Director Ellie Covan pioneered the institution in her NYC living room for 23 years. Covan was a recipient of a Bessie, a New York Dance and Performance Award and a Bax10 Award for her service to the community. Dixon Place received two Obie Awards, and an Edwin Booth Award for Excellence in Theater. Dixon Place has organically developed and expanded into a leading professional, state-of-the-art facility for artistic expression. www.dixonplace.org 

 

Dixon Place’s 2020 season is made possible with public funds from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs with support from the City Council/Councilmember Margaret Chin/ Manhattan Borough President/NYC Dept for the Aging/Materials for the Arts with support from the NYC Depts of Sanitation & Education; NY State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo & the NY State Legislature; NY State Assemblymember Deborah Glick with funds from NYS Office of Children & Family Services; and the National Endowment for the Arts; and with private support from Axe-Houghton Foundation, Dramatists Guild Fund, Gerald J. & Dorothy R. Friedman Foundation, The Howard Gilman Foundation, The Greater New Orleans Foundation, The Harkness Foundation for Dance, The Jane Henson Foundation, The Jim Henson Foundation, The Jerome Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Mertz Gilmore Foundation, Poets & Writers, The Jerome Robbins Foundation, The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation and The Shubert Foundation. New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, with lead funding from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

HOW A JERRY HERMAN SONG LANDED A TRIPLE PUNCH ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/27; via Pam Green.)

A comedy number from the flop “Mack & Mabel” found the unexpected sweet spot between Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim.

It was always a canard that Jerry Herman, the big-thump tunesmith, and Stephen Sondheim, the big-think musical dramatist, represented opposing and hostile camps.

 

In fact, they were doing the same thing: finding ways to make characters sing as they must. Herman’s Mame couldn’t have pattered a list of cannibal puns any more than Sondheim’s Mrs. Lovett could have belted a brassy ballad about the boy that got away — though both perfectly suited Angela Lansbury, who introduced “If He Walked Into My Life,” in “Mame,” and “A Little Priest,” in “Sweeney Todd,” 13 years apart. The difference was in the stories Sondheim and Herman, who died on Thursday at 88, wanted to tell, leading their songs where they had to go.

(Read more)

 

IRISH THEATRE IN 2019: A DRAMATIC YEAR THAT LEFT THE FUTURE UNCERTAIN ·

(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 12/7.)

Theatre in Ireland this year was bookended by two crises, a state of play mirrored by the work  

It was a dramatic year for theatre, bookended by two moments of crisis. The first played out in the full glare of public attention. The other, which is happening now, has been observed more quietly, if at all.

Barely one week into 2019, Irish theatre was once again a news story. On January 7th, an open letter lambasting the Abbey’s production model, for Abbey directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren’s perceived overreliance on staging co-productions and insufficient employment opportunities at the National Theatre, among other grievances, was signed by 312 theatre professionals.

So began a turbulent year for the Abbey, which dealt with the fallout in media statements, a tense committee hearing in the Oireachtas, and a series of meetings with industry representatives, finally yielding commitments and outcomes. By the time it announced its programme for 2020 this month, with a balance between self-produced and co-produced work that did not appear radically different, the outcry had faded away, either because communication between involved parties had become clearer, or because such an explosion of protest could only immolate the building or fizzle out.

Overshadowed by the furore at the time was the kind of co-production in question, when Karl Shiels brought his dark double-bill The Ridleys to the Peacock. This might have been a breakout moment for Shiels’s Theatre Upstairs, the actor/director’s tenacious home for short-form new writing, and a launch pad for new careers.

Sadly, it turned out to be the theatre’s swansong: a couple of months later, Theatre Upstairs announced its closure after nine years in business. In any circumstances, the end of a venue committed exclusively to new work would feel unnatural, like the loss of promise. But that sensation became unbearably tragic in July when Shiels, a tireless advocate for new artists and energising audiences, died at the age of 47.

(Read more)

Photo: Irish Times

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, HELLO, DOLLY! COMPOSER AND BROADWAY LEGEND JERRY HERMAN DIES AT 88 ·

(Mark Kennedy’s article appeared in Time Magazine, 10/27.)

Tony Award-winning composer Jerry Herman, who wrote the cheerful, good-natured music and lyrics for such classic shows as MameHello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles, died Thursday. He was 88.

His goddaughter Jane Dorian confirmed his death to The Associated Press early Friday. He died of pulmonary complications in Miami, where he had been living with his partner, real estate broker Terry Marler.

The creator of 10 Broadway shows and contributor to several more, Herman won two Tony Awards for best musical: Hello, Dolly! in 1964 and La Cage aux Folles in 1983. He also won two Grammys — for the Mame cast album and “Hello, Dolly!” as song of the year — and was a Kennedy Center honoree.

Herman wrote in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition, an optimistic composer at a time when others in his profession were exploring darker feelings and material. Just a few of his song titles revealed his depth of hope: “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow,” “The Best of Times,” “Tap Your Troubles Away,” “It’s Today,” “We Need a Little Christmas” and “Before the Parade Passes By.”  Even the title song to “Hello, Dolly!” is an advertisement to enjoy life.

(Read more)

Photo: Jack Robinson—Hulton Archive/Getty Images

MAKING SHAKESPEARE SING: ON VERDI: CREATING “OTELLO” AND “FALSTAFF”—HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE RICORDI ARCHIVE ·

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York of Books 12/19.)

Verdi: Creating “Otello” and “Falstaff”—Highlights from the Ricordi Archive

an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, September 6, 2019–January 5, 2020

Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings

Scenography by Osbert Lancaster for a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at the Edinburgh Festival, 1955

The process of adapting a play into an opera is a little like forcing the original text to drink a concoction out of Alice in Wonderland: some aspects of it will shrink or evaporate, others are magnified to unrecognizable dimensions, and the whole thing falls through music’s rabbit hole into a parallel world where very different laws apply. This fraught alchemy has bewildered many a composer. Sources that seem unimpeachably strong (classic plays, beloved movies, Great American Novels) can wilt or fail to catch fire when set to music, while material that might seem slight, simplistic, or impractical can, in the hands of an inventive composer, reveal unsuspected power and hidden depths. Sometimes, if seldom, one has the sense that a play, a novel, or even a real-life incident came into being mainly so that it could be reincarnated as an opera.

Giuseppe Verdi’s last two operas, the Shakespearean diptych of Otello and Falstaff, together constitute my favorite case study in what happens when a play is made to stand up and sing. Both the source material and the musical adaptations are works of singular beauty and power. To study these operas alongside their sources is to see what is gained and what is lost, what remains intact and what is transformed, when a complex human drama is adapted from speech into song. Otello is an exceedingly rare breed, practically a unicorn: a masterpiece based on a masterpiece. And Falstaff, a long-pent-up belly laugh of a piece that Verdi unleashed on the world after a lifetime of composing tragedies, achieves something rarer still: it is a love letter to Shakespeare that expands on Shakespeare’s work, putting Sir John Falstaff center stage in a work that’s big and bold enough for his irrepressible, irresponsible spirit.

These two operas are the subject of “Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff,” a gem of an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Curated by Gabriele Dotto, the former director of publishing at Ricordi, Verdi’s publishing house, it affords an engrossing glimpse of the vast collaborative effort required to bring an opera into the world. By the time he wrote Otello and Falstaff, Verdi was a national icon, as famous and familiar as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and it is touching to see evidence of the care that a huge team—engravers, printers, costume designers, painters—put into the creation of this old man’s uncannily youthful last works.

Verdi loved Shakespeare throughout his life, but it took decades for his music to become Shakespearean. He came of age during what has become known as the bel canto period of Italian opera, during which the glorification of the human voice was composers’ fundamental priority; bel canto literally means “beautiful song” or “beautiful singing.” Works from this era—by composers such as Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti—are distinguished by long, sensuously unspooling melodies and passages of fast, florid vocal gymnastics; the harmonic palette is simple and the harmonic progressions few and familiar. An aesthetic whose central focus is the wonder of the beautifully produced voice inevitably lets some other aspects of the art form fall by the wayside: one generally doesn’t turn to a bel canto opera for an evening of taut, seamless drama.

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Photo: Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings

Visit the Morgan Library online  

200 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE, AND STILL LEARNING ONSTAGE ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/18; via Pam Green.)

Lois Smith, Estelle Parsons and Vinie Burrows on age, agility, perseverance and steering clear of “self-pitying old” roles.

“I am rarely cast as an ingénue anymore,” Lois Smith was saying on Monday afternoon. It was a joke, obviously, and her fellow actresses — Estelle Parsons, 92, and Vinie Burrows, who recently turned 95 but rounds that up to 96 — burst into laughter.

At 89, Smith was the baby of this bunch. Between them, they have more than 200 years of performance experience, including the film “Lady Bird” and the title role in “Marjorie Prime” (Smith), the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” and the sitcom “Roseanne” (Parsons), the American premiere of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” and experimental work with the director Rachel Chavkin (Burrows).

They’re still busy adding to their résumés: Parsons currently at the Public Theater in Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day,” as a character whose name translates to “The Old One”; Smith on Broadway, with a talky role in Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance”; Burrows back Off Broadway next month in “Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories,” at the Mint Theater Company.

In the room with them, you’d never guess their ages from their appearance, only from the discussion’s vintage details — as when Burrows and Smith tried to figure out what they might have worked on together, and the closest they got was a play each of them did on Broadway with Helen Hayes. (Burrows was in the original 1950 production of “The Wisteria Trees,” Smith in the 1955 revival.)

(Read more)

Photo: Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

BOOK: JOAN ACOCELLA ON ‘MARIUS PETIPA: THE EMPEROR’S BALLET MASTER’ ·

A scene in the Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère, 1900; from Marius Petipa: La Dansomanie, a two-volume album in three languages published last year by the St. Petersburg Museum of Theater and Music to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Petipa’s birth

(Acocella’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 12/19.)

Souls in Single File

Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master

by Nadine Meisner

Oxford University Press, 497 pp., $34.95

A scene in the Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère, 1900; from Marius Petipa: La Dansomanie, a two-volume album in three languages published last year by the St. Petersburg Museum of Theater and Music to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Petipa’s birth

It will surprise many people, but not many dance historians, that the most productive and influential ballet choreographer of the late nineteenth century, the Franco-Russian Marius Petipa (1818–1910), was accorded no biography for more than a century after his death. Dance was central to the religious and patriotic festivals of ancient Greece and Rome, but with the transfer of power to the Christian church, it was pretty much kicked out of the arts. It was too closely associated with bodily pleasure. Social dance probably never died out among common folk. As for the better-placed folk, the processions in which the servants of the French and Italian courts of the Renaissance brought dinner to their guests involved, if not exactly dancing, then a great deal of synchronized gown-swishing and foot-pointing. But dance did not officially reenter the lists of the high arts in the West until the seventeenth century, under Louis XIV. Louis imported music masters and dance masters, mostly from Italy, to create elaborate allegorical ballets, in which he himself appeared. In 1661, he founded Europe’s first proper dance school, the Académie Royale de la Danse.

In those days, dance people, like most other theater people, tended to come in families, including actors and musicians as well, because not all of them had a royal academy to teach them their arts. They learned from their mothers and fathers. Also, there was still a stigma attached to making one’s living on the stage (Molière, famously, was denied a Christian burial), so theatrical professionals often married within their own ranks and thereby created clans.

One was the Petipas of France and Belgium. Their name starts appearing in the annals of the Continental theater at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Marius Petipa was the son of a ballet master (that is, a teacher/choreographer) and an actress; most of his siblings too were theater people. In the beginning, he was not the star of the family. That was his older brother, Lucien, a handsomer man and a far better technician. Lucien was the premier classicist of the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest and most respected company in Europe. (It was the descendant of Louis XIV’s academy.) He was in demand all the way to Russia, but when Russia called, it is said, Lucien, already in possession of a good job, declined, and recommended his younger brother. Thus, in 1847, Marius Petipa, age twenty-nine, presented himself at St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet and was given a one-year, let’s-see contract. As it turned out, he stayed for sixty-three years and was the company’s artistic director—or first ballet master, as they called it—for nearly thirty-five years. In Russia he created more than fifty original ballets, mounted versions of nineteen other ballets, and fashioned dances for thirty-seven operas. Today, the name of Lucien is known only to specialists, whereas Marius is acknowledged as the prime creator of late-nineteenth-century ballet and, one could say, the foremost source of twentieth-century ballet as well.

Still, this did not earn him a proper biography—in any language, not just English—until last spring, with the publication of Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master by Nadine Meisner, a longtime dance critic in London.1 The book is low on analysis, but at last someone has collected the facts—the successes, the flops, everybody’s patronymic—and put them down in graceful English prose.

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