BWW Interviews: Morgiana Celeste Varricchio Talks Mosaic Dance Theater
Theater can be captured in many different ways and one troupe based in New Jersey and New York takes it to another level with 'Dance Theater'. Mosaic Dance Theater will be performing on Sunday, September 9 at Luna Stage in West Orange. BroadwayWorld set down with the Producing Artistic Director Morgiana Celeste Varricchio to discuss the performance and the company.
Thanks for joining me on BroadwayWorld. I’ve seen your performances in the past and there is such a beautiful sense of theatrical nuance to all you do. Can you tell us a little about Mosaic Dance Theater Company?
Morgiana Celeste Varricchio: Thank you so much for inviting me to BroadwayWorld, Greg. Mosaic Dance Theater Company is a unique dance company, of 7 dancers, dedicated to performing the dances and folklore of the Mediterranean region, which includes North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Spain. Our dances are highly theatrical, and explore the rich cultures of this area — from the ancient to the contemporary, from the folkloric to the interpretive. Extensive research accompanies all our works, and our productions are faithful to the ethnic dance traditions of the region. We seek to transcend cultural boundaries to create truly inspired original works. Our broad repertory of dance pieces also includes dance/story-theater adaptations of folktales from the Mediterranean region. Mosaic tours nationally to performing arts venues, universities and schools, and is on the roster of arts-in-education artists for Lincoln Center’s Meet the Artist series and Young Audiences of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. My title is Producing Artistic Director, and Samara Adell is the Company’s Choreographer and Artistic Director for Dance.
I know you and I share some “Texan roots”. Tell us about your background and how you started the company.
I started out as a classically trained actor, who also sings and dances. While an apprentice actor at the Dallas Theater Center in Texas, I was introduced to Paul Sills’ concept of “story theater” by one of my instructors, Robyn Baker Flatt (co-founder and Executive Director of Dallas Children’s Theater). I positively fell in love with the style of combining narrative with dialogue. It was years before I had an opportunity to come back to the style which I did through several one-person shows, telling the myths and stories I love, but adding much dance and movement throughout. In the meanwhile, I had the opportunity to work as a production assistant for several Broadway shows, which gave me up-close knowledge of producing. My day job, which turned into a 20-years career in trade publishing, was in production. My life was all about working backwards from the release date, which is a books “opening night.” I learned much about corporate business practices. All the while, I was touring these one-person shows. And, while in “Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves” I worked with a 3-piece band of Arabic musicians, I was missing the fun of working with an ensemble. I approached Samara, my teacher for Middle Eastern dance, to collaborate with me on a school show with 4 dancers – “Caravan to Cairo.” This has been a tremendously successful show – we have been touring it since 2001 – and played the NY Fringe Festival in 2003. At that time, Lenny Bart was Producing Director at 12 Miles West Theater in Montclair. Lenny was including a Guest Artist Series in 12MW’s season, and we had an opportunity in November 2003 to present a larger show, with a bigger cast, geared for the general public, not just for school audiences. That show was titled “Mosaic.” Samara and I both wanted to continue in this new direction, and so Mosaic Dance Theater Company was founded. We incorporated as a non-profit in 2005, and, the rest, as they say, is history. If I may make a little plug here, our new website just went live and we have a brand new YouTube Channel.
So with your production on September 9, you are partnering with the WAE Center. How did that come about?
A casual meeting with Marilynn Schneider (JSDD’s WAE Center’s founder and director) at a grant awards presentation ceremony hosted by the Essex County Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs, led to an opportunity for Mosaic to present a lecture/demo not only for WAE Center members, but also for other organizations that service the disabled. It was a great success, and Marilynn and I hoped we would have an opportunity to collaborate further. The priorities set forth by the Essex County (NJ) Local Arts Program grant awards both our organizations received for 2012 was that perfect opportunity. Over a series of 8 weekly 90-minute workshops, the members of JSDD’s WAE Center are learning a short choreography of Egyptian folkloric dance, and will perform it for the audience as part of the September 9th production.
That goes to show how important those Cultural functions can be! I think it is wonderful the students from the WAE Center will be performing that day. Can you tell what it was like for you to work with them and involve them in this production?
Morgiana Celeste Varricchio: If you read “about us” on the JSDD’s WAE Center’s website, one of the key ideals they focus is on building relationships. For me, that is what this involvement is all about – getting to know each other. The members are learning a dance, and the responsibilities that go along with performing – position on stage, can you be seen, listening to the music, watching the other performers, and of course, learning the choreography. The WAE Center members will show the audience that they have the confidence within themselves to put on a costume, to get on the stage, and to execute, as best as they are able, the dance they have been learning and practicing for 8 workshops. What an encouragement that can be for all of us – to try! To do! I never hear the phrase “I can’t.”
FOLKLORE AND FANTASY sounds like a magical production. How do you create the different shows that your company does? What is your thought process?
I would say that the two main criteria in choosing a tale to adapt for our style of dance/story theater are: Are there enough dramatic elements to make the audience want to listen and watch? Can dance fit organically into the telling of the tale? Mosaic Dance Theater Company is all about the culture of the Mediterranean region, so the treasure trove of stories, myths and legends is inexhaustible. Being enamored of the Tales of the Arabian Nights and Greek mythology since I was a beginning reader, I have many favorites in these genres, and see the tales come to life in my mind. I play the images in my head, and that’s how it begins. I love the English language, and its ability to create worlds through words. I work on the story adaptation using the words to turn the listeners into their own cinematographer. Dance is written into the adaptation, as a song is written into a musical. Once the adaptation is written, I go about choosing the “soundtrack”.
The Paradise of Children was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, of all people. He is about as far away from the Mediterranean as you can get, but he re-told the Greek myths for children, and this one, the story of Pandora ’s Box, is of his best. I adapted and abridged his tale, with our performance script being about 98% Hawthorne’s own words. The playing time is 26 minutes, and is completely underscored with the music of Jehan Kamal, a multi-talented dance, singer, composer, who’s recordings are highly cinematic, with her style encompassing Middle Eastern/fusion/world beat. Once the script is ready, Samara and I meet and
discuss what needs to happen, what the dances should say, what the music is saying, characterization – you know, all the things that directors and choreographers discuss. We have developed a good way of working together, and I already have ideas for our next story.
Luna Stage has been around for twenty years, but starting their 3rd season in their new location. What is the collaboration been like in this new home?
The team at Luna Stage is very excited to be a part of this collaboration. FOLKLORE AND FANTASY, a performance of dance, music and myth from the Near East, is not the usual bill of fare for an organization known for cutting-Edge Theater. But, it is a way to open their doors to different types of entertainment, and to make Luna Stage a destination for audiences of all types. Communication between our three organizations has been open and up front, and everyone has been very proactive in solving some of the problems that have arisen in bringing a big theatrical dance production to an ever-changing black box theater space.
Any final words for the readers?
Of course! FOLKLORE AND FANTASY plays one performance only on September 9th. The show is free to the general public, but seating is limited and reservations are required. So, I urge anyone who is interested in seeing us to make reservations early so you don’t miss out. Thank you, Greg, for your interest in Mosaic Dance Theater Company.
Luna Stage is located at 555 Valley Road in West Orange, NJ. Reservations can be made at 973.272.7152
Photo 1: Morgiana Celeste Varricchio & Company. Photo by Bob Greenwald.
Photo 2: "The Paradise of Children" L to R: Kendra Dushac, Erin Pellecchia, Morgiana Celeste Varricchio, Nina Brewton, Syrene Nikole Hanna, Mary Susan Sinclair-Kuenning Photo by Bob Greenwald.