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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Adrienne Jean Fisher of 'Banana Shpeel'

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You may have already seen Adrienne Jean Fisher working for Cirque du Soleil. If, sometime in the spring of 2006, you were walking near Rockefeller Center and a young woman in high heels and angel wings handed you a flyer advertising Cirque du Soleil’s show Corteo…that was Adrienne.

Starting next month, you can again see her working for Cirque du Soleil. This time, though, she’ll be on the stage of the Beacon Theatre, in various costumes, as a cast member of Banana Shpeel. The new show, scheduled to begin a limited engagement next month at the Beacon on the Upper West Side, will mark Fisher’s New York City theatrical debut—and the fulfillment of a dream born of that promotional gig for Corteo. Fisher was given free tickets to Corteo, the first Cirque du Soleil show she’d ever seen. “I was just blown away,” she says. “At that point, I remember thinking: Oh, my gosh, I want to work for this company so badly.” She submitted her photo and résumé—and even video of her dancing—over and over to Cirque du Soleil.

When she finally got to try out for Cirque du Soleil last spring, she was put through two full days of tap and hip-hop at an audition specifically for the new show. A couple of weeks later, she went to a general ballet and modern audition that Cirque du Soleil holds periodically to find dancers for all its shows. She was feeling confident afterward, since she’d made it to the final 15 or so, but then she didn’t hear from the company. Adding to her uncertainty, about a week later she ran into a dancer from the Cirque auditions, who cheerily told Fisher she’d gotten the job. A couple of months went by before Fisher herself got the call that she was hired.

Her career heretofore has entailed ensemble work in regional theaters, modeling for print ads and performing with dance companies and on a cruise ship. But for almost a year now, Fisher’s life has been all about Cirque du Soleil. After being cast in its then-untitled new project, she spent three months at Cirque du Soleil’s Montreal HQ not just in rehearsal but in creation. The idea was already there: a vaudeville-inspired show that would incorporate both old-fashioned and contemporary types of dance and comedy and would hew as much to musical theater as to circus (the show is written and directed by David Shiner of the Tony-winning Fool Moon). But many Banana Shpeel numbers were developed in the rehearsal studio with the cast. “I had never been part of a process like that, where you walk into a room and everyone is improvising,” says Adrienne, known to her friends as AJ. “As a dancer, you don’t get asked to do that a lot.” AJ and her castmates participated in clowning workshops with Shiner, had individual and group voice lessons, tested out Jared Grimes’ choreography and did all kinds of other “really off-the-wall, creative stuff,” she says.  

Banana Shpeel is heavy on tap and hip-hop. “Jared is a master of rhythm, and that is really contagious,” says Fisher. “I’m inspired to expand my understanding of complex rhythm and dynamics in hip-hop and tap because of him.” She previously studied hip-hop with Kelly Peters at Steps on Broadway and has appeared in a hip-hop instructional video. As for tap, well, the last musical Fisher was in was 42nd Street (at North Shore Music Theatre in her home state, Massachusetts).

The Banana Shpeel ensemble was also schooled in eccentric dance by Betsy Baytos. Eccentric dance, which was popular in vaudeville, is characterized by loose-limbed and contortionist-like moves. Baytos, one of the leading experts on the genre, has worked as both a dancer and a Disney dance animator, and Fisher says that Baytos had them study and imitate such cartoon characters as Goofy and Olive Oyl, who walk in an eccentric-dance-like fashion.

Banana Shpeel premiered with a December run in Chicago, with mostly the same cast, including Fisher. (Its New York opening, now set for April 29, has been postponed several times as revisions are being made.) In the five or so years prior to her employment with Banana Shpeel, Fisher was based in New York but working elsewhere. In 2008, she was in two musicals choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld: The Music Man at the Kansas City Starlight and North Shore’s 42nd Street. She was in a touring production of White Christmas, directed by Jeff Calhoun, and choreographed by Noah Racey, that originated at Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars in December 2007. During the 2005-06 season, Fisher earned her Equity card in the ensembles of Singin’ in the Rain and Gigi at the Barter Theatre in southern Virginia.

In the summer of 2008, Fisher appeared as one of the guest artists of the El Salvador Youth Symphony Orchestra in an “I Love Broadway” revue. The production, which had public performances in the capital city of San Salvador, was funded by the Salvadoran government. Importing talent from other countries to work with their young artists, the government had invited the Brooklyn-based dance company Purelements to stage the Broadway revue. Fisher has taught tap at Purelements, which was cofounded by Lakai Worrell, a former dance partner of hers in Balance Dance Theatre.

She’s worked with Balance Dance (also based in Brooklyn) on and off for a few years and considers its founder, Obediah Wright, a “wonderful mentor.” Fisher met Wright on one of her first jobs in New York, dancing with the Phoenix Rising troupe in a piece choreographed by Candice Franklin that was part of a modern dance showcase at the 14th Street Y. Wright was one of the other choreographers featured, and Fisher recalls being “floored” by his work. She gave him her name and email address but didn’t hear from him. A couple of months later, she headed out to Brooklyn to take Wright’s class at Restoration Plaza in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Wright was thrilled to see her—he’d been trying to reach her but had been unable to do so because he’d misread her handwriting. She went on to perform with his Balance Dance Theatre, including in a piece called “Ibomba,” which was set to Cirque du Soleil music.

Fisher says that dancing for Wright “was such good preparation for anything and everything, because after doing his work, everything else seems like a breeze.” Wright would sometimes rehearse his dancers for seven hours straight—“really hard-core contemporary ballet, African, jazz,” she says, “and he drilled us.” Among the things Fisher says she learned from Wright is “singing a dance phrase in my head before dancing it,” which basically involves substituting onomatopoeic sounds for counts while dancing. “If you’re singing it in your head,” she says, “you’re probably breathing the same as everyone else. That really taught me about breathing, about tempo, about shading the movement.”

As a child, she was taught by Jodie Nelson at Sherry Gold Dance Studio, one of New England’s premier dance schools. “It’s a big part of why I’m here now,” says Fisher, who studied ballet, tap and jazz at Gold—located in Brockton, Mass., some 20 miles from her home in Middleboro (near Plymouth)—from age 6 to 18. The studio brought in professional choreographers from New York and Los Angeles as teachers, held intensive workshops for kids during the summer and trained rigorously for regional and national competitions. In her middle school years, Fisher was first runner-up in Junior Miss Dance of New England, which qualified her for the nationals (run by Dance Masters of America) in Anaheim, Calif. She also performed with her Gold classmates at the White House—as entertainment during the annual Easter Egg Hunt on the White House lawn. Fisher didn’t meet Bill Clinton, who was president at the time, but she and the Gold contingent were greeted by Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy.

Fisher’s parents had met doing community theater, and they both played the guitar and sang. Their older daughter, Adrienne, was always putting on a show anywhere she could—even using her father’s crutches (after he was in a car accident) as props. She’d try to rope her sister, Jessica, into performing with her, but Jessica was more into 4-H and horseback riding. “My mom was always encouraging, and would always try to make every little performance of mine and my sister’s, even though she was sometimes working 80 hours a week,” Fisher says lovingly. “My mom instilled a severe work ethic through her own discipline. She was a single mom who, against a lot of odds, made sure that my sister and I had something to look forward to. She was the one who put me in dance class.”

Dancing left little time for any other extracurricular activities, though Fisher sang in the school choir. During her senior year, she competed in Junior Miss, finishing as first runner-up statewide. “Many people said that the girl who won had teachers on the judge panel—I like to believe that,” Fisher says with a smile. For the talent portion of the pageant, she performed a dance piece (choreographed by Nelson) that was set to wind chimes and a recording of her reciting a poem she wrote.

After high school, Fisher enrolled on scholarship at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley, about 90 miles outside Manhattan. She studied theater and dance, and took the train into the city to audition for musicals. Once she started having some success getting callbacks, she became eager to pursue work instead of attend school. “I didn’t feel like my heart was there,” she says of college, and after a year she left Bard and moved to L.A. with her then boyfriend.

In California, Fisher took dance classes at The Edge and Millennium, studied acting at Margie Haber Studios, auditioned for commercials, acted in student and small independent films—and waited tables. “I feel L.A. was really about training—training and learning what it was to audition, and feeling out the professional world for the first time,” she says of her two years there. She made her professional debut in Show Boat at Musical Theatre West of Long Beach in 2002, and performed at two more shows there that season: Me and My Girl and Mame (starring Carol Lawrence and Sally Struthers).

She also performed with Los Angeles Choreographers & Dancers, a company run by Louise Reichlin, and with the Zapped Taps troupe headed by Reichlin’s husband, Alfred Desio. Her work for them included playing played Ojo the Munchkin in Reichlin’s dance adaptation of The Patchwork Girl of Oz, one of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz sequels, and dancing with Zapped Taps at an international automobile trade show in Taipei.

One of her last jobs in L.A. was portraying Sarah Connor in the “Terminator 2: 3D” show at Universal Studios theme park. Fisher had to get a gun permit for the job, since she used a real machine gun (shooting blanks) in the production and had to clean the gun after every performance. The gig also involved such activities as running and rappelling down ropes. “It was like boot camp,” says Fisher, who had to train for two weeks just to get the weapons permit and says she never felt completely at ease on the job, even after doing it for five months.

From L.A., Fisher went out on a cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas, for about eight months. She performed in shows on board, and by the time she disembarked to settle in NYC, she’d begun dating one of the ship’s musicians, Christopher Duff. Fisher and Duff got engaged last year, right before she headed to Montreal to start work for Cirque du Soleil, but they haven’t set a wedding date yet.

While Fisher has occasionally had to work off stage to make ends meet, her jobs generally have some connection to performing. She’s taught at dance studios in Brooklyn and New Jersey, and has worked for entertainment companies, doing everything from cutting bread to dancing a duet at bar mitzvahs and kids’ parties. And she cleans at Steps on Broadway to defray the cost of her classes there.

Her past gigs also include roaming Times Square in a (30-pound!) SpongeBob SquarePants costume—she’s the officially licensed one, who mingles with holiday tourists outside the MTV/Viacom building the day before Thanksgiving. She’s also handed out flyers dressed as a BlackBerry cell phone in Brooklyn. But Fisher doesn’t scoff at such offbeat jobs. In high school, she worked on a farm picking fruits and vegetables (and then driving to Boston to sell them) and says, “That experience has made me want to live on a farm ‘when I grow up,’ maybe even in a log cabin like the one my dad built for us when I was growing up.”

In the meantime, Fisher proclaims, “I’m addicted to the city.” Since moving to New York 5½ years ago, she’s pursued a sideline writing about dance. She launched a blog, A Dancer’s Life, and has contributed to DancerUniverse.com and iDanz. In the future, Fisher would like to get a college degree. She took some classes at Cal State Northridge and other L.A. area colleges after dropping out of Bard, but it will probably be a while before she returns to school, and when she does, she’ll probably study “something I just don’t know about,” she says.

Photos of Adrienne, from top: posing last month in the lobby of the Beacon Theatre while it’s being prepped for the Cirque du Soleil run; in the foreground at right, performing in the North Shore Music Theatre production of 42nd Street; with director/choreographer Obediah Wright following a 2004 performance of “Ibomba” by Balance Dance Theatre; center, during the Chicago run of Banana Shpeel with fellow ensemble members Robyn Baltzer (left) and Adrienne Reid; dressed for the finale of White Christmas; in costume backstage of Singin in the Rain. [Homepage photo of Adrienne by Christopher Duff]


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