GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Kristine Bendul of 'Come Fly Away'

Last seen on Broadway dancing to the songs of Billy Joel, Kristine Bendul is now on Broadway dancing to the songs of Frank Sinatra. Both shows—Movin’ Out then, Come Fly Away now—were created by director/choreographer Twyla Tharp. And while these danced-through productions, with their hyperactive choreography, are demanding on the performers, there’s a unique freedom in dancing a Twyla Tharp musical. “Working with Twyla, she encourages you to have the emotion move you rather than the steps,” says Bendul. “Nothing’s really set in concrete. There’s a vibe, and you’ll be experiencing different moments at different times.”

A regular in the so-called alternate cast of Come Fly Away, Bendul plays Slim at Wednesday and Saturday matinees (Rika Okamoto fills the role at other times). “The Slim character is probably one of the parts that is more open to freedom of expression, more open to explore,” says Bendul. “Say you are used to doing three [counts], and one day five happens. So you’re like: Okay, I’m a little late, so how am I going to come out of this differently? It’s exciting.” She notes that while doing “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” one of Slim’s big numbers, “some days I’ve been caught off-guard because my partner, the focal character, did something so funny. I just went with it. I have to stop and laugh, and it’s okay because my character can do that.”

Like many in the Come Fly Away cast, Bendul hails from the classical world, where spontaneity is a no-no. In contrast to “ballet, which is so held and proper,” Bendul says that by dancing in Tharp’s shows, “I feel that I’ve gained a certain realism to the approach. If I’m stunned, I don’t portray getting stunned—it’s my real reaction. I’ve learned to be more true and in the moment.”

This evolution in Bendul’s dancing began with Movin’ Out, which she did for three years on tour and briefly, during the summer of 2005, on Broadway. “Being primarily a dancer my whole life,” Bendul says, “I always thought I was telling a story. But after doing Movin’ Out, I realize it’s not about presentation, it’s about: Are you really believing what you’re portraying and what you’re supposed to be feeling? Are you willing to read off somebody else’s energy? It wasn’t until I started doing the show that I really understood ‘in the moment’—the costumes and lights, the audience, certain energy that takes over. I gained so much that I was definitely a changed dancer forever.” 

In addition to benefiting one’s artistry, the freedom that Tharp allows can occasionally get a dancer out of a jam. Bendul has had to learn every female role, principal and ensemble, in Come Fly Away; she covers them all as a swing. Asked if she ever mixes them up on stage, she replies, “Oh, of course,” then lowers her voice to a whisper to add, “But we don’t say that.” Back at regular volume, she embellishes: “We go with the choice of the artistic expression of what was happening in the moment. And that’s what’s brilliant about Twyla choreography—she encourages you to not have the same show twice.”

Bendul has experience not only swinging a Broadway show—she was a vacation swing in the Man of La Mancha revival in mid-2003—but swinging a multitude of tracks. In Swing!, she covered seven women, each coupled with a different male dancer in the jitterbugging show. Bendul was in Swing! for its entire 14½-month run on Broadway commencing in late 1999, as well as the final workshop that preceded it. Earlier, she’d done two Broadway revivals, 1996-98’s The King and I and the short-lived On the Town that the Public Theater produced in 1998. She had a featured bit in each, dancing the “Lonely Town” pas de deux in On the Town and the gold ballet solo in King and I.

Her other theater credits include a handful of Encores! shows at City Center (among them On the Town in 2008), domestic and international tours of West Side Story, the 2008 televised concert staging of Camelot at Lincoln Center and a jazz musical called Scandalous People in last year’s New York Fringe Festival. Shes also performed at many special events, including a tribute to Desi Arnaz at the 92nd Street Y in January, Babalu: The American Songbook Goes Latin, which was headlined by Lucie Arnaz and Raúl Esparza. In October 2008, with Chita Rivera in the audience, Bendul danced the role of Anita in an excerpt from West Side Story that was part of A Night in Verona, a benefit for the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., featuring various performance interpretations of Romeo and Juliet.

On screen, Bendul has danced in the movie Marci X, on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and at the 2009 Oscars, where she backed Hugh Jackman, Beyoncé, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens in a Rob Ashford-choreographed salute to movie musicals. Her résumé also encompasses dance genres ranging from ballet to ballroom to burlesque. She’s been a regular in the annual Broadway Bares benefit, performing in the burlesque extravaganza half a dozen times and modeling for the poster in 2003. She has also participated in the “Solo Strips” shows at Splash, an offshoot of Broadway Bares that raises additional funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Last month, Bendul did a tango-style number in “Solo Strips” with her old Swing! castmate Mark Stuart Eckstein (she’s also performed with his M. Stuart Dance Theatre).

It was Swing! that jump-started the ballroom phase of Bendul’s career, though she’d had her first taste of it back in 1994, when she performed for about nine months on the Cunard cruise liners QE2 and Sagafjord as the adage specialist, who did lifts and airborne tricks in partnered dancing. “It’s something that suited me like a glove, because I was so comfortable up in the air,” says Bendul, who had mostly done ballet prior to then. “I’d always thought about taking ballroom class, and then the universe just said: No, no, no, don’t pay money for it. We’ll pay you—to teach you how to do it.” The cruise gig helped prime her for Swing! years later: “I had no fear of being thrown and tossed.”

In Swing!, she danced alongside a veteran gypsy and ballroom champion named Arte Phillips. They became partners in swing, or nightclub, ballroom—which involves such dances as the Lindy Hop, West Coast Swing, salsa and hustle (as opposed to the waltzes and foxtrots of “standard” ballroom). In 2003, they won the cabaret division of the North Atlantic Swing Dance Championships.

Ballroom had diverted Bendul away from musical theater, but she reversed direction after that first-place finish. It was just too nerve-racking—she came out of the championship victorious but thinking “I’ll never do that again!” She says, “Nerves when you’re competing are so different from nerves to go out for a live show. You have to be so precise [or] then points off, whereas here you can explore.”

Bendul was somewhat used to technical precision from her years as a ballerina. She started her classical training at age 12 at the Irine Fokine School of Ballet in Ridgewood, N.J., a few miles from her hometown of Emerson (both Jersey towns are just outside New York City). By 14, she was accepted into the School of American Ballet in Manhattan, where she took classes during the school year; in the summer, she studied at Boston Ballet. She was ready to move up to the next level of classes at SAB, but they were held during the school day and she was still attending high school in New Jersey. So she switched to the more conveniently located New Jersey Ballet, where she was asked to apprentice—perform as well as train. Leonid Kozlov, the former Bolshoi star who’d defected from the Soviet Union, had just succeeded Edward Villella as artistic director of New Jersey Ballet, and he invited Bendul—then just 15—to join his “Kozlov and Friends” production when it went to Taiwan. A couple of years later, she performed under Kozlov’s direction in a “Stars of American Ballet” tour to Russia, Kozlov’s first return to his homeland since his defection more than a decade before.

Bendul never performed in plays growing up. “I was not comfortable speaking, I was not comfortable singing,” she says. “I thought I was going to be a ballerina: no voice, all dance.” But after she graduated from high school—a year early, thanks to tutoring and an accelerated course load—she gave up ballet rather than deal with the ballet world’s entrenched, hierarchical politics. “I was meant to move on and take that training and technique and apply it,” says Bendul, who moved to Florida after high school to perform at Epcot Center in Disney World. The Cunard cruise job followed that, and then she played Shark girl Teresita in West Side Story in Berlin, Germany, for six months.

Toward the end of 1995, she returned to Florida to rehearse for her new job entertaining aboard a Royal Caribbean ship. But after watching her in rehearsals, the choreographers pulled her aside and asked, “What are you doing here? With what you have accomplished and what you have, why are you coming back to a cruise ship? You should be in New York or L.A.” So instead of setting sail, she went up to the New York area, this time getting her own apartment in the city instead of going back to her parents’ home in New Jersey. Her first major production in New York was one of the earliest Encores!, One Touch of Venus, in March 1996.

Over the next few years, Bendul began taking acting classes, made her Broadway debut and worked on soaps, commercials and industrials as well as theater. By the time Swing! closed in January 2001, she needed a break. “I think everything had happened so fast, I was a little overwhelmed.” Bendul didn’t even audition for a year. It was during this period that she was getting into ballroom with Arte Phillips; she also had recently started dating a fellow dancer, Joshua Bergasse. “I had this feeling that I needed to invest in that relationship,” she says.

The dividend from that investment? This month she and Bergasse are celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary. Bergasse, who was in Hairspray and The Life on Broadway, works primarily as a teacher and choreographer these days—sometimes with his wife as his assistant. He’s been in São Paulo, Brazil, this spring giving master classes, and last year choreographed La Cage Aux Folles at Florida’s Riverside Theatre and Carousel for Barrington Stage in the Berkshires. Bendul and Bergasse were dating other people when they first met through a mutual friend, Jermaine R. Rembert (currently in Memphis). “Both our relationships ended within a month of each other,” she recounts, “so Jermaine was caught in the middle—like one night babysitting me, one night babysitting Josh. Finally, after a month, he was like, ‘Enough. I’ve got to do something here to take care of both of you.’ So he kind of started playing Cupid to set us up.”

When she got married, Bendul was in the midst of a three-year run on the Movin’ Out tour, where her main part was the girl in the purple dress. Not long after their wedding, Bergasse was cast on the tour, in the Sgt. O’Leary/Drill Sergeant track. It put an end to their separation off stage, but they shared little time together on stage. “There was one moment our parts crossed,” she says. “He was one of three men who lifted me. He had my front right foot when I was in a split and three men were under me.”

Since the Movin’ Out tour concluded in early 2007, Bendul has worked at a number of regional theaters. She again played Teresita in West Side Story, in a production that played at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Kansas City Starlight and Wolf Trap in northern Virginia. She was in Come Fly Away’s pre-Broadway tryout at Atlanta’s ALLIANCE THEATRE last fall, and earlier appeared in Miss Saigon at both St. Louis Muny and North Carolina Theatre.

That’s a show with personal resonance for Bendul, who was adopted from Korea as an infant but believes her biological parents may have been a Vietnamese woman and a Western soldier, like the central couple in Miss Saigon. “It hit home so significantly,” she says of the show. “I saw it numerous times on Broadway when it first opened, and doing the show, realizing that I’m most likely a product of that, the story of Kim and Chris—oh, my God, that could be my mom and my dad. It was amazing to be a part of that storytelling. People don’t realize the tragedy of what these people went through. They only see the American flag and the war movies, what the soldiers went through. They don’t realize the devastation it had for the locals.”

Bendul’s parents had two biological children, then—unable to have more but wanting a big family—adopted four kids from Korea (“We like to say ‘two domestic, four imported’”). “Growing up," she explains, "I had a best friend who’s a Vietnamese adoptee, and we look like twins. I have other siblings who are adopted that are Korean—I look nothing like them. I was adopted out of a coastal city in South Korea, so my naturalization papers say Korean. But with the time frame and where I was abandoned—all the boat people that fled Vietnam—it just made sense to me that I’m not Korean.” Over the years, some people Bendul consulted told her she was probably mixed-race. She’s just submitted a DNA test to, and is eagerly awaiting the results, although for women the test reveals only maternal ethnic lineage.

The circumstances of Bendul’s birth did lead, indirectly, to her becoming a dancer. Around age 3, she suffered from terrible leg cramps, which the doctor said were caused by improper growth of her blood vessels (probably because she was undernourished as a newborn). The doctor told her parents to put her in either physical therapy or some activity that required her to be on her feet and using her legs a lot. They decided on dance class at a neighborhood studio.

For several years she attended that studio, which specialized in tap and play-oriented dance movement for young children. Then, one day, she dropped in on her friend’s ballet class at another studio. “I remember seeing my best friend with her hair up in a bun, in traditional ballet clothing, this amazing nymph-like person doing stuff in pointe shoes I had never seen before.” The teachers at Bendul’s studio had already suggested to her parents that she was talented enough for more serious training, and their little girl’s reaction to seeing her friend in ballet convinced them to find her another school. That’s when she began training with Irine Fokine, a Russian-born woman whose uncle Michel Fokine is considered a father of modern ballet.

Come Fly Away has brought Bendul back to the barre. She does a full complement of ballet exercises, along with stretching, as warmup for each performance. “Feeling your legs and feet connecting with the floor is the best warmup for me for this kind of movement,” she says. “With something this technical, you want to make sure that your body can remember facility, placement, balance. And do some abs, because you need to have your core.” On days that she doesn’t perform, she jumps rope for at least 30 minutes in an exercise space beneath the stage of the Marquis Theatre.

Photos of Kristine, from top: in a personal publicity shot; with Twyla Tharp during Come Fly Away’s Atlanta engagement; not in Broadway Bares but in Miss Saigon at North Carolina Theatre in 2009, with Olivia Oguma (left); dancing with Adesola Osakalumi for the M. Stuart company; with Billy Joel while on tour with Movin’ Out; performing in Movin’ Out with David Gomez; with hubby Josh Bergasse on their wedding day in May 2005.

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