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'The Studio' - Dance/Drama at South Coast Rep in California

While recently on a trip to LA, I had the opportunity to visit the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, CA.  Here is my review.

What a treat to see a play that focuses on the process of choreographing a ballet. The wonderful 1979 Tony Award winning play by Peter Shaffer, "Amadeus" which was turned into an Academy Award winning film, had wonderful scenes of the genius of Mozart and how he frantically wrote his music.

In "The Studio" we get that rare opportunity to peak at this process. This is not a ballet, not really a play…more like a dance/drama…a hybrid and it works beautifully.

Writer, choreographer, director Christopher d'Amboise breaks down the barriers between patron and creator to see how a ballet is actually achieved. Oftentimes, it is the process that is so educational and entertaining.

This work gives us a peak at the process.

When you enter the theater, the stage is comprised of five movable mirrors. Immediately one recalls the mirrors used in "A Chorus Line". The set design by Christopher Barreca uses this tool beautifully. After all, there is no dance studio that exists without mirrors. And often in the play when an actor is standing in the front of the mirrors, you will see five or six different views.

Terrance Mann plays the choreographer Emil Anderzen who after 12 years of a self-imposed exile from dance invites two dancers to HIS studio. John Todd (Jackie) and Nancy Lemenager (Lisa) are the pair invited to the den of this master to create.

Lisa is unaware that she is the 22nd female invited to join Jackie in this attempt by Emil to return to his "glory" days as a choreographer.

Lisa's audition with Emil was quite illuminating. Emil asks her to dance like an ocean wave, a tornado, a trophy, her name, her mother, her father. Lisa is asked where she comes from and after depiction of the state of Michigan via dance Emil gives her the nickname "Jell-O".

Again we are reminded of the audition process in "A Chorus Line"…that is the asking of very personal questions. Lisa's asked if she has a boyfriend. Then, she's asked how many has she had? And finally, she has to perform a dance for each of them. Emil responds following the long list of relationships, the successes and the failures, "Clearly you enjoy men." Not only was this clever but entertaining as well.

Jackie on the other hand we learn has participated in each of the prior attempts at the making of this ballet. He opens the show speaking to the audience of his experience in the wings of "Swan Lake" as a 12 year old who wanted to be BOTH the Prince and the Snow Queen.

There are few moments outside the studio. You see Jackie and Lisa's relationship grow both personally and professionally. Lisa is afraid to leap. Jackie assures her he'll catch her. And they work beautifully and grow together during the rehearsal process both professionally and otherwise.

The grueling aspect of dance is not often appreciated. Lisa, like many dancers, treats her injured body in the bathtub with ice. Jackie is by her side to assist.

A beautiful scene occurs when there is a pas de deux, but not in a ballet sense, but on a sofa. It is an incredibly beautiful and sensuous dance sequence that is thrilling to watch.

Both lead actors performed in Twyla Tharp's brilliant dance piece to Billy Joel music, "Movin' Out". There is little question of their incredible dance ability. And the dancing AND choreography is terrific. But "The Studio' allow these "dancers" to speak, to express their feelings, aspirations, and desires not only via dance, but with words. This dance/drama concept is new and it works.

Regarding Mann. For anyone who saw the original cast of "Cats", his portrayal of Rum Tum Tugger will never be forgotten. I also was fortunate to have seen him in the Tony nominated role of Inspector Javert in the pre-Broadway production of "Les Miserables" at the Kennedy Center. Many may recall him in the film "A Chorus Line". It was great to see him back on the stage and in a character that is so full of complexities where his love of the work (and it's great to see how a choreographer writes his thoughts on paper achieved with a huge yellow canvas) but the question raised is it the process which he loves and ONLY the process?

Jackie tells Lisa of his chance for stardom headlining a ballet to Stravinsky's "Right of Spring" that Emil choreographed. But the madness of Emil is revealed in full bloom when he refuses to raise the curtain with the theater full and asks his dancers to perform anyway. It was Ballanchine, Emil recalls, that said, "NO ONE could choreograph "The Right of Spring". Emil sprouts an accent occasionally but Jackie reveals to Lisa the truth of his place of birth, Pittsburgh.

Christopher d'Amboise is the son of two members of the famed New York City Ballet, Jacques and Carolyn. (I recommend the wonderful PBS documentary on Jacques entitled "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing"). He attended the Balanchine academy, the School of American Ballet for 11 years and become an accomplished dancer and choreographer. He was also nominated for a Tony for his featured role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance". I've seen his talented sister, Charlotte appear on Broadway in "Chicago" and she returns to the Broadway production on April 17. She also appeared in "Contact", "Damn Yankees", "Company" and she is credited with saving the musical "Sweet Charity" on Broadway when Christina Applegate was hobbled with an injury. Dancing no doubt runs in the family. And wouldn't you know Charlotte's husband is Terrence Mann.

Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" has a classic line, which is appropriate here. "White…a blank page or canvas. So many possibilities". Here, the blank page or canvas is the studio.

"The Studio" has a great future, as does d'Amboise. If you enjoy watching dance and more importantly the process of choreography, do not miss it.

One suggestion to the theater. Composer credits go to Karl Fedrik Lundeberg. But the work is loaded with beautiful classical pieces by Bach, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Glass. These composers and their work should be given credit in the program.

Particular mention should be made regarding Schubert's wonderful "Piano Trio in E-Flat, Opus 100". The second movement theme may be familiar with those who recall Stanley Kubrick's 1975 "Barry Lyndon" starring Ryan O'Neal. I recommend the soundtrack to the film, which is filled with lovely classical pieces where you can hear this delightful Schubert piece.

To further explore "The Studio", SCR offers "Inside the Season" on Saturday, April 15 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. hosed by Linda Sullivan Baity with Terrence Mann and sound designer, B.C. Keller. This informal discussion is $10.

"The Studio" runs to May 7. For tickets, call 714-708-5555 or go to

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