Written, directed and choreographed by Christopher d’Amboise
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
The Studio is one of the most gorgeously enticing productions I’ve seen in ages. In true tour-de-force fashion, Christopher d’Amboise, yes, son of renowned dancer, Jacques, wrote, choreographed, and directed the production that explores the interior creative process of dance. What 33 Variations at Arena did for music, this one uses dance to illustrate the creative process, including all the emotional baggage that goes with it, showing how dancers submit their hearts and bodies to the cause. It is sheer delight and breathtaking magic.
To call the set minimalist is an understatement – it’s a wide-open space with several large pieces (a sofa for Jackie and a tub for Lisa) set up on the sides used sparingly, and of course the unsparing mirrors for the full effect. Mainly, it’s the space that’s needed for the dance, and this piece is a dancer’s dream. Unlike Signature’s Njinsky that won its share of awards some years back, The Studio is a perfect blend of theatrical expression and actual professional dancers in exquisite form and execution.
A male and female dancer connect in the studio to become pliant instruments for a maestro choreographer. What starts off as a simplistic premise takes on layers of subtext, wistful dreams, needs for love and acceptance, and even absolute survival. D’Amboise depicts what happens inside the hearts and minds of dancers and shows how mental states can become as bruised as tendons and muscles. As a gifted dancer with exquisite theatrical sensibility, and now director, d’Amboise provides a rare and piercingly honest glimpse inside a creator’s head, rare because dancers, like athletes, are known for what they can do on the outside – the steps, the moves, the maneuvers, spins, leaps, twirls – that’s all part of the repertoire. What’s not seen is the arduous work behind the scenes, the endless repetitions of rehearsal, the mastery of transcending beyond the count, getting the steps into muscle memory, and ultimately, if you’re good, to get them inside your body and become the dance. The Studio provides that inside glimpse for a behind the scenes insight, and then some.
The bonus, and this is something I’ve never seen depicted with such brutal honesty, is an exploration of a choreographer’s crisis of faith in the genuine quality of his material, his creations. Were they really masterworks of genius, or just fortunate mistakes?
And then there is the almost godlike status of the choreographer to the dancer. Lisa has such unabashed adoration for the esteemed choreographer Emil. She gives it her all and throws herself into the movements with fury, all in hopes that he will transcend his own artistic temperament and allow his creation to see the light of day. At the end, after months of hard work, ad nauseum repetitions, injury, the trust and intimacy that one would think would develop just seem to elude him. The moment of truth occurs in the final moments when it’s obvious that no matter how hard she has incorporated his choreography into her own being, that she is nothing more than an instrument – no, not even that because musicians care deeply for their equipment-maybe more like a pot of paint, something to be used up, and the can discarded. It’s a remarkable and rude awakening.
The dancing is sublime. Chryssie Whitehead as Lisa expresses the longing of every girl to be the beautiful princess dancing and twirling in the arms of her charming prince, strong enough to lift her gracefully in perfect delight. Lisa has lived the Chorus Line’s lyrics, “Everything was beautiful at the ballet” showing the dark shadows of self-doubt lurking beyond the beauty of the spotlight. Her movements demonstrate her character’s theatrical arch with early hesitant, though beautifully rendered steps gradually ratcheting up to dancing all out with furious abandon by the end of the show. Her transformation is breathtaking.
Tyler Hanes as Jackie is also Broadway trained and is her equal in every regard. For some mysterious reason, he has obtained first officer status with Emil, and their longstanding relationship packed with trust and loyalty, contrasts beautifully with Lisa’s awkward outsider stance. Hanes has an easy going, “everyman” appeal, almost too much so when we learn how much he has endured under Emil’s artistic whimsy.
Stephen Lee Anderson plays the moody, tempestuous Emil to a fault, all angular, withdrawn, sullen, impenetrable, and inaccessible. If anything, he needed a bit more charisma to help us get past the taskmaster gruffness to appreciate the magic of his artistry. Anderson’s Emil has an almost unlikable, sinister air, so that even when he hits his plateau and melts to the floor shaken by his own doubts, he still doesn’t seem vulnerable. With just a bit more range, or early glimmers of charm, those moments would ache with passion.
This is a rare opportunity to see professional dancers deconstruct combinations into manageable and quirky named chunks-sticky floor, jello, coming through-and to “observe a master at work” in assembling the pieces, rearranging them, setting the tone and mood for each articulation of the movement, and then watching in amazement as the dancers give it their heart-stopping all. It’s a remarkable experience and d’Amboise puts us front and center to treasure.
Speaking as one who has had her share of time at the barre, and is still crunching out pliés, chasées, and pas de bourrées for as long as they’ll accept my dance card, The Studio is a dream come true. Don’t let it slip away. See it. Move, Dance.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Where: Signature Theatre’s Max Theatre, 4200 Campbell Street, Arlington, VA
When: Thru December 2. Wednesday 7:30; Thursday through Saturday 8pm, Sunday at 7pm and Saturday Sunday matinee at 2:00 pm.
Info: call 703-820-9771or consult the website.