Synetic fans remember Ben Cunis for his commanding performance in the title role in Dante, for his seductive Don Jose in Carmen, and for his remarkable unbelievable leaps from platforms to stage as King Fortinbras in Living Dead in Denmark. This year, Ben suffered an injury that could have ended most other dancers’ careers. But with fortitude and self-discipline, Ben beat the odds and has returned to the Helen Hayes Award winning Synetic Theater to co-star with choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili in Antony and Cleopatra.
Joel: This season, you had to drop out of some Synetic productions because you broke your shoulder. How did the injury occur?
Ben: It happened earlier this past summer. I was training a particular, easy flip by myself, training on my own, outside of Synetic rehearsals. I was tired, unfocused, and generally had overworked myself. Up we go, crash we go. The lesson? Don’t train high-risk skills when you’re not in the proper mindset and body condition. There’s a saying among soldiers, not sure where I heard it, but it’s “every fight is the one that can kill you.” When you want to do something risky, don’t assume that just because you’ve jumped the bigger gap that the smaller one can’t get you if you’re not careful.
However, I’ll be getting inverted again, you can count on that.
Joel: Take us through the treatment and your recovery.
Ben: Suffice it to say that the diagnosis was a long process (you know what it’s like since you went through a similar process before you had your recent back surgery). It took visiting several physicians, but once there was an MRI, we confirmed that there was damage that required surgery – if I ever wanted to return to full strength.
The surgery itself was quite the experience. I can’t emphasize enough how thankful I am for the support of my friends here who helped take care of me while I was immobile, the support of Synetic as a company and a family, and the support of my own family. There was plenty of pain, but I was able to make it through thanks to their help.
Physical therapy and recovery have been a lesson about starting at ground zero – and taking my own medicine. Exercises that I’d teach at a beginning level of training were impossible. When being able to wash your hair with two hands is a victory, you start to think about how a lot of things you thought were problems don’t matter that much – and hey, my injury was nothing. Walter Reed Hospital is up the road from me, and there are plenty of guys who will NEVER get to enjoy washing their hair with two hands again. I have little to complain about – and a lot to be thankful for.
Joel: You are returning for the first time since your surgery playing Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. How is the shoulder, and how are you going to handle the physical demands of the role?
Ben: The shoulder is strong now, we’re ready to roll. I’m confident in that arm for the first time in a while.
As for physical demands – there are plenty, but we’ve choreographed the show in such a way as to protect that arm, all the way down to sword-fighting left-handed instead of right (a hidden benefit of shoulder surgery – learn to swing a sword ambidextrously). I don’t think this would have been possible had I not been doing shows with Synetic for the past four years. During the process of rehearsal I had to hold back on a lot of movements, but because Irina, Paata, and I know what I’m capable of and could plan out the choreography, we were able to rehearse safely. Not to mention that the process allowed us to choose actions that continuously favored the good shoulder.
I had to learn to take great care with the shoulder. You learn patience and what kinds of pain are “bad”, and what kinds are to be expected (most).
Joel: Having gone through this, what advice can you give to other dancers and actors who have sustained an injury?
Ben: Be patient, and listen to your doctors and physical therapist. Do your at-home therapy, and don’t panic. Be patient, be patient, be careful, and find ways to be devoted without risking the recovery process.
Joel: Where did you get your training, and how do you stay in such great shape?
Ben: My training as a dancer really started with Synetic. Before that – my dance experience was minimal. Then getting thrown into Synetic’s training system, I got a non-stop mix of mime, hip hop, ballet, Georgian dance, and acrobatic training. Once I started mastering the Synetic repertoire, I started (emphasis on started, I feel like I’m still just starting) to branch out into outside training in hip hop, breakdance, gymnastics, and and especially parkour (an art of movement that is about traversing space and overcoming obstacles quickly and efficiently – see www.americanparkour.com for a much better explanation.
Synetic keeps me in good shape. In addition, I came to Synetic at the same time as I was starting work as a personal trainer, so the gym is a familiar place for me. Between rehearsal, training in dance, parkour, and martial arts when I can learn (never as much learning as I’d like to be able to be doing), and a consistent routine at the weight room, I’ve managed to hold together. Being a personal trainer gave me a different perspective on training, as well, helping me to be able to start translating a number of Synetic’s training concepts into technical language.
Joel: Antony and Cleopatra is adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili, who is also the director, and Nathan Weinberg, who based this production on the Shakespeare play. What is similar to the Shakespearean play, and what is different?
Ben: In all of the wordless Shakespeare productions, Synetic tries to take advantage of the high symbolism and action in Shakespeare’s plays. I always like to say that Shakespeare had fantastic verbs – taken into the body, they turn into wonderful action.
Antony and Cleopatra is full of such active language and plot – the main difference being that most of the actual play deals with the political manipulations that happen around the main active moments. For us, those active moments must often be brought to physical life – where a story is told verbally in Shakespeare’s text, we put it onstage with bodies, weapons, and set.
There’s the difference – in similarity, we are still drawing from the same words, the same story, and the same conflicts: the struggle between love and politics is still central, and the show still revolves around that same clash of cultures and passions. The same archetypes are there, intact and powerful.
The look, feel, and sound of the show is monumental, we like to say. One of my favorite parts of the show is Paata’s take on the Roman Senate and the physical incarnation of the political process. Sounds a little dry, but it’s extremely cool. I don’t want to give too much away!
Joel: Irina Tsikurishvili is playing Cleopatra. Describe your Antony and Irina’s Cleopatra.
Ben: Both Antony and Cleopatra are defined by their relationship to power. They are two of the most powerful people in the world, and they know it. They are always being observed, and they know it. Bringing a physicality to this confidence is admittedly fun – and finding the human underneath that power is even more so. The only person that makes either Antony or Cleopatra weak in any way is the other. That’s relatable for me – as strong or independent as you may fancy yourself, there is that one person that makes you give up just a little bit of that dominance, because you can’t resist them.
Joel: Give us a glimpse into Irina’s choreography.
Ben: Epic. ‘Nuf said.
Joel: You are also the fight choreographer for the show. How do you choreograph a fight, and which fights in the show were the toughest to choreograph?
Ben: How to choreograph a fight is a continually challenging question, and an art that I continue to learn. When it comes to combat onstage, traditional stage combat focuses mainly on telling the story and portraying the character through the movements of violence. Synetic combat does this, but when it comes to any movement in Synetic, we also “fire for effect,” as it were. I’m allowed to shoot for style more overtly, as long as it produces the proper emotional effect (Paata likes to refer to our work as “impressionistic”), and, of course, is safe. This takes a corps of fighters that can handle the demands of the combat, which I am blessed with.
In Dracula, the opening fight was created not to tell the literal story of Vlad the Impaler, but to create a stylized impression of his military prowess, and a tapestry of blood and violence from which comes the demon that curses him. We continually seek to get larger-than-life without getting campy
Fights for Antony and Cleopatra have been extremely challenging (and rewarding) due to the sheer scale of them. We’re trying to create the impression of mass combat on an Ancient Mediterranean scale, which means coordinating a lot of movements. We’re using a Georgian sword technique – about which I only wish to say I’m very excited for audiences to see. It’s very different from most combat you see onstage.
The toughest stuff to choreograph is my own, mostly because I’m so busy choreographing – I have to remember to schedule my own practice!
Joel: Synetic Theater had produced other “wordless” Shakespeare productions. What is new about this production that we haven’t seen in other “wordless” productions?
Ben: I think this is certainly the biggest one we’ve ever done, especially in terms of the technical elements (set, costumes, weapons, props) and the size of the cast. On a related note, I think it also takes on the biggest scope – i.e. we are telling a story of world-conflict in addition to the simpler story of the two lovers.
Joel: This is your first time performing in the Lansburgh Theatre. What is the space like, and what have been some of the challenges in the new space?
Ben: I love the Lansburgh. In terms of challenges, it eases more than challenges our work. We have more wing space. We have more depth. We have a gorgeous lighting grid, and a house where there isn’t a bad seat. What’s not to like? The biggest challenge has been conditioning – we have a lot of ground to cover, much of it dancing, running, or fighting! But we’re ready.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Antony and Cleopatra
Ben: I am hoping everyone will walk out of the theater, look one to the other and says one word:
Antony and Cleopatra plays from January 28th through February 28th at Lansburgh Theatre – 45 Seventh Street NW, in Washington, DC. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.