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Unleashing His Inner Women

Peter Wing Healey dances strong female roles to create powerful drama. You were expecting drag?

November 19, 2000|VICTORIA LOOSELEAF | Victoria Looseleaf is an occasional contributor to Calendar

If it's true that clothes make the man, in the case of Peter Wing Healey--dancer, choreographer, librettist and director--they also make the woman. But Wing Healey, 46, wants to be perfectly clear that when he dances as a woman, as he does at the Los Angeles Theatre Center this week, it is not to be mistaken for drag.

"People who want to see a drag show are disappointed--mystified," explains Wing Healey, slightly out of breath during a break in a rehearsal recently. "If you're a man dressing as a woman, you're expected to be the bawd--an over-the-top, licentious, sexual, bawdy woman. I'm not doing that. It's serious work. I'm doing tragic female roles."

In fact, he's doing three, in pieces he calls solo dance dramas--Isadora Duncan, the pioneer modern dancer who died when her scarf wrapped around the wheel of a Bugatti; the character Amneris, the other woman in the opera "Aida"; and Siren, one of the half-bird, half-goddesses from Greek mythology who lured sailors to their deaths.

"Tragedy can only be a work of theater," Wing Healey explains. "It's artifice and . . . artifice is necessary for tragedy." Not to mention for a man playing a woman.

But it's not just his gender-bending approach that makes Wing Healey an unusual performer. It's his size. Tipping the scales at close to 250 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame, his body type is not typically found at dance-studio barres.

Still, Wing Healey has an impressive pedigree. In New York, he danced with the Daniel Lewis Dance Repertory Company, where he performed male roles such as El Indio in Jose Limon's "La Malinche," and with Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians. More recently, Wing Healey has danced with the famed Mark Morris Dance Group. His portrayal of Mrs. Stahlbaum, the mother in every production of "The Hard Nut," Morris' version of "The Nutcracker," consistently wins glowing reviews.

Not willing to divulge exact numbers, Wing Healey offers this assessment of his imposing physique: "Let's just say my weight is less than Meat Loaf--the old Meat Loaf--and under Jessye Norman's."

For choreographer-dancer Morris, who has himself danced as a woman and experimented with "alternate" body types in his work, Wing Healey's size and role predilections are just part of his appeal.

"Peter was the first person I thought of to be Mrs. Stahlbaum. I wanted a big gal," he says jokingly, adding, "Peter's fabulous."


He wasn't always big, but he often danced in dresses. Wing Healey, who was born in Glens Falls, N.Y., had a peripatetic childhood. His father was an executive with Scott Paper Co. who moved the family around--from Vancouver, Canada, to Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. He says he was not a fat child, and that he remembers cavorting around the house in dresses and ribbons from the age of 3. He also studied classical piano and sang in church choirs. When he was 14 and living in Canada, Wing Healey went on a tour sponsored by England's Royal School of Church Music. It soon became apparent that he was hooked on the performing arts.

"I went for a semester at Haverford College in Philadelphia," he says, "and, in addition to music and French, I took a [Martha] Graham [dance] class for my gym credit. I had stopped playing the piano, and suddenly, I saw a future for myself."

Wing Healey left Haverford for the Philadelphia Dance Academy, diving into ballet and modern dance before winning a scholarship to the summer dance camp Jacob's Pillow. For the next two years, he enrolled in the dance program at the Boston Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Ray Harrison, who had been in the original production of "Oklahoma!" choreographed by Agnes de Mille.

The young dancer then won a summer scholarship to the Alvin Ailey School and, while in New York, work offers came his way. Forsaking a degree at Boston Conservatory, he took up full-time residence in Manhattan and took classes at the Graham school.

"You're in the studio with this creature wearing giant earrings and black silk pajamas dragging on the floor," he remembers. "It was mind-blowing. She was really inhabiting such an exotic and deeply committed, out-there position. I realized that modern dance was the perfect synthesis of acting and classical music."

In 1976, Wing Healey, still slender ("I starved myself and made the grade"), started working in the Lewis company. Meanwhile, he met Mark Morris, who was in the Lar Lubovitch Company, after a Lubovitch performance one night. In 1979, Wing Healey joined Laura Dean Dancers and recommended Morris for the company. Touring New Zealand, Indonesia and India with Dean's troupe, the two became good friends.

Wing Healey left Dean in 1981 because of injuries. "My range of movement was becoming limited, and I couldn't justify doing it anymore. I also wanted to concentrate on my own work."

To pay the bills, Wing Healey learned word processing and, working behind a desk, began putting on weight. ("Being able to work on your body and get yourself skinny is a huge luxury," he says.)

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