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Dance as an equal partner

Choreography gets a major role in developing `The Studio's' narrative and characters. Only natural, with Christopher d'Amboise in charge.

April 02, 2006|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

BE they corny or sublime, we've got a soft spot for dance stories. "The Red Shoes," "A Chorus Line," "Billy Elliot." Tales of life and love played out by fearsome directors, streetwise gypsies and an assortment of prima donnas, underdogs and ingenues. Even so, in such a crowded field is there room for one more?

South Coast Repertory thinks there is. As part of its ninth Pacific Playwrights Festival, it is presenting the premiere of "The Studio," written, choreographed and directed by Christopher d'Amboise, the 46-year-old scion of one of American ballet's famous families.

"This piece is unique in that it attempts to use dance to advance the storytelling and the character development," says David Emmes, the theater's producing artistic director. "We're used to 'Here's the play' and 'Here's the dance' and then going back to 'Here's the play.' In this case, the two are inextricably woven together."

Embracing what he calls "choreographic storytelling," D'Amboise tries to express ideas through movement as well as words. Rather than the typical large ensemble whirling through glorious production numbers, he limits the action to three characters -- a choreographer and two dancers -- in a rehearsal room. "It's very basic," he says. "What I discovered in my own career is that so much happens in a studio. It's incredibly theatrical, emotional and passionate, and no one gets to see it except those who are there."

By bringing us into the hidden chamber, D'Amboise hopes to penetrate the mystique surrounding the making of a ballet. "A pas de deux will be created before your eyes," he says. "You will learn what each step means in the physical vocabulary -- and in the personal language of the performers who bring it to life. It's easy to forget that the bodies gliding across a stage belong to people who may have things other than art on their minds.

"Sometimes, it's big feelings like ambition and lust," he says. "Or maybe it's something smaller. The girl sees her partner looking at her and she wonders if he thinks she's sexy, or she worries that he thinks she smells funny."

We eavesdrop on the characters' thoughts and peek into their private moments in the studio or at home. As the plot unfolds, secrets are revealed. Lisa, whose insecurities keep everyone from realizing how good she is, comes to audition for the reclusive genius Emil, unaware that the reason he's been in hiding is that he's lost his ability to choreograph. Instead of the solo she thought he was devising, she finds he is pinning his comeback on a two-person ballet. Her partner turns out to be Jackie, whose loyalty to Emil over the years may be costing him his own chance at success.

"All these emotions and relationships will come together," says D'Amboise, "so you will understand what it's like to be human in the dance world."

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Born into ballet

D'AMBOISE'S parents, Jacques and Carolyn, were members of George Balanchine's New York City Ballet, and for 11 years he attended its academy, the School of American Ballet. In 1978, when he was 18, Balanchine invited him to join the company. Soon after, he wrote a memoir, "Leap Year: A Year in the Life of a Dancer," which chronicled his first season, including his struggles to find a place in the corps and to establish an identity separate from that of his father, a model for the modern American male ballet dancer and an acclaimed choreographer and teacher.

Known for his dynamic athleticism, D'Amboise graduated to major roles in productions like Jerome Robbins' "Fancy Free." After five years, he left ballet and studied acting, music and psychology and pursued his writing. A year later, he returned to the New York City Ballet and was named a principal dancer. On Broadway he received a 1986 Tony nomination for his featured role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song & Dance."

In 1988, D'Amboise resigned from the company and started the New York-based Off-Center Ballet. He went on to run the Pennsylvania Ballet for four years in the early '90s. After that, he concentrated on choreography and directing.

At the same time, he kept searching for ways to make "words, movement and image equal partners." He wanted to expand on what he learned from Robbins, a master of both ballet and musical theater. Another goal was to address a caveat often attributed to Balanchine. "He said that in dance there are no mothers-in-law," D'Amboise says. "There is no step that says mother-in-law because it's too abstract a concept. I wanted to find a way to tell an audience what something abstract means."

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