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Beauty isn't all pretty

Struggles in the world of dance are told in `The Studio,' in which movement speaks more eloquently than plot.

April 10, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Contrary to popular opinion, a dancer's life isn't all grueling rigor in mirrored rooms and bouquets from cheering audiences. In addition to frequent breaks for cigarettes and sex, there's plenty of time to neurotically obsess about injury, weight gain and other forms of bodily betrayal.

Then there's the fear of being thought physically unable to realize a choreographer's vision. Dancers hock their lives for the rare opportunity to serve a genius, who may decide at a moment's notice that their thighs are a few millimeters too thick or that the tilt of their head lacks that certain je ne sais quoi.

What would lead most of us straight to the refrigerator for high-calorie solace has inspired Christopher d'Amboise, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and son of the renowned soloist and choreographer Jacques d'Amboise, to write a play.

"The Studio," which opened Friday in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, provides an insider's tour of the struggles, frustrations and stubborn hopes of those who persevere in the profession despite the realization that they're never going to be another Margot Fonteyn or Mikhail Baryshnikov. Along the way, the piece offers a deeply felt meditation on the mystery of creativity, that mad battle for perfection that results, at best, in the glorious imperfection of lasting art.

It's no surprise, given D'Amboise's background, that the production, which he not only wrote but choreographed and directed, speaks more eloquently through its movement than its often banal dialogue and plot. Interestingly, though, it's not so much the dancing that impresses as the fluid, lyrical staging, which transforms an ordinary studio (craftily designed with movable mirrors by Christopher Barreca) into a chrysalis of dreams that threaten to devolve into a nightmare.

The drama involves three characters of varying degrees of artistic desperation. Jackie (John Todd), a male dancer who is a slavishly loyal collaborator of the megalomaniacal and agonizingly unprolific choreographer Emil Anderzen (Terrence Mann), has been working on a new pas de deux for which Emil is having trouble locating the right female dancer. He's been through several already. The latest is Lisa (Nancy Lemenager), a scrappy, emotionally forthright woman who's beginning to feel that the clock is running out on her career.

The unusual requests made during Lisa's audition should have tipped her off that something's awry with Emil. Rather than simply showing what she can do, she's asked to dance her personal history, which earns her the nickname Jello, from the food she jigglingly becomes to represent her Midwestern roots. Ambitious as she is, she's game for anything, though it's grating to her that her male counterparts are never required to similarly humiliate themselves.

Emil hasn't produced anything in the last 12 years. His early success, which he claims to hold in dubious regard, has made it virtually impossible for him to move forward. Nothing meets his own unforgiving standards. But there's something even more pernicious holding him back: In thrall to his public identity as the next Balanchine (the legend he most reveres), he can't risk failure, which is why he didn't allow the curtain to be raised on the dance he made for Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." This last major unseen effort was supposed to be Jackie's great showcase.

None of this bodes well for Lisa, who has grown tired of jumping from company to company (not to mention from man to man) as she waits for a leading role that will, if not launch her into a new level of stardom, at least redeem a ferocious lifelong commitment that requires a medium-build adult to maintain a fifth-grader's weight.

Much of the action takes place during rehearsals for a dance that's continually being reconceived. As soon as Jackie and Lisa have mastered one routine, they're asked to learn another version of it. To cope with Emil's increasingly fanatical demands, they become more intimately connected, a development that allows D'Amboise to shed light on how backstage eroticism can fuel onstage chemistry.

Admittedly, as the drama keeps jumping back and forth between rehearsals that go nowhere and a romance that's more of an occupational coping mechanism, things start to feel a little tedious. "The Studio" doesn't need to be stretched out over two acts -- the intermission would be unnecessary if the playwright tightened his structure and perhaps curtailed the crazy turn in Emil that threatens to remake his drama into a choreographer's version of "A Beautiful Mind."

D'Amboise conveys his ideas and perceptions succinctly through stage imagery, so there's no need for dramatic belaboring of the kind that has Emil muttering to himself for multiple scenes until his pro forma confrontation with Lisa finally arrives.

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