Kurt Froman: From Ballet to Broadway
An interview with the former New York City Ballet dancer and 'Movin' Out' star
by Kate Snedeker
December 19, 2004 -- New York City
In December of 2002, Kurt Froman made one of the biggest decisions in his life. After seven incredible years as a dancer in the corps of the New York City Ballet, he left the company to dance a leading role in a Broadway musical. In just a few weeks he went from dancing the toy soldier in "The Nutcracker" to dancing an ill-fated Vietnam soldier in the Twyla Tharp/Billy Joel musical, "Movin' Out".
It was a sudden transition, and not only did it mean leaving a successful ballet career, but also for the first time in his life, performing on a different stage from his identical twin brother Kyle. Two years later, though currently sidelined with a neck injury, Kurt has no regrets about "Movin’ Out". He reflects back on his ballet career and the move to Broadway.
"At the time the opportunity to be in "Movin Out" did present itself, Kurt was not actively looking for another job. He recalls, “My last year I was 26, and I felt old because so many people that Peter was using were 17, 18. He likes young dancers and likes to shape them. I didn’t want to feel old, and as much as I loved my rep there, it just started being the same thing. Also, I felt like I wasn’t being considered for soloist things anymore. [And since] dancers have such a short career, I didn’t want to spend my whole career being bitter or getting bitter; it’s so sad when something that’s good is spoiled.
"It was time for my own sake to be open if something presented itself. And I got a call, during our summer layoff [in 2002], from Sarah Prosser, who’s the casting agent for "Movin’ Out". I wasn’t actively putting anything out there, but somehow, Kyle and I, both our names got passed along.
"So we auditioned for the show. I had no experience with Tharp…all I knew that it was a Billy Joel thing and that Ben Bowman was doing it. And I’d never really had to audition for anything before. [At] SAB, there’s an audition per se, but it’s basically just a class. It’s not like you have a panel in front of you, with a number on you, taking polaroids beforehand… that whole process.
"They were auditioning for the part of Eddie, which is John Selya’s part, because [understudy] William Marrie had just gotten killed, which was really, really horrible. We got through the whole audition and Twyla immediately came and spoke to both us and said ‘thank you for coming, you’re just not…big enough’. John Selya is like a tank, and that character should be rough and tough – I wasn’t really that type.
"If they didn’t want me that was fine; I didn’t really care about it. Then, a few months later, they called me back and said that Twyla really wanted to see me. It was during "Nutcracker" doing all those soldiers, my back was a mess and I was barely getting by. I was like, ‘maybe next week?’ [They suggested] Tuesday and it turns out I wasn’t rehearsing that day.
"So, I went… they had me with two other guys who weren’t very good at all. I had nothing to prove, so I just had fun, had a great audition and felt really confident. It was it was just kind of magical in a way."
Kurt was offered the part the very next day. Immediately, he was caught up in a swirl of emotions: “I was like ‘Oh my god! But thank you!' I felt so alone, in a way and it was also scary because I had promised myself that if something presented itself, then I would jump on it.
"I just went in and basically told Peter and Rosemary [Dunleavy] that this opportunity – to be doing a lead in a Broadway show - had presented itself to me. They [said] do you want to do this? Have you ever done Tharp before? And have you seen the show? And it’s like no, I haven’t done any of it, but I’m open to the idea of it! But they wanted to protect me in a way, and not [let me make] a stupid decision or be rash, and so said, do us a favor and just go see the show tonight.
"So, I went and was like WOW! I loved it – it was so kinetic, just looked like so much fun. The[the dancers were] such technicians and so wonderful. I saw Keith [Roberts], Ben Bowman and Ashley Tuttle. Elizabeth Parkinson was out, but I saw Karine Bageot, who looks like Tina Turner out there… just exuding sex! I was just blown away.
"It’s so weird to see a performance with the idea that you’ve already signed on to do it. And it was scary thinking, “God I’m going to be out there doing this,” because these were such different kinds of dancers. But it was so exciting to me, and I said 'I’m doing it!'”
With his career at NYCB over, though he was assured that ‘the door is always open’ - Kurt threw himself into the experience of joining Movin’ Out, which he recalls was, ‘so scary, but so exciting’.
"First they hired me as the first understudy as James, doing two shows a week for Ben Bowman, and also a partial swing for the ensemble. When I took over [James] in the first cast from May until September, it was supposed to be six shows a week, but invariably because of all the injuries, it could be 7, 8 shows a week.
"It’s very unpredictable and sometimes I can do a few ensemble roles, especially cause I’m back doing first understudy for James. The ensemble’s really hard – Twyla loves choreographing for men and all of her work is very athletic. If you see the show, the guys in the ensemble are out there for [nearly] 2 hours straight doing incredibly hard choreography. And when they’re not out there on stage, they’re changing costumes.
"It’s a tough show, everybody, even from City Ballet, who sees the show, says WOW, that’s tough! You wake up and you’re sore, you’re beat in the mornings. I don’t take class everyday now because I physically can’t – [but] I do my own barre.
"Doing James is such a luxury, because it’s something like seven songs long and you get ‘killed’ during the first act Vietnam scene. But, for as short a time as you are out there, you have to make such a big impact. In your death in Vietnam, [Twyla’s] kind of showing that death doesn’t discriminate who you are and it tramples down a good citizen as much as it does a fuck up. And my death is kind of the catalyst for the second act.
"You have 45 minutes to put on your makeup and really change gears, physically and emotionally, and you come back in the 2nd act doing this wonderful solo, ‘Good Night Saigon’. But, it’s a completely a different emotional standpoint…you’re kind of a tortured soul. Twyla wanted, at least when I approach it, you to do huge jumps and use big technique, but also to be broken.
"And James is so wonderful because you just run the gamut emotionally. You’re this idealistic, white-bread American citizen who does everything the best way he knows how. Who has the best intentions in the world. Who has this true love with Judy and then circumstances tear him away from all of that and throw him in the middle of the jungle.
"That is so wonderful - to get to do someone in love, someone who is so good and then come back and just show the atrocity of war. It can’t be silly and can’t be phoned in because then it’s just stupid."
And Judy …
"Ashley Tuttle, the original Judy, is wonderful to dance with. I think I’ve danced with 7 or 8 [Judys] at this point, but with [each one] there’s such a different chemistry. There’s also definitely different heights and body types, different timings, but the major difference is just different energies and people characterizing [Judy] differently.
"And by responding to [them], it makes you characterize James a little differently because you can’t be a separate entity from the person you’re in love with. You’re reacting off of each other. Sometimes ‘Just the Way You Are,’ the love pas de deux, can be very nervous because you’re about to commit your life to someone, it can be not so head in the clouds happy, and sometimes it can be a little more awkward because people are awkward with each other.
Dancing for Twyla….
"Twyla wanted all my experience that I had at NYCB, but she has such a different way of moving, and it was exciting to start from square one. [Her style] is not about pulling up, and doing clean, intricate footwork, it’s about lowering into your feet…to have the weight in your feet and to use the ground. Which is a very hard thing to do when you’re so used to dancing with your center of gravity being so much higher.
"And it was a challenge to be funky, to loosen up… it kind of tapped in to when I first started dancing, being a jazz dancer [because it was] not just about line, but about dancing in a very pure way, as opposed to a technical way. So it kind of made me fall in love with dancing in a different way.
"Acting is something that I’ve always loved, especially acting while I was dancing, and approaching dancing from an emotional standpoint. And that’s exactly what Twyla wanted from me. She said [that] the reason you’re dancing to convey the story is because it’s the language. Don’t just [dance] for the sake of [dancing]…it has to have a logic to it.’
"You know, she has a different way of rehearsing you, like when she was working with me on the love pas de deux between James and Judy, ‘It’s Just the Way You Are”. She would have us do it over and over again, but she wanted you to narrate it, like an inner monologue. It’s kind of silly to be dictating the choreography, but it makes you creates that logic out there. So there’s so much brainwork that [goes] into the show…
"And she wants a different show from you every time. That’s what keeps the show really fresh… you have so many possibilities in front of you. It keeps it interesting, and it makes you very resourceful [because] you can’t get in a rut of how to do things.
"We hardly ever rehearse, once you’re in the show, because you do the show eight times a week. But it was nice for me to play with it onstage in an actual performance because you have to commit to your choices. Sometimes things work, sometimes things don’t. But at least you’re totally committed to your choice.
And it’s wonderful artistically to get out there and make yourself do a different choice night after night and exhaust them and then try different possibilities. It’s unfortunate and fortunate about the size of the rep at City Ballet - there’s like 55 ballets a season, but things only go 3 or 4 times. So it’s not like [in ‘Movin’ Out’] getting two years to really shape [a role]…you get to really question it and pick it apart and put it back together on your terms."
The audience …
"It’s a very small stage, very intimate and it feels very safe. There’s no orchestra pit, you see people’s faces in front of you and you’ve got a rock band playing. It’s such a charged atmosphere, but so different than being on a huge stage, like at the State Theatre. [Now] the idea of dancing on that stage is almost intimidating, because it’s just so big, to have to fill that!
"And you know, these are people in the audience who most likely have never seen dance in their lives. They are tourists from Middle America [who are] there because they are fans of Billy Joel. But how wonderful is it that they get to see stellar dancers for two hours and are not watching TV. It’s not an easy story, but they are seeing all these emotions and getting the gist of it and being educated by it.
"I see Vietnam Vets all the time after the show who are just in tears. To know that you’re doing something so significant… They’re so impressed with the kind of reality of the show. It’s showing their experience coming home from Vietnam…some are like...’we thought we were going to be celebrated as heroes. I didn’t want to be over there, but I did what my country told me to do and instead we came home and people were calling us baby killers.’
"So, it’s a dance show, but it’s showing something that’s so significant especially even today, in Iraq. And it’s not just about [dancing]; it’s about so much more."
And in the end …
"I’ve loved the past two years and what it’s given me…[the chance] to do a leading role, to be in the spotlight and to really utilize that [opportunity]. And also to do something by myself, without Kyle. When I went into the show, nobody had any idea of who I was as a dancer. I think they might have known I was a twin and from NYCB, but they didn’t know what kind of dancer I was.
"It was liberating to start from scratch with no ceiling over my head, and to set my own standards. I felt like I grew ten-fold doing that. And being trusted - Twyla’s not there most of the time, but probably once a month or so, she’ll pop in. But the few rehearsals I’ve had with her, she’s been so allowing and so trusting.
"It’s almost how Stanley was with me: I believe in you, trust yourself, don’t try and be like anyone else. Twyla [would say that] ’I don’t want to see Ben Bowman out there, I want to see you. And I want to see you as James, as opposed to you doing Ben as James’. And that is so liberating [because] I don’t have to conform to someone else’s ideal of the role. I have to be me out there and trust myself.
Looking back, one could say that trusting himself is what has brought Kurt so many rewards. It has allowed him to make the difficult decisions - first to leave Paul Mejia and the Ft.Worth Ballet for New York, and finally to make the big leap and join ‘Movin’ Out’. Any by doing so, he has thrilled audiences, both at the ballet and on Broadway. Now, during several months of injury layoff, Kurt has begun to lay the seeds for a career beyond Movin’ Out by investigating both commercial dance and modeling opportunities. So he’ll be ready for movin’ on from ‘Movin Out’.
For Part 1, click here
Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.