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'The Studio'

A play written, directed, and choreographed by Christopher D'Amboise

by Carmel Morgan

December 6, 2007 -- Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA

“The Studio,” written, directed, and choreographed by Christopher d’Amboise, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer and son of renowned New York City Ballet dancer Jacques d’Amboise, recently had its East Coast premiere at the Signature Theatre in the DC suburb of Arlington, Virginia.  The play melds the worlds of a tormented choreographer, Emil (Stephen Lee Anderson), and two dancers, Jackie (Tyler Hanes) and Lisa (Chryssie Whitehead). 

The studio, as Jackie explains in an opening monologue, is a place of rules.  “You must always pause before entering,” he says with reverence.  It is also, like the stage Jackie observed as a child, a place of magic.  In the process of creating a dance, lives and bodies are transformed.

Emil, who has gone into hiding after a very public failure, complains, “Picasso never had dancers.”  Longing to be his muse, the ambitious Lisa begs, “Paint with me!”  Despite the dancers’ desperate desire to please him, Emil is abusive.  The contentious relationships among these artistic collaborators, rather than the dancing, form the heart of this work.   

The simple lighting and black and white set allow the audience to concentrate on the dancers’ movement and their back and forth banter with Emil.  Emil chastises Lisa, admonishing her that “dancers don’t talk.”  As it turns out, however, he and the dancers talk a lot in this production, which is a good thing, because the dancing is fairly dull and uninspiring.  Jackie lifts and turns Lisa with the same incoherence as the meaningless directions Emil provides them.      

While some of the dialogue rings true, much of the language used borders on the ridiculous, perhaps because non-dancers would find it difficult to follow real dance terms, many of which are French.  Emil orders the dancers to be an “ocean wave,” a “tornado,” or a “hot air balloon,” and to perform moves he calls “sticky feet” and “flying nun.”  While not terribly realistic, this language does add humor.  In a wonderfully funny audition sequence, Emil demands that Lisa dance her name and where she comes from, and even dance her mother and her boyfriends.

Inevitably, Lisa and Jackie experience passion outside of the studio.  Their extracurricular activities seem to improve their dancing, but it also heightens their insecurities.  The intensity rises further when Emil alternates between multiple versions of the duet he is choreographing and the completion of the work is threatened. 

Dancers are “servants of the possible,” as Jackie reflects at the end of the play.  Indeed, among the choreographer’s primary tools are the dancers themselves, whose bodies are crafted to fulfill a vision.  “The Studio” offers an intriguing glimpse at the delicate human tangles encountered in making dances – but the actual dancing, unfortunately, is a disappointment.       

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