Dance pieces are few and far between in the theatre. The last one to make a big splash was Susan Stroman’s Contact in 2000. But armed with enough talent to have as big a potential impact is In Your Arms, a new ensemble work dreamt up by director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies), currently playing at the Powerhouse Theatre at Vassar College, where it runs through July 13.
The work features vignettes written by the likes of Douglas Carter Beane, Nilo Cruz, Christopher Durang, Carrie Fisher, David Henry Hwang, Rajiv Joseph, Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage and Alfred Uhry, with Stephen Flaherty’s music joining them all.
The trick is the dramatists haven’t furnished words so much as ideas. Each story is told through almost entirely through music, movement and dance, by a large cast that includes stage veterans Robert Morse, Carole Shelley, Debbie Gravitte and many more.
Gattelli spoke to Playbill.com about how he convinced his team of actors and writers to enter his vision. In Your Arms sounds really different and interesting. How did you come up with the concept?
Christopher Gattelli: One of our producers years ago asked me if I wanted to put together a dance show. We were throwing around ideas of what it could be. At the time, I was doing a show at Lincoln Center and I was walking through the catacombs of the rehearsal studios and saw Terrence McNally’s name on the wall and Alfred Uhry’s name on the wall. It got me thinking. It occurred to me that hadn’t been done before — having playwrights’ works danced instead of spoken. We approached a few of them, Christopher Durang first, and they were really intrigued by it. That gave us the confidence to pursue it. The ball just kept rolling.
In the description of the piece, it says the portraits of these lovers are told through music and dance. Are there any words?
CG: Very, very few. All the stories are told by the dancers. I’ll put it that way.
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
When you described what you wanted the piece to be to the playwrights, how did you tell them what you wanted from them?
CG: Basically, I asked them to write a love story, however they wanted to write it. Some did write dialogue in their pieces. Some put it in a situation that could be danced, like a ballroom competition or something like that. We thought it out based on what they gave us. And pretty much what we did is all based on their first drafts, which is kind of cool. So we ran with their first instincts and ideas.
Did you give them guidelines on how long they could write?
CG: We told them: Be aware there can’t be three acts. They all felt really right-sized. The interesting thing is we didn’t let them know what each other was writing. They had no idea what else was in the show.
And Stephen Flaherty wrote the music for each one of the works.
CG: I think it’s his best score. Because they’re from different time periods all over the world, his range is just all over the map. So stunning. Yet he’s able to weave this connective theme through the pieces.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard his music without the lyrics of his longtime writing partner, Lynn Ahrens.
CG: We do have a title song in the show that helps us get into the piece. That’s the one vocal-type piece.
The wild card in this list of writers is Carrie Fisher. How did you get her?
CG: We just asked her. In putting all the pieces together, we felt we wanted something that was a little darker, had a darker humor to it. It was around the time of her Wishful Drinking on Broadway. I thought it would be a really interesting color to have in the show. Her piece is really hilarious.
Robert Morse is in the Terrence McNally vignette. That’s a choice bit of casting.
CG: Terrence’s piece is about an older couple. And the quality that Robert has is just perfect for what Terrence wrote. His face is so expressive. Given this is all visual, without words, his acting is so rich.
Who does he play opposite?
CG: Carole Shelley.
Do they dance?
CG: (Laughs) A little bit.
I ask because, in the recent finale of Season Seven of “Mad Men,” where his character Bert Cooper died, he was given a send off in which he sang and danced. Did you see that?
CG: I did. The timing of that was I think the weekend before we started rehearsal.
It kind of reminded the world who he was and what he could do.
CG: Carole is a dancer as well. For both of them, they’ve said it's interesting to come home again and be surrounded by dancers.