Q&A with Adam Barruch and Chelsea Bonosky, Part I

On April 18, 2015, DANCEworks’ 2015 choreographer, Adam Barruch, arrived in Santa Barbara with his dance partner, Chelsea Bonosky, to see the Lobero Theatre, meet the local community, and begin laying the groundwork for the ambitious premiere Barruch will make during a month-long residency in September: a physical theater production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

Over a welcome dinner with DANCEworks staff and board on Saturday night, Barruch and Bonosky talked about dance life in New York, meeting with Sondheim, and their plans for September. The following day, as DANCEworks’ resident observer, I met with Barruch and Bonosky for a Q&A. This is the first half of the conversation, with the second half soon to follow. Stay tuned for a report on Barruch and Bonosky’s presentation of their recent dance work “Belladonna,” which will be published early next week.

Rachel Howard: Chelsea, you were in the immersive theater production Sleep No More for three years, dancing something like eight shows a week. Adam, you’re often dancing in Montreal with Sylvain Emard Danse. To get a baseline idea of your usual conditions for making work and how your experience here at DANCEworks will be different in September, I’d love to hear: What is your normal work life like in New York?

Adam Barruch: I spend a lot of time travelling and setting works on dance companies and colleges around the world, so often when I’m in New York it’s in between. In New York I’ll do open classes at Mark Morris Dance Center and Gibney Dance center. I also work with dance conservatories in New York—I’ve set pieces on SUNY Purchase, Ailey-Fordham, Princeton.

RH: How much are you usually back in New York?

AB: Sometimes for three-week periods before I head out again. But this last fall I was in New York for August through September. Also I had been working with Sylvain Emard Danse and touring a piece created in 2012, mostly in France but also in Canada.

RH: Sounds like life in New York is erratic for you. Chelsea, since finishing Sleep No More, what’s your normal working life like in New York?

Chelsea Bonosky: Normal working life for me is that I’m a private Pilates instructor in New York. I go to my clients’ apartments as early as 6:30 in the morning. I’m a fitness instructor at Bari, and I teach minimum five classes a week up to nine week. We’re dance-centered cardio classes, on trampolines. And then I’ll rehearse with Adam, or take dance classes, or teach dance classes. That, in New York, is what it looks like for me to sustain myself.

RH: Where do you take classes?

CB: Adam’s class at Gibney, at Mark Morris. Or I assist his classes. And I love taking hot yoga classes in the city. In terms of ballet or more rigid modern class, that’s not part of my regimen now. It’s about staying in tune with Adam and staying in good endurance.

RH: You and Adam met in 2009. What’s the story of how you came together?

AB: We were in Montreal, working at Springboard Danse, which—well, it’s slightly changed now, but it’s a program that ingratiates dancer into the Montreal dance community. Dancers from around the world go to Montreal for three weeks and are placed with different choreographers and companies in workshops to create a new piece or learn older works. There’s also an emerging choreographer component of younger choreographers being invited up to create dances on the participants. I went in 2009 as an emerging choreographer and was able to work with seven dancers. I did a collaboration with two other theater directors. We took that dance theater work back to the Stella Adler acting studio for a second leg of our residency. And Chelsea was one of the dancers in the piece. Once she started dancing in New York, I was quite taken by her and that started our six years and still going relationship.

RH: And now you two live together, as roommates.

CB: Yes. One great thing about this residency is that it’s good to break up the mundane pattern of teach, take class, work together.


RH: Adam, I know you started in theater very young, and then found your interest in dance and trained in high school and Juilliard.

AB: Yes, I started at 10 years old professionally on Broadway, and a little television, a bit of film, mostly theater. I started dancing musical theater and decided to focus on my dance training in high school, training more classically then. That was an interesting transition from musical theater to only ballet and modern every day at La Guardia. And then I did two years at Juilliard. And didn’t graduate.

RH: You’re doing frequent commissions now. But what were some of your early breaks as a choreographer? Because it takes a lot of legwork and putting yourself out there to get to the level of having the schedule that you do.

AB: Yes. Well, in the beginning I was very fortunate because I had grown up in New York and had connections with schools and training programs. When I left Juilliard I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t immediately want to go into being a dancer myself. I had more of an interest in making work. So I started teaching for my old high school. I started working for the Ailey school. And I started submitting my work to dance festivals, and started getting exposure through festivals in New York. And then in 2011, after working privately, I would say—there were people who knew about me, but mostly in the institutions and schools—we did our first APAP [Association of Performing Arts Presenters] showing in New York, and that accelerated everything. I was fortunate to do my first APAP with a group of seven beautiful dancers, and Margie Gillis, who will be our mentor and dancing with us here, was also on the program—I had just done a piece for her.

RH: Yes, I’ve watched that video. “Chalice,” right?

AB: Yes, that was a huge honor to work with her in the studio and she was so gracious to perform at our APAP showing. Once we did that, the opportunities came quickly. We went to Jacob’s Pillow that year. And then my first commission was for River North Dance Chicago. And then the second year we did APAP, more people saw the work.

RH: In 2012, I saw you that year.

AB: Yes, we did “Folie a Deux.” That’s when we got an engagement at The Yard, [a dance residency program on Martha’s Vineyard].

CB: And the film went into the film festival . . .

RH: What was the film?

AB: We did a filmed version of “Folie a Deux.” We didn’t intend on making a film. We just wanted to document it to send to presenters. It ended up being we had such beautiful footage that we had more of an experimental dance film. The filmmaker said, do you mind if I enter it into the Lincoln Center Dance on Camera Festival, and we said ‘sure.’ And then it was chosen for the short films program.

Then once we started making dances for companies, it became word of mouth. The best part has been getting to know more people in the dance community, people to learn from. I’ve had a lot of people giving support. People like Dianne.

RH: You brought up Margie Gillis. She came to UC Santa Barbara when I was a student there. I know her brother was Christopher Gillis, an important dancer in the history of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But she’s Canadian, and not that well known in the United States. How did you become connected with her?

AB: It was through Springboard. The same year I met Chelsea, which was sort of amazing. Everyone I met that year has remained in my life in artistically potent ways.

In 2009, Margie was looking through a window as I was trying out some things in the studio. I remember this joyous woman looking in, and then she entered and was watching with a huge smile. And I knew who she was—I had seen her perform a few years earlier but had never met her. And I finished and she came running up to me and gave me a hug and said, “That’s so beautiful. I love what you’re doing.”

And I just sort of developed a friendship with her and told her at the end of the summer I would love to work with her. That didn’t happen right away but we kept in touch, and the next summer I went back up, and she said, “What are you doing Monday? Why don’t we go into the studio?” And it ended up that she was coming to New York to teach at the Stella Adler acting studio, and the studio graciously gave us space, and we worked for a week to create that solo [“Chalice”].

She’s been a constant mentor and a friend. As soon as I new I wanted to do Sweeney Todd, I thought of her as the Beggar Woman and couldn’t picture anyone else in that role. We got in the studio and she did a demo video for me, and I asked if she would come to Santa Barbara this September and mentor me but also perform, and she said yes.

She’s also starting a Legacy project, so this fits with her mentorship program. She wants to get her ideas about solo work and conflict resolution out to share with other artists, so this is part of that project as well.

RH: What do you think her mentoring role will be like? What kind of notes does she tend to give you on your work?

AB: She and I have a great understanding. We’re very similar in the sense that we’re making physical theater that is reflective of the inner landscapes of the human being, so while our work is very different we share a vision of what we’re trying to do. She’s open and knowledgeable and looks at what the choreographer is trying to do and is able to give questions and provoke, and also to say, “Don’t do anymore. That’s just enough.” Especially with me. I tend to want to get into complex levels and then when I get more I add more levels, and then when I get bored I add more. One wonderful thing she said to me was “You need to slow down a little bit.” And, “Sometimes you should make it feel like the audience can do it themselves.” She’s on my shoulder all the time.

RH: Will she be here for the whole month?

AB: She’ll be here for the first week and the last week.

RH: So your DANCEworks project has grown out of your “Worst Pies in London Solo.” How did you choose to learn that music?

[Adam laughs.]

RH: What was the germination of that solo?

AB: At Juilliard, the last year, I was in the studio listening to Stephen Sondheim and a dancer friend walked in and said, ‘I love Into the Woods.’ I had thought I was the only dancer who would fall in love in Sondheim at that time at Juilliard, and we started joking about how we should do a piece set to Sweeney Todd, or put dance into Sweeney Todd. And about three years later, I was making work to do a showing, and the same dancer was with me. I said, ‘What if we made a dance to “The Worst Pies in London,” and had a lot of props and a lot of arms. She said that’s a great idea.

So I went into the studio alone and set up a video camera and put on “Worst Pies.” I had just a table, no props with me. I thought, “Let me just pretend I have the props.” And then I watched the footage and laughed hysterically because I thought, “Oh my god, this is really funny. I’ve just accidentally created a Charlie Chaplin/Marcel Marceau take on Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd.” I said, “I have to do the solo myself, and I’m going to do it to Angela Lansbury’s voice with just the table.”

And I did it and people were quite taken by it, and then I did it at a Dancers Responding to AIDS benefit for the Broadway community. And people really got it. I was taken aback because I thought people would think it was strange but they were with me.

And at the DRA benefit there was a wonderful casting director Stuart Howard, and he said, “Oh my this is wonderful. You must send it to Angela Lansbury, she would find it hysterical.”

I eventually sent Stuart an email with a video link to the solo, because I knew how much he enjoyed it.

When I came back to my computer that night, and there was an email from Stuart Howard that said, “Adam, this is from you-know-who.” I thought, “What the hell?” And the forwarded email says, “Dear Stuart, No I have never seen it. Would love to see it. The idea delights me. Steve S.” And I thought, “Who is Steve—oh my god.” I dialed my dad and said “Steven Sondheim wants to see a DVD!”

So I went to Stuart’s office to give him a DVD which he said he would deliver to Sondheim. Surprisingly that same day,  I got another message forwarded to me, “Dear Stuart, I found the dance on YouTube. I loved it. Send me the DVD anyway. Steve.”

It was amazingly generous of Stuart to do that, he made a dream come true. 

And then I needed the rights to perform that solo because I was getting asked to perform it a lot. So I wrote to Sondheim via Stuart asking for the rights and saying I didn’t feel comfortable without permission. And he said absolutely and gave me the contact info for his lawyer. So that was the first step in this whole journey.

Eventually I got an email from Sondheim saying if I had any questions, he would be happy to meet with me. So I said, “I have to make this happen.” And eventually I met with him for half an hour at his home. In February. He was very gracious to take the time to meet with me. It was incredibly intimidating but fascinating to hear him speak about his work and get a sense of who he is as a person and not just and icon and someone I’ve had on a pedestal my entire life.

RH: For your DANCEworks residency, you’re going to concentrate on the first act?

AB: Yes, because it’s the introduction to the structure of the show, the characters. There’s a lot of backstory, and the possibility for ways to tell that backstory in movement and dance.

I made the solo in 2008. It was always something that I thought, “Eventually, someday, if I got the chance, I would do this.” So when I got the DANCEworks residency, I thought, “What do I really want to do—something that’s going to challenge me now that I’ll have the time and space to go into new territory.” I thought, “I’ll never have that much time and safety to try this again in New York, or possibly anywhere.”

RH: Yes, that’s what DANCEworks is supposed to be about. Of course it’s wonderful that you have so many commissions, but this is meant to be a residency where you can go beyond delivering a product that a company needs and do something that is your own defined challenge.

AB: Choreographing for companies is wonderful and a fun experience, but you can’t reinvent the wheel too much in two and a half weeks. You have to give out what you know will work for that group. And often you don’t know the group at all. You come in and have ten days to make them understand your aesthetic—it’s a lot. So this opportunity in Santa Barbara is tremendous.

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One comment

  • Dianne Vapnek April 22, 2015  

    Such a fine interview. I lam glad you included the Margie Gillis video too. Thanks for deepening the context of Adam’s residency for all of us!

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