Q&A with Adam Barruch and Chelsea Bonosky, Part 2

In the second part of our conversation with choreographer Adam Barruch and dancer Chelsea Bonosky, (Read Part 1 here), we got into the nitty-gritty about his plans to create a physical theater production of Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd on the Lobero stage in September, and discussed his experiences in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater New Directions Choreography Lab. Finally, we talked about his path back to choreography after his time at Juilliard.

Rachel Howard: You were saying last night that you’ll be keeping the sets minimal here as it was for your “Worst Pies of London” solo.

Adam Barruch: Yes. Very minimal sets, industrial, bare bones theater. Anything you can find in a theater we’ll be utilizing. Ladders, gurneys, moveable lights. Brechtian, if you will.

RH: And the cast members will be many performers you’ve met through Sleep No More? You have how many performers coming? And they also sing?

AB: We have three men. William Popp, Zach McNally, and Timothy Heck. Timothy Heck is in Belgium studying physical theater, with an emphasis on creating character through the body.

Chelsea Bonosky: Timothy is interesting. When I started working with him I could tell right away that he came from the theater world but had a background in dance. He approaches every situation with such fresh eyes.

AB: That’s one of the reasons I chose to bring performers like that, performers who are all coming from a different place. I thought the energy with a collective—it’s going to go beyond what I could possibly imagine in my own head. When you work all the time out of your own body, you are limited by your own body. So I tend to fall into movement patterns, I like to feel a certain way when I move. So this is like when composers can write music away from the piano, and not be limited by their piano technique and can go into more adventurous modes. By asking people of very different backgrounds to come to the same place, it’s going to be interesting to see what the physicality becomes.

RH: Anyone else coming?

AB: We have two other women. Katrina Cunningham is an amazing dancer, trained at SUNY Purchase, but also a beautiful singer and poet. She is frequent performer with Company XIV, which as a baroque-cabaret synthesis created and directed by Austin McCormick. I went to Juilliard with Austin, as well as Delphina Parenti–who is also coming to work with us during the residency. She and I collaborated a lot in our composition classes at Juilliard. She a beautiful dancer, and very creative.

CB: She danced in our first APAP.

AB: She has a wild imagination.

RH: A production with live singing is a first for a DANCEworks commission.

AB: it was important to me to do live singing, because I want to make this a representation of the musical itself, not an abstraction of the musical. So it’s important that the movement is really just to serve the singing, the text, the movement. How to find that balance—that’s the big goal of the project. How to discern when to move and when it’s necessary to just do what’s written and not overload the audience with too much information, but to find a nice symbiotic relationship.

RH: And you have a music director who will be hired locally in Santa Barbara playing piano—a piano reduction of the score?

AB: Yes, just piano right now. It keeps it intimate.

RH: That feels of a piece with the bare-bones aesthetic.

AB: Yes. And that’s actually a little more how Sondheim originally envisioned the piece, he said. When we met, I asked him if the reflection on the Industrial Revolution that the original production offered—was that something he had in mind or was that something Hal Prince brought. He said it was Hal Prince. [ . . .]

The original [conception of the] play was more intimate than the musical came to be.

He also said one of his favorite productions of Sweeney Todd was a production he saw staged in a pie shop. And that the intensity of the show was that the characters were so close and the fourth wall was blurred.

RH: An effect Chelsea is now familiar with from her time performing with Sleep No More. It will be interesting to see how this fits in the Lobero. The theater has a good deep stage, but still feels intimate.

To switch gears, I’m also curious about your participation in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater New Directions Choreography Lab. [Barruch participated in 2011.]

AB: Yes.

RH: I know that you were assigned an advisor/mentor in that program. Who was your advisor and what did you end up making?

AB: I was one of the first participants in that new program, and I was honored and it was an incredible opportunity to have seven weeks, I think it was, with the dancers every other day.

There was a highly educational component because it also involved teaching in the student school. And it was a chance to make something without the expectation of a finished product. I always do make something because I feel that’s the whole point, to see how you put the work together. But interestingly my mentor was my first choreography teacher from Juilliard, Elizabeth Keen. I took composition with her as a freshman. She was great. She’s very objective. She really wants each choreographer to do what they want to do. She doesn’t impose her own taste. She has a lot of opinions about what could be done more precisely. But she’s in tune with each person. And she knew my history and the work I made at Juillard.

RH: What did you make [at the Ailey lab]?

AB: I made a piece for 10 dancers, five women and five men. It was great because at that time I was getting more commissions, and actually I was making a work at Princeton at the same time. So I would basically go Thursdays and Saturdays, and Monday-Wednesday-Friday to Ailey. So that was a formative time in the way I make work now. I created a system of making partnering that I had never used before. I started also creating phrases based on collaborative prompts that I still use to generate material. So I learned how to make work on dancers that I don’t know, fast. You know, how can I be most efficient in the creative process? And different ways of putting dance in the space, dividing the space into quadrants with tape on the floor to help me see geometric patterns. And I started doing that at the Ailey residency.

Then I started doing company work [with other companies, like Chicago’s River North Dance]. I’m grateful that I didn’t do that right away, that I did the workshops and labs. Because by the time I got to doing company work, which I was very nervous about, I knew my process. So when I got to my first commission, I thought “Wow, I actually am prepared to do this.”

I’m grateful to the schools and institutions who let me come in and make dance on their students because that was how I discovered how I wanted to move. Because after I left Juilliard, I quit dance for a while. I was disillusioned by dance, and not really wanting to move. I was burnt out. I started doing other classes at the New School: painting and music theory playwriting. Just to get my mind off of dance. But I was still teaching and creating on students. And because my students were doing my work, I said, “I should go back on stage. If they can do it, I should be able to go in.”

Then I started making work for myself, dance that I thought was a representation of me as a mover. And then that took off. I didn’t dance for someone else until much later, until I began to work for Sylvain [Emard Dance] in 2010. That was my first company job.

RH: What do you think burnt you out as a performer?

AB: Ooooh. Well, I think it was that time of my life. Being a late teenager and dealing with being in an intense conservatory training. I’m still intense, but I was especially intense at that age, and I got too caught up in the technical side of dance. I got so, almost neurotic about my technique that I became afraid to perform, because I was afraid to make mistakes. Then I began creating very theatrical work that had almost no movement whatsoever. And that did not go over so well [with Juilliard]. And I left because I didn’t want to be a dancer. I remember performing with Juilliard and I was so sad and tired and I said, I’m done. If I don’t leave, I’ll probably never dance again. I need to leave and recalibrate.

But also I had been working in theater since I was 10 years old. So 10 years later, I had never had a moment to ask myself, “Is there anything else that I could do?” I had never stopped. I was ambitious as a child and teenager, and I got too caught up in it.

RH: Then you gave yourself that space. I think this is one of the key attributes of someone who becomes an artist rather than going down another path in life: To have that vigilance of ‘This is who I am and I need to protect that, and not be forced into someone else’s idea of what I should be.” And some people have an innate reaction of, “This is who I have to be and I’m going to defend it, god damn it, at all costs.”

AB: It was intense. It was an unpopular decision that I made, not only with the school but with my parents. Everyone was freaked out, and I said, “You just have to trust me. This is my only option.” And I didn’t even know what I was going to do. It was tough. I went through a few years of trying on other art forms until I got the courage to return.

RH: I’m glad that led you here.

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