American Repertory Ballet Artistic Director Douglas Martin.  Photo © Peter Cook

American Repertory Ballet Artistic Director
Douglas Martin.
Photo © Peter Cook

CriticalDance’s Jerry Hochman talks to American Repertory Ballet (ARB) Artistic Director Douglas Martin about the connections that he and the company have with the Joffrey Ballet when it was based in New York, the challenges of running a ballet company in the shadows of major companies in New York and Philadelphia, and his new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that premieres on February 26th.

Martin is a tall, imposing looking man who bears a vague resemblance to Christopher Reeve. He’s soft-spoken, with a matching demeanor that belies an underlying impatience to get things done, to get them done his way, and to get them done expeditiously.

JH:  As I think you know, I saw my first performance of ARB several years ago, and didn’t know what to expect in terms of the choreography and the company’s dancers, and ended up enjoying the performance a great deal.  I sat there at first wondering what I could write that would be gentle and non-judgmental to a relatively young and growing company, even though I’m aware that it has a 37-year history – and then you hit me with “Rite of Spring” and blew me away. 

DM: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

As you know, I was a member of the Joffrey Ballet when it was based in New York. The Joffrey’s repertoire was really something that could touch everybody, and there was a huge range of ballets that the dancers were expected to do and that I was exposed to, including Diaghilev era ballets. I was an original cast member of the Joffrey’s reproduction of “Rite of Spring”. That exposure, especially with respect to “Rite of Spring”, gave me insight that I don’t think that many people have.

My big criticism for that particular piece has always been that people who haven’t experienced the original libretto tend to have an idea that it’s more or less this sexual ritual.

My concept was that it’s all about tribal experience. And so I was very anxious to do the “Rite of Spring” because I wanted to interpret it in that tribal way.

So I’m glad you got it, because I know it’s very packed full, but so much is based on the Diaghilev era ballets. There are so many steps involved that are directly related to steps we (the Joffrey) did in that ballet from the Nijinsky original, and from “Les Noces” and “Parade” and other ballets of that era, that I put in there for the benefit of those who might recognize them, and for the enjoyment of everyone. It was a special exercise for me.

What prompted you to change the venue and time of the ballet to a “Mad Men”-like office situation?

I decided upon the 1960s because of the great changes that were happening in the world and in particular in the US during that decade. The fight for equality. I chose a Madison Avenue advertising agency because of the dynamics within the office between the sexes. In the first movement I wanted to establish a dominant male office place where the female worker’s only expectation was a supportive role within the tribal dynamic. Then in the second movement to equate the sacrifice of the Chosen One to the fight for equality and stature within the workplace or the tribe.

We’ll get back to the Joffrey in a minute.

American Repertory Ballet in 'Rite of Spring' in 2011.  Photo © George Jones

American Repertory Ballet in ‘Rite of Spring’ in 2011.
Photo © George Jones

You’ve been with ARB 21 years and you’ve been Artistic Director for five years. What brought you here?

Well, interestingly enough, I had left the Joffrey about a year and a half earlier. My wife [Mary Barton, who also danced with the Joffrey in New York] and I first went to Cleveland for a year, and then we came back to New York and freelanced.

At that time, one of our Joffrey peers, Philip Jerry, was a student at Princeton University. And at the same time, he was also ballet master here at ARB. He saw the changes happening with the new Director Septime Webre coming in, and he thought we might be interested in working with him. So he got us to come out, as he did with several other of our dancer friends – including another guy from the Joffrey, and someone from ABT – and things worked out. And 21 years later I’m still here (laughs). But he was the catalyst for all of us getting out here and meeting with Septime. [Webre is now is Artistic Director with the Washington Ballet in DC.]

You spent the interim between the Joffrey and ARB working with the Cleveland Ballet?

Yes, for one season only. They were actually the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet. I’m from San Jose, so it was an excellent opportunity for me to go home during their season and perform for my family like I had always done with the Joffrey.

But you know, living in the New York area for fifteen years, it’s hard to get out of a metropolitan area like this. And I was already 30 and it’s hard at that age, to make my life change.

Tell me about it.

And we just missed the east coast, so we decided to return to New York, and were fortunate enough to make a decent living doing guesting. We had some good opportunities. But when you’re guesting, independently, it’s not like having a career. Because when you’re with a company, they shape their repertory around you. So that was the impetus for finding another company.

So it wasn’t anything about the Cleveland company per se.

DM: No. Funny, now they’re the San Jose Ballet (laughs). And that wouldn’t have been a terrible thing. But we weren’t really thinking about moving to the west coast. And, you know, life just takes its shape. Certainly Dennis Nahat was a wonderful person, and we had a lot of friends in the company.

I still remember Dennis Nahat from his performance as Iago with ABT in “The Moor’s Pavane”. It was on the program of the first ballet performance I ever saw.

Oh wow. Fabulous. Yes. He was so powerful. And that look in his face. He also did a great job as the Devil in “Three Virgins and a Devil”.

It’s been a long time since ABT’s done that.

Yes. Well, I know that one of our company teachers, Kathleen Moore, was brought back to do it sometime within the last ten years or so. Kevin McKenzie did it, along with Kathleen and two ballet mistresses; it was a gala performance of some sort. But you’re right, it hasn’t been part of the regular rep for a while. But it’s a pretty special piece.

We also had a connection out here when I was in the Joffrey, because the director at that time was Dermot Burke, who of course had a career at the Joffrey. He was constantly coming into New York looking for dancers. And he’d stop by the Joffrey a lot and I got to know him, and learned about ARB that way. And many of the dancers who danced with ARB actually made their way up to the Joffrey, either with the second company or the main company. So there were a lot of connections.

I have a connection of sorts with the Joffrey too. When my wife and I lived in New York, they were one of the three companies we saw all the time. We loved them. In fact, if you remember, at one point in I included a comment in an ARB review that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if ARB decided to model itself in some way after the Joffrey. It would fill a void.

I do.

But the special connection is that the day after we adopted our son in November, 1985, I already had a ticket for the Joffrey that night (laughs). We lived about three blocks away from City Center. So my wife stayed home with the baby and a roomful of relatives and I went to the performance. Didn’t want to waste the ticket (both of us laugh).

Do you remember what you saw?

No, unfortunately. I wish I did. I guess I had other things on my mind.

I think, if I remember correctly, we also had our first State Theater season later that year. We did John Cranko’s “Taming of the Shrew” and “Romeo and Juliet”. Richard Cragun and Marcia [Haydée] came in for “Taming”, and William Forsythe just showed up one day and, without a rehearsal, did the Preacher. I remember we also did a special gala performance that season, with Barbara Cook, in a piece called “Kiss Me”. We did a lot of fun things that particular year.

Can’t believe I missed those. I guess I was otherwise occupied by then (laughs).

I loved the Joffrey. That repertoire. I’m still very close friends with many of those dancers. I was in the Joffrey when we became NY/LA; we travelled all over the world; we got paid really well (laughs). And all those dancers before me, they struggled. It was a great rep, and they got to be there when Joffrey and Arpino were creating their first works; but I got there when we were already a world famous company. We got to be at the top of everything we were trying to create; what he [Robert Joffrey] always dreamed we could be.

The sad part was in ’88 when he passed away. That was the end. I’m a supporter of them still; I’m actually on the Joffrey/Arpino Foundation Board; and I want all of that preserved as well as for the company to go on and survive.

American Repertory Ballet in rehearsal.  Photo © Leighton Chen

American Repertory Ballet in rehearsal.
Photo © Leighton Chen

Yes. That was really sad. Do you foresee doing more Joffrey ballets with ARB?

Absolutely. I’m totally committed to keeping those ballets alive.

But just like the Balanchine ballets, it’s really important to have the right people. And for some of those Joffrey ballets, I have special memories of dancers doing them in my head. For instance, if you create something on Pat Miller and James Canfield, like “Round of Angels”, you better have someone who can reproduce that. And Tom Mossbrucker was such an individual. I have yet to see anyone do the roles he did for Arpino. His role in “Light Rain”; it’s just so hard to get anybody do that like he did it, and that’s the only picture I have in my head.

So everything I want to do has to do with having the right dancers at the time. And being able to fit it into our repertoire season. Arpino’s “Confetti” is a good, classical, hard ballet. And we’ve done it. And every girl in the company had to have a part in it. It’s only three girls, but if anyone gets hurt…everyone had to understudy. That’s a high level to expect from your entire company.

So it’s gonna depend on the dancers I have.

Sure. But I’d love to see “Suite Saint-Saens” again sometime.

I was just talking about that the other day. It’s such a fabulous ballet. And the piano, you just want to sit back and listen to it.

But there are other challenges that we’re facing: wanting to make sure that the ballets are presented well.

Yea. “Astarte” might be a little dated, but it’d be a curiosity.

Yes. And again, you have to have the special people. Certainly I remember the cast that created “Saint-Saens”. I danced with all of them. I ran into some of them the other day. It was made for them, which is special, and you have to find a way to make it look right. They’re hard ballets, and that’s among his greatest works. My dancers are good, and they’ve handled the Arpino works we’ve done so far, but it’s a matter of choosing the right ones at the right time. That’s one of the challenges we face.

And that’s what he had to face as well.

What got you interested in ballet in the first place?

My sisters studied it. And my parents happened upon a fine school with connections to a very famous teacher, Dimitri Romanoff, who was the Regisseur of ABT from its inception for about 40 years. His wife had a school in San Jose. She was a wonderful teacher. And my sisters grew up with that, and I grew in the arts, I sang – and played football and soccer. And then at 15 I broke my leg, had an operation on my ankle, and I woke up about two in the morning after the operation and the first thing I said to myself was: ‘oh, now I can start ballet’.

I’m not kidding.

ARB's Samantha Gullace and Alexander Dutko in rehearsal for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Photo © Leighton Chen

ARB’s Samantha Gullace and Alexander Dutko in rehearsal for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
Photo © Leighton Chen

Where did that come from?

My mom had wanted me to, but I just did other things and it was hard to switch. And then when I had the opportunity to switch – it was in 10th grade – I turned on a dime. As soon as I got the cast off, three weeks later I could start ballet. After two week of classes, I loved it. Three years later I was at ABT School in New York.

In my first year, my sisters’ instructor got cancer, so Mr. Romanoff came back to teach classes and help her convalesce. And he started giving me private lessons, plus the regular classes every day, maybe because I was the only young guy and I was very physical and strong. He was just turning my athleticism toward a different thing. By my third year I could do seven pirouettes, double tours, big things, because of all my previous athletic training, and all the private lessons I got. And when the ABT School started, they auditioned everywhere, and I got in. It was a miracle, to be perfectly honest.

That was in three years. And a year and a half after that I was in Joffrey 2.

Did you find it uncomfortable, or difficult, to be a male in a female world? Or did you never think about it that way?

Well, I had done musicals when I was in grammar school and middle school, so I was used to being up on stage and performing a lot. And honestly, I didn’t. I had a very good sense of myself by that point. I lifted weights; it wasn’t like I was afraid the other guys were going to tease me. I was pretty fortunate that way.

I have a friend who had an excellent career with San Francisco Ballet. We met when we were seniors in high school. And in my yearbook he wrote: ‘to the guy who makes being a ballet dancer respectable.’ Because he was terrified to tell anybody, and yet he had danced his whole life. His parents had a school. But no one knew. And here I come along, and within three years I’m telling everybody: hey, I don’t care; this is what I do.

And then to have so much success. Everything was just thrown at me. I was very fortunate; right place at right time.

Probably looking a little bit like Christopher Reeve didn’t hurt.

A little bit, yea. The funny thing is, my hair was parted in the middle. I was a California kid who knew nothing about style. And again, Philip Jerry with the Joffrey came to me one day. He said: ‘You know, you’re a pretty good looking kid…dress like it; look like it.’

And maybe that’s why I wasn’t kept at ABT School – I was too much the California surfer dude.

So, everything kind of fell into my lap. It sounds easy, but it was being in the right place at the right time. When I left Joffrey, I was taking class with David Howard, and Dennis Nahat showed up…and offered me a contract to go out there [to Cleveland Ballet]. And I left there, and a year later, I was taking class back in New York, I saw Philip Jerry in a class, and he invited me out here.

But If I’d wanted something different; If I’d only wanted to be at ABT – it would never have happened. Even though I didn’t always know who I was all that time, I wasn’t trying to do something I wasn’t right for. That was the lucky part.

That gets us back to ARB. I think it’s fair to say that ARB is a regional company – would you agree?

Well, anything outside a major metropolitan area, like the New York area, would be called a regional ballet.

Are there special challenges that ARB faces, being sandwiched in between behemoths in New York, and Pennsylvania, which is regional, but it’s sort of a ‘super-regional’.

Well, it is ‘super-regional’. Anytime you’re in a major metropolitan area, you’re getting the money for that area – like there are a lot of companies in Philadelphia, but Pennsylvania Ballet’s getting the money there.

So, yea, we struggle. The challenge is that here, it’s less than 45 minutes to Philadelphia. And for anyone from this area interested in going to a ballet performance, the preconception is ‘well, of course they’re Pennsylvania Ballet, in a major city; they must be better; the product must be better.’ We have to change that way of thinking, and I think we do it by an emphasis on creating ‘art’, rather than on being like, or better than, other nearby companies. Creating ‘art’ that is of the level I expect it to be, which we’ve done and we insist upon.

I just travelled to the Kansas City Ballet. I travel a lot around the country and look at these other companies. And when you’re isolated to some extent, you can do ballets that everybody else is doing. Because if you’re, like, in Kansas City, your audience wants to see the ballets that other major companies are doing, so they feel like they’re getting to witness that art. I’m in between all of that (laughs). Everybody’s doing the same twenty choreographers. I have worked very hard to develop a repertoire that features: Mary Barton, Kirk Peterson, and myself, as well as Trinette Singleton and Patrick Corbin and others, but not what everyone else is doing. That’s going to be our niche. And then you have to be patient for the growth to happen.

So that’s the challenge. And essentially, the same challenges are faced by every company.

Joffrey had to start from nothing, and he had to gather dancers – after Harkness, that is – really gather dancers who would believe in him. And he had to do it more than once. And yet…the Joffrey was a world class company; I’d put our company [the Joffrey] against anybody in the ’80s. We weren’t going to be able to compete with ABT in the same ballets; we were different. But in the ‘art’ realm, we certainly were on a level playing field with them.

So that’s what I have to wrap my mind around. I have to produce work that’s right for this company, and pull works in that are right for this company. And fortunately, I have the example of Mr. Joffrey to do that.

I would think there also would be a challenge in terms of getting dancers that you want.

Well…the truth is…you think you want this dancer…this great dancer, an elite dancer from ABT, or whoever that is – and you might want them, if they’d want to work for you. And if they can create the art you want to do. You might want them.

But the most important thing, above all else, is having a symbiotic relationship with your company. So you can walk in the studio, and they can understand you, and they’ve worked with you long enough that they know, as you start to move, they start to produce the style, and help you produce the ballet. They understand.

For example, with “Rite”. That was an intense project. I did that ballet in two weeks.

I would never have believed that.

When I hear someone needs 900 hours for a 20 minute ballet…(laughs).

“Rite” was a stylistic ballet that they absolutely had to reproduce; that they had to understand. And it’s incredibly dense. But fortunately the majority of our company has been set for four or five years, and hopefully they’ll continue on. And at this point, the style of the company starts to coalesce to your idea, that’s the important thing.

So…yes. I’m always interested in attracting high caliber dancers. And I’d like to find some mature dancers to bring in occasionally. To bring something to the company; to open up people’s eyes. To push the other dancers.

I noticed when I first started seeing ARB that maybe you had a pipeline to Italy, since so many of your dancers came from there.

(laughs) We do have a pipeline to Italy. It started off with an acquaintance that Mary Pat [Robertson], our school director, made, in Geneva of all places, with a woman who promotes dance. It turned out that there were a large number of students there who wanted to come here for our summer course. And that’s how it all started – six years ago.

What’s been really wonderful is we’ve had about ten or fifteen dancers over the years come and study in our advanced training programs. And it’s just worked out that two of the men that I’ve trained over the last four years have just turned into wonderful dancers. They’re both very unusual. Mattia [Pallozzi] is quite a beautiful contemporary mover, so that works great for Romeo; it works great for Ann Marie D’Angelo pieces; it was nice in “Afternoon of a Faun”… Jacopo [Janelli] is Tybalt reincarnated (laughs).

ARB's Shaye Firer (Titania in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream') and Marc St-Pierre. Photo © Leighton Chen

ARB’s Shaye Firer (Titania in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’) and Marc St-Pierre.
Photo © Leighton Chen

He also did very well in Trinette’s piece last year.

Yes. And now, in “Midsummer”, he’s come full circle, and he’s a wonderful Puck. Using all that strong energy he has, but he’s joyful, makes great expressions. He’s a young dancer, 21 years old. Four years ago, he really wasn’t equipped, acting-wise, to handle a comic part. He just wouldn’t do any of the acting. Earlier this season, he played the big family father in our “Nutcracker”, which is the comic role, and he was so funny that, one day when I was filming, I just filmed him. He was a minor character in the back, but he was so funny all the way through.

But it has to be that way, right? It has to work on every level.

But how wonderful it is that within four years, this dancer comes with no real ability to express himself in that way, and he finds it, and it turns out that he’s wonderful at it.

That’s what I’m trying to do here. Build art.

And our training program is really important. The dancers take two classes in the morning, two in the afternoon, with rehearsals in the afternoon Mondays through Thursdays. Plus ten hours Saturday and Sunday of class and rehearsals. You can’t get that when you are still in high school.

And then you go looking for a job. And you’re competing against students who are working 40 hours a week. You need that time to develop. I need that – to have dancers come here to work and learn the company repertoire, and learn the company style. And get stronger and mature before I take them into the company. Otherwise they’ll spend their first two or three years in the company doing that, and they won’t really make it. Stagers would not be happy to come in and see a student who can’t really pick up the style. That’s what you get by being in a company, but you really understand it by being a trainee, and seeing that maturing and understanding over the years. It’s a huge, huge, huge necessity. And I’m really pleased that our program is working so well. We have about eight dancers in the company who’ve come through our trainee program.

Yes, I’ve seen it over the past three years.

Did you see the Joffrey film, the one that came out a couple of years ago? About his original company, and all the different things that happened to build that company. Trinette was interviewed; Charthel [Arthur]. What was amazing was that in ’79, the company loses that huge New York State grant, about $600,000. They had to get rid of the entire group of stars. Gary Chryst; that whole crew. And they bring in most of the company from Joffrey 2. And every one of those dancers they brought in became the next generation of stars. James Canfield; Glenn Edgerton, Tom Mossbrucker, Carl Corry, Leslie Caruthers, Tina LeBlanc. I think nine of us are directing companies. It’s really quite amazing.

Is there a ballet you’d like to do – not from scratch, but something that you’d like the company to perform, something that you think is a realistic possibility? Or a semi-realistic possibility?

Well, if you’re just talking about repertoire, sure. Everything I think about bringing in has two criteria. One is for others’ enjoyment. I have to look at the needs and desires of a broad audience base, like Robert Joffrey did. And I have to choose things so that we don’t get pigeon-holed, and pretty soon everybody says, ‘well I saw that; it all looks the same’. That’s really important to me. That’s number one.

Number two is I look to the ballets to move the dancers to different levels of their experience and technique. So, for example, with what we’re going to be doing next year, I’m expressly looking for ballets that change their technical level, or their artistic level. We’re going to do “Glazunov Variations”, which is Kirk Petersen’s version of “Raymonda”. We did that in my very first year. I think only two of the current female dancers were in the company at that time, and they did corps parts. Now they’ve been here five years, next year will be six years, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them through that maturation process, and see what that ballet will bring to them, and how far they’ve come.

What I’d really like to do, that I’d love the company to do, is Pilobolus’ “Untitled”. I think that was done in that ’85 Joffrey season. I loved doing that ballet. It was such a fabulous experience for me to understand what dance could be, not just tendus and pirouettes.

I was thinking about “Green Table”. Whenever the subject of the Joffrey comes up, I think of “Green Table”.

I danced “Green Table”. It was one of those historic things that changes your idea of what dance can do. It’s for all time. I’d love for our dancers to have that experience.

ABT did it, I think four or five years ago. But they haven’t done it since.

Yea. I’m glad ABT did it. Kevin’s actually done a number of ballets that I think he experienced with the Joffrey or maybe witnessed when the Joffrey was doing them. Like doing Cranko choreography as opposed to just Macmillan. I’m pleased to see that, because I’m a Cranko fan. Not that I’m not a Macmillan fan too, but I’m a huge John Cranko fan. It’s nice to see that.

Yes. And I’d love for them to bring back “Taming of the Shrew”. One of the few advantages to being as ancient as I am is that I’ve been going to ballets a really long time. I remember the Stuttgart coming in and doing “Taming of the Shrew”, with Marcia and Richard Cragun, and just loving it.

I think he’s influenced my choreography more than any other, because he had a certain type of choreographic organization. But what I found so brilliant about Cranko was the multiple story lines going on at one time. I’m sure you see it in my “Romeo” and “Rite of Spring” and the other big ballets I do. I’m always thinking, ‘ok we’re in a bazaar; there are forty groups of people here, having their own lives.’ And I really got that from John Cranko. Certainly in something like “Petrouchka”, those village scenes, where just everybody’s doing their own thing. That gave me that understanding as well.

But as a choreographer, looking at having danced so many different roles, in “Taming of the Shrew” and “Jeu de Cartes” and “Romeo and Juliet”, and having worked my way up through the cast from a young dancer to a principal, I got to experience how he layered it all so well.

Jacopo Janelli rehearsing Puck for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.  Photo © Leighton Chen

Jacopo Janelli rehearsing Puck for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
Photo © Leighton Chen

This year you’re doing “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

That, it seems to me, is a separate, but related, challenge to being sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia. With “Dream”, you’ve got Balanchine and Ashton. How do you deal with that?

(laughs) Right. I find both good and bad fortune in it. The good fortune is that I did got to learn the Ashton, and performed it many times at the Joffrey.

The bad fortune is, you know, Ashton did a great job (laughs). So what’s the point of doing it? Well, for one, I can’t afford to do his (laughs). But also, I decided I had to retell the story.

I will admit that Ashton created the groundwork for how that story could be told. But then I realized – his was an hour ballet, and I wanted to do a full length. And so I reread the play, and saw several versions of it, acted, so that I could have a better understanding of perhaps what else needed to be told. And I realized that Ashton didn’t tell the story of the humans at all – just the actual dream. And that’s of course why he called it “The Dream”. But the play itself – everybody’s there for the wedding of Hippolyta to Theseus. We lost all that. And having done the Ashton version, I’d never really put two and two together.

I’ve seen it dozens of times, both the Ashton and Balanchine versions. And I read the play – more years ago than I care to remember. And it didn’t hit me until I saw the notes for the preview you did a few months ago that – yea – something was missing. There’s a whole backstory we don’t see.

Well, it’s fine if you can just digest that the lovers are in the forest and see that obviously one girl’s chasing another and you have some kind of experience as to why that’s happening. But it happens for a real reason. The rustics as well. They just kind of show up and dance their way through that dream sequence. They’re an ‘aside’ in “The Dream”, just a vehicle for Bottom; they don’t really motivate the story anymore. Whereas in the play, they’re an integral part of the story, rehearsing, trying to get that work. And then they do the play within the play at the end.

So I decided to do a first act; to tell the ‘human’ story.

And the music is really written for a ‘reading’ of the play. Mendelsohn wrote the Overture first, which is so brilliant, but then he was commissioned to write incidental music for the play. Well, the way he wrote it doesn’t really follow the way you can tell the ballet, at least in the sense that I could tell it. So I decided I’ll use it, and move it around so that in the second half, everybody really has a theme that you hear, musically. That’s done so beautifully.

But then I had to come up with some other music for the first act. I’m trying to form the first act of the ballet, just like the second act is set, where there are vignettes happening one after another. I decided to use his “First Symphony” for it. But his “First Symphony” wasn’t written for a ballet in any way, shape or form. There’s a lot of repetition in it, but there is no reoccurring theme for characters, because it wasn’t written for that. So I’ve tried to cut it up so that you can hear, tonally, what seems right for a character; to find a theme. It’s a very challenging process.

Are you making other changes to what the ballet-going public might be familiar with?

Yes. Well, Balanchine did tell a little bit of the story of Theseus and Hippolyta at the end; but I’m telling it from the beginning.

I’m definitely telling a little bit of what we know of the fabled historical character references. Hippolyta was the Queen of the Amazons. So I want to give the audience just a little understanding of who she is. She’s a powerful person, who had relationships with powerful people. She had a relationship with Hercules, for goodness sake (laughs). And it’s intimated in the play that she had a relationship with Oberon. So, I intimate that in the opening. She’ll have a little tryst, a reminder of her past, with Oberon.

But she has just lost the war; and, in capitulation, she is to marry the Duke of Athens. And she’s OK with that. So she has a relationship with him, to show that she understands what she needs to do, that it’s OK to let her past go. And Theseus is perfectly fine with her past. It’s just a fact. He wants her to be his queen, his duchess. And as long as she follows the rules, he and she are really happy and they have a good relationship. Which is kind of interesting – she’s not just a war bride, or a trophy wife.

And in the play, basically the women capitulate to the men. But not with Hermia – she ends up getting to marry the one she loves at the end. I find that interesting. But in the whole first part she’s under threat of death, or…nunnery for her whole life, if she doesn’t do what her father is telling her to do. So that story will get told, so that when we go to the second act, the audience will know why they’re there.

Samantha Gullace (dancing Hippolyta in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and corps.  Photo © Leighton Chen

Samantha Gullace (centre, and dancing Hippolyta in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and corps.
Photo © Leighton Chen

So it’s a little more of a feminist version.

Well, I’m telling it how the play tells it. I’m just explaining what happened before they got to the forest, which isn’t done at all in “The Dream”. So the first part is the humans’ story. And of course the second act is the fairies that have come to this wedding, and the night, and all this interesting magic happens because Oberon really wants the changeling, and then he happens to notice these couples doing dumb thing, so he tries to straighten it out. Nothing in the second act will change, except, in the play, Theseus and Hippolyta are out on a hunt in the early morning, and they come across the couples. And they wake the couples up, and then they find that the couples are, in fact, in love with the right person. And so then Theseus goes back on his decision and allows Hermia and Lysander to marry, since Demetrius no longer wants her.

And it has its premiere…The 26th and 27th of February in New Brunswick. The company comes back from their winter break on Monday, and I have two weeks before we do an orchestra run through (laughs).

I don’t know if I could handle that. I’m always amazed that things get done within a year.

It’s discipline. I have a lot of discipline. I write out the music completely, break it down, and then I dedicate sections. And then I go into the sections, and define what needs to be done in the story line. And then I break down each story line to what’s going to happen within that story line. What the characters are doing; what other characters are doing it around them. So basically I can walk in on Monday and have a sentence by sentence, if you will, eight count patch.

Well, my guess is that it’s broken down even more – word by word, because you have to block out each step, right?

You know, when you’re sitting there listening to the music and you’re writing notes down for yourself, you can dance at the speed of light (laughs). And I get into the studio and I say, ‘well, ok take half of those steps out’ (laughs). But I always find that that’s an easier process than not having enough steps.

So, it works out fine. And I’ve actually done enough ballets in my life to have a sense of what’s possible within a range of times.

And I assume you’d make adjustments as you may need to.

Yes. And also, they’ll run it through in two weeks. But we have four weeks until the premiere. I need them to take that time to build, and deal with other developments, like injuries. You know, you need a body there. That happens. I certainly did performances at the Joffrey of parts that weren’t mine. One night we were doing “Clowns” – I don’t know if you remember, it was a Jerry Arpino piece, with all the clown make-up, and this big balloon on the stage and one of the dancers, Patrick Corbin, got hurt. And I was asked if I could do the part, with no rehearsal. And I went upstairs at 6 p.m., watched the video, wrote the entire ballet down, and put the different entrances in the different wings, taped to the wings. And I read my part, and went out and danced it.

You couldn’t do that with “Saint-Saens”, but with “Clowns” you could do it (laughs).

But even with “Saint-Saens”, I saw people go out with one rehearsal, having just learned something. Or someone gets injured on stage. I remember when Philip Jerry’s partner ran upstairs, she became too ill to dance. It was in the middle of the show. And he went out and ad libbed a two minute improvised solo where their pas de deux was (laughs).

One last question: What advice would you give to a boy who has an interest in the back of his head, but is afraid of getting labelled.

Come to our school. We’re very protective. We give the guys a real sense of who they are as individuals. People always say stuff. But when you have a sense of yourself, and a pride in what you do, then it doesn’t matter what people say. It’s only hard when you don’t trust who you are. My dancers in the company know who they are; what their strengths are.


American Repertory Ballet appear in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, choreography by Douglas Martin, at the State Theater, New Brunswick, NJ on February 26 and 27; and at the Zoellner Arts Center, Bethlehem, PA, on March 6. Click here for more details.

The company will perform Douglas Martins’ “Rite” on March 14 at Raritan Valley Community College, Branchburg, NJ; and his “Romeo and Juliet”, which Jerry Hochman found to be “skillful and entertaining” will be repeated at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ on April 16.