Syncopation, which runs June 8-25 at Ensemble Theatre Company’s (ETC) New Vic, takes the already considerable challenge of a two-person show and raises the stakes by adding dance to the acting. Zander Meisner will play Henry, a butcher who dreams of becoming a famous ballroom dancer, and Sara Brophy is Anna, the shy seamstress who answers his classified ad for a partner willing to practice social dancing in Henry’s dingy sixth-floor walk-up on New York’s Lower East Side. The play is set in 1911, when such stars as Vernon and Irene Castle were starting a revolution in American mores by introducing close partner dancing to the masses. Choreographer William Soleau, a familiar presence in Santa Barbara due to his long association with State Street Ballet, will choreograph the scenes, and Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, the producing artistic director of the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, will direct the show, which was written by playwright Allan Knee.
For Soleau, the project began with the script, which he read at the behest of State Street Ballet’s Rodney Gustafson, who had received it from ETC Artistic Director Jonathan Fox. “There’s no singing,” Soleau told me. “It’s not like a musical. But there is this beautiful story of two people falling in love through learning to dance, and that appealed to me.” Dancing and talking at the same time, Henry and Anna must demonstrate a wide range of popular steps from the period, including such tricky maneuvers as the hesitation waltz, and they must do so in the small space defined by the set of Henry’s tenement apartment.
Soleau’s original full-length ballet An American Tango, which was performed at the Granada as the kick-off to State Street Ballet’s 2016-17 season, required the choreographer to do extensive research into the period represented in Syncopation, a time when ballroom-dance fever was at its height, especially among working-class people. The prestige of dance stars and the rapid development of a series of dance crazes, many of them based on the movements of animals, gave ordinary folks permission to hold each other closer than ever before and authorized women to discard restrictive corsets in favor of more flexible garments and even, gasp, shorter dresses. “When Irene and Vernon Castle came back from Europe” Soleau said, “Irene’s legs were flying,” and America was never the same again.
The actors in Syncopation are not professional dancers, but according to Soleau, they are rising to the occasion. “Sara is very strong, and the way Henry has taken on the role is unbelievable. They have really grown as a ballroom couple,” he said. Each new production of Syncopation requires the services of a choreographer and a director, as there are specific steps in the script, but according to Soleau, there is “room for improvisation” in the way they are executed.
One of the challenges faced by everyone involved in the production comes from the configuration of the stage. State Street Ballet just finished a successful run with its Modern Masters program at the New Vic; as a result, Soleau is familiar with the space. But in this work, due to the set design, only about one quarter of the stage is available to the performers for their movement. “It wasn’t made for dancing” said Soleau, but that constraint is part of the plot. How Henry and Anna maneuver around his room becomes how they maneuver around all the other restrictions — social, personal, and cultural — that keep them apart. Solving that problem through dialogue and dance is what makes Syncopation such a special journey.
Syncopation runs June 8-25 at ETC’s New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). For tickets and information, call (805) 965-5400 or visit etcsb.org