April 22, 2020
L = 'Lahoma!
David Connolly (D) in conversation with John Heginbotham (J) for Matinee to Z,
a series of Instagram Live Master Classes developed in response to Covid-19.
D: So how are you doing John Heginbotham? We can see you, so that's good. And we saw your feet and immaculately clean kitchen floor, that's exciting, very inspired.
J: Listen, you gotta keep things clean during the sign for sure.
D: How are you... Are you okay?
J: I'm doing really well, thank you so much, it's a beautiful, beautiful spring day, in Brooklyn, New York We're in an extraordinary, surreal time, and that also I'm very aware of that and worried sometimes. There are cycles as I’m sure there are for you, for all of us.
D: There’s the chips cycle, and there's the cheese cycle. Those are my two cycles and that’s OK.
J: I find there's a popcorn cycle and a vodka cycle.
D: I say live your life. Salted, unsalted any seasoning?
J: I like to use Newman’s Own plain and then I provide my own butter. It’s already pretty salty so no need to gild the lily.
D: Welcome everybody. This is my friend John and I am so happy for you to meet him, and I am so excited for the dazzling questions you are going to ask but I'm gonna start things off while you're typing in your questions. Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I want to start in Anchorage, what made the 11-year-old, 12-year-old boy in Anchorage, Alaska start dancing?
J: Well, I have to say I am a product of my family, and both my mom and dad both love the performing arts, in general, and specifically musical theatre, and I grew up from being a very young kid watching Hollywood musicals that we would rent.
I remember my Dad taking me to the movies when I was, I don't know in single digits. I know I wasn't even 10. and he said, “This is a really important musical. This is the first musical to use a dream ballet.” And I just remember, I liked it, I liked it, I think it wasn't necessarily my favourite up to that point. I think Singing In The Rain was probably my favourite. But I remember thinking... Oh, this one, this feels different and somehow important.
And then they also took me to whatever performing arts were available, live performing arts in Alaska, which was at the time in the '70s and ‘80s, there was quite a lot of stuff going on, some of it from out of town, some of it in town, and I fell in love with being a performer. I played Tiny Tim and the Alaska Repertory Theater's Protection of A Christmas Carol and it was all professional actors and the kids were local, but everybody else was from New York City and I just found that to be exciting and exotic and urban which was a very different experience than my Northern Alaskan experience. I would say that was one of those times. And we all have these in our lives, where something changes the path or directs the path maybe. And that was definitely one of those, one of those experiences for sure. I fell in love with theatre.
D: You would have been an amazing Tiny Tim. So, how did dancing, start? And particularly, when did contemporary dance reach the boy in Alaska? Because we have a lot of people online from from small towns.
J: Great, great, yeah well, so just in that same vein, of my very supportive parents, Jeannie and Ron, trying to support my interests and expose me to... they could see that the performing arts were of interest. They enrolled me at a school called The Dance Den, which was run by Miss Nona.
D: Yes, Miss Nona and all the brilliant dance studio owners and teachers. Yes!
J: Yes, it was one of those schools that taught everything. It was ballet, it was tap it was Polynesian, actually Polynesian dance, disco… so many different kinds of things, and there was some little bit of modern, contemporary dance. Taught by Miss Shirley.
But Miss Nona’s dance experience was primarily in tap. And I have to say in retrospect, at the time and I was up for anything, but in retrospect, she was really good. She was very well-trained and classy, you know what I mean? The type of tap that she was doing was actually not super showy it was really subtle and smooth and not that there's anything wrong with showy tap, I love showy tap. But her style was slow it down, relax your knees, get into it in sort of a luxurious way rather than a fast, fast moving way.
And oh, and I also remember she... she was a chain smoker, I remember her smoking and tapping at the same time.
D: Hooray for Classy Tap… we have a whole bunch of classy tappers online, I see them. And so was it ever a thing that a boy was dancing?
J: I didn't feel anything like that until high school and even then, I was not persecuted for it. There was a slightly bad incident when I was in my PE class in high school, I think I might have been a junior at the time, and we were in weight training class. And you have to understand that I was super skinny, I was kind of short and a big nerd with no physical prowess whatsoever. And I do remember a student coming up to me at that time, and I don't even remember what he said, but it had something to do with me being gay and a dancer. And he ended up being right. Maybe he was just trying to help.
D: Such a good way to frame it. I hate that that stigma is still is around, it's better but it still exists.
J: Can I also say that a year later I was a senior and that same kid came up to me and I don't know if he exactly apologized, but it was clear he felt differently about the situation and said something supportive about dance. I think our dance team had done something at an assembly and afterwards, I think you said that was really cool. So you know what people can change, people can find their way people can be kind.
D: Absolutely and we can grow from the resilience that we need to get through that stuff is gonna fuel us right? And fuel our work. I wonder if he came to see Oklahoma! That's my wish, in my imagination, for whatever reason, made the trip, sat in that audience and just had an epiphany, like no other.
Did you like my clever segue into Oklahoma! I have a quote I'm going to read you from the New York Times that says that you “Have a true theatre artists' instinct for commanding an audience.”
J: What a lovely quote, thank you for reading that.
D: Well, I think there are so many of us on this chat who have the same desire there. I would say it's almost all performers in our audience. So any advice on how to command an audience?
J: Yeah, well that is someone's opinion and maybe not everybody thinks that. So I would say first, you have to go from your instincts rather than from external feedback that you're getting whether it's good or bad. Do you know what I mean?
I need... You want to sometimes confer with people you trust. And yes, performing arts are often a collaborative process and feedback is really important and especially positive feedback is really great to get. You gotta follow your own impulses and instincts and you gotta trust your gut.
It's the same thing that everybody always says I feel like, but it's really true, it's all you can really go on is by, as you're creating something feeling like... Well, I know that's right, I don't know why I know it's right, but my gut is telling me that this is the thing to do.
D: I love that.
J: David, would you agree with that?
D: I agree with every single thing that comes out of your mouth John. Let's just have that be baseline truth. I am dumbfounded by your humility. To see you on paper, you see Julliard and Princeton and Guggenheim and a long list of fellowships of very high esteem that you have right?
J: I'm really pleased with how my career has gone. Thank you, yes.
D: You even have a fancy name. I mean, Heginbotham.
J: It’s English.
D: Yes, fancy English and a fancy resume, but here you are just the most down-to-earth kind of humble grounded, it's just so inspiring.
Okay, so speaking of your instinct and staying true to you… when you were developing, let's start with the Dream Ballet. For anyone who doesn’t know, John choreographed the Oklahoma! revival, which one the Tony Award in 2019 for Best Revival of a Musical and in it, there is a 13-minute solo that transformed my relationship to Broadway as I watched and I was like "Oh Broadway, is different now.” That's how I felt, I felt like, Oh, the game has changed. There's a barefoot contemporary solo in the middle of a musical piece that stops the show. Obviously, you know that. Can you speak to the process?
J: That’s a pretty interesting story. To me, anyway. So the show Oklahoma! this recent revival directed by Daniel Fish - there was a long development period. It started as a student production at Bard College in New York, Upstate New York. And to my understanding, Daniel had been asked by the theate department led by Joan Akalaitis, who also ran the Public Theatre at a certain time, what would he like to do with the students? And he was thinking about what does it mean to be American? And the two most American things he could come up with where the musical Oklahoma!, and dinner theatre. As a convention, this felt very American to him, so he said I want to do Oklahoma as dinner theatre. So he created the student production at the theatre at Bard College. They didn't serve chilli at that time, they served cans of, I believe Pepsi. I think it was Pepsi but I’m not 100% sure. The form of the show was created, the foundation, like the form of the show sort of continued in all of the subsequent versions.
The ballet was amazing. There was a roller skating person, there was sort of a big cast of people - all of the people who were the actors were also the dancers in that version, and I believe it was choreographed by a gentleman named Peter Pucci who also worked at Bard. Then several years later, Bard College, which also has a professional summer festival, which is not necessarily students, it's professional actors. Daniel was asked to create a larger scale version of the show for their season. And it's at that point that I became involved and I didn't know Daniel. Although we were sort of in the same circles. He needed a choreographer for the project. Two of our mutual friends recommended that we meet and we talked over the phone and then we... Yeah, we started working together on this show.
I will say the dream ballet for this version, really was like the bane of Daniel’s existence. Many things in the show worked so beautifully, but the dream ballet... We worked so hard on it, and tried so many different versions. There were versions where the actors were performing simple repetitive movement, there was a version where Curly and Jud took off, stripped down to their underwear and exchange clothing. There was a version where there was a camera on a gun, and so we were looking at everything from the perspective of the shaft of the gun.
Yeah, and there was some stuff, some very, very dark imagery that was happening at this time. And even to the first preview, we had all of the actors doing this beautiful move from Agnes de Milles’s version… where in the dream, she enters the saloon and the Showgirls just stand there in this totally dead pan, dead eyes look, and just ruffle their skirts doing the least, with the least amount of effort as possible. Exhausted prostitutes. And so every single person in the cast was wearing these beautiful skirts, by Therese Wadden, the costume designer, and just standing there for a really long time, ruffling their skirts. And I have to say that's pretty good. That's a pretty good version.
It was really nice but ultimately, what ended up happening is that I think Daniel always felt like these sketches were too narrative, they just felt too narrative and his impulse was to take this out of story ballet, in a way.
So what ended up happening is that it ended up really being at Bard, a dream ballet, which was music, it was music that really created the dream and that sort of still exists. I mean, the music for the dream ballet at Bard continued in the same vein to St Anne’s warehouse Off-Broadway, and then to Circle in the Square on Broadway. This electric guitar-driven sort of idea which was different from every other musical idea in the show. So that already took us into a different sort of dream space and then... Yeah, and the only movement that we ended up using was sort of a tableau where the actors did appear at a certain point, but they appeared in tableau.
So the fordream ballet at The Bard, there was not really a lot of dance. There was dancing elsewhere in the show, but not in the dream ballet. And then when we moved to St. Anne’s, it was just again, how are we gonna do this dream ballet? I know Daniel wasn't feeling super satisfied with it. And the year before w went to Off-Broadway, he had an idea like what if, what if the dream ballet is dance, what if it is? And I also say, the Rogers in Hammerstein organization was also very interested in the dream ballet including dance.
Daniel loves dance, so he was excited by this prospect. I remember the day he said “Maybe it is dance.” I remember being really, really shocked because I gotta tell you, I really liked the Bard version. I thought it worked really beautifully and I thought it was sort of also, just took everything in a different direction because here's a dream ballet with no ballet. I don't know, it just thwarted expectations in a way that I thought were interesting, but he said, "Well why don't we have a workshop?” So we had this three-day workshop where some of the dancers in my dance company, which is called Dance Heginbotham.
So several of the dancers in my company, joined for this workshop and again I was like... I think that within the first five minutes of these three days, Daniel's gonna be like... No, I don't think so. And then, I don't know, something happened right away, where it was like, "Okay this is worth going down this road a little bit further.”
It was fun, it was fun. We tried some experiments where the beautiful, beautiful people at St Anne’s hung a tire swing in their lobby for us to play around with. There was an idea at one point that maybe all of the actors would be on tire swings for the dream ballet - such a beautiful image. The idea of a tire swing was suggested by Jordan Fine, the Associate Director at the time.
Yeah, so we were playing with the tire swing, we were playing with hardcore dance movement, we were playing with repetitive moves, we played with narrative dance, we played with dances that were only the face - everything else still, I mean every kind of experiment and kind of by the end… Oh my God, at one point there was tap at one point, we had full on tap dancing for this experiment.
D: Thanks to Miss Nona.
J: Thanks to Miss Nona for instilling the love of tap, but I will say our dancers who were tap dancers. For this workshop, Lindsey Jones, and another fabulous woman, Melissa Toogood, who’s a Cunningham dancer over Cunningham Dance Company, they are both exquisite tap artists and they sort of brought their tap chops and designed a lot of the movement around that exercise.
And yeah, so we had this, I don't know, we were on to something and at the end of the three days, I was just like, "Wow maybe this is a dance, maybe this is the thing.” And then I remember also... At the end of that time, it was a beautiful, beautiful summer day. And Daniel, we got a frisbee and we went outside the park which is right by St. Anne’s warehouse, and I played frisbee with Daniel and it was just so, it was such a nice day that's all, and it was the perfect sort of... I don't know the reason I even mention that is 'cause it was the perfect way to sort of say like, "Hey this is a right, this is the right way to go.”
So then a year later we’re at St Anne’s and there was an idea like maybe there are gonna be a lot of dancers in this and maybe there are five dancers, maybe I don't know... We didn't know what was going on, but ultimately, it was becoming clear that it was compelling, it was compelling to see this through one dancer’s point of view, a little bit, and we found this fantastic dancer, Gabrielle Hamilton. I met her for an hour and a half during an audition, she was a senior at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. That college, that university was doing a piece that a piece I had created for some students at Juilliard.
So I was there, literally for just a few hours, just for the audition, and then my colleague, fabulous dancer and assistant choreographer/ rehearsal director, Brandon Cornet was gonna be the person who actually set the piece. But Gabriel, and there were a couple hundred students that were part of this audition process. I had very little time with these students and certainly very little time individually with any of them, but I will say Gabby was immediately very charismatic, and she was first of all a beautiful dancer, and it was clear that she would go all the way with whatever the instruction was. This made her feel like a very risky dancer. And by risky, I don't mean endangering her body, but I just mean you just didn't quite know what was gonna happen, and it was thrilling to watch that.
And then also just her physical appearance is really beautiful and also striking. She's this sort of medium, muscular build, African-American woman with bald head, gorgeous eyes and just a great, great mover. And so, when we decided it was gonna be one person who was gonna take the control of the dream ballet we had an audition, and I just, even though I only spent an hour at an hour with Gabby, I really remembered her. Then I following her actually an Instagram, and I noticed in her Instagram, she had graduated - I didn't even know she was a senior, so I was like, oh, she's out of school. And then I also saw she was posting from New York City. I was like, is she visiting New York? But then, it was her family and it was like, oh she lives here.
So then through Instagram, I reached out to her and said, "Hey do you remember me? We met for one hour, like several months ago. Could you come to this audition” And there were a lot of really good people at the audition, really good people. But Gabby, she delivered what we were thinking of the dream ballet might wanna feel like.. So then she became the solo figure, but we hadn't released the idea that there might be other people in this as well. So we collaborated with New York University, and the Tisch School of Dance, their dance program, and every week, we had this core of dancers who would sort of do these, I would say almost like special effect moments in the dream ballet where they would just suddenly there would be this mob of people that would appear out of nowhere and then they'd be gone. And I will say, at first, there was a lot more dancing for them to do and then it sort of, it became clear that it was better that this be solo with some occasional blasts of power from elsewhere. It was more powerful to have the corps on for less time, not because they weren't good dancers, but because just the dream - it sort of startled us to see them and disappear. It created a very good, powerful effect of the dream ballet. And then I was so happy to also be able to bringing in some of my own dancers from my dance company, and some other people that I had worked with, with Mark Morris Dance Group, where I danced for a long time. And I don't know, in the St Anne’s version was a fun version.
My God, I'm talking so much, David.
D: Because there are so many dancers online… Is there anything more you can tell us about Gabby’s essence, that was so attractive to you?
J: Yeah, can say... Maybe I could just talk a little bit more about this idea of going all the way with something. There's a theme and Daniel Fish’s work, which is repetitive action to the point of exhaustion, and it's really hard, it's really hard to do that, as you can imagine, you have to go through so much to get to the state of exhaustion. And I would just say Gabby, was instantly available to do that. I mean psychologically, physically available to take herself to that sort of extreme. And this is something I love about Daniel's work, and I will say, one of the things that I've seen in Oklahoma!, and in his other work too, is that when you do that, when you take physical action to the point where the performer is clearly almost to the point of failure, it's really exciting. It's really suspenseful and really thrilling and of course you wanna do it safely, but to see somebody exert that kind of energy is, I would almost say always thrilling. And so the thing that Gabby did is she tuned into that instantly in the audition.
Yeah, yeah, she also did something. So the dream ballet. Ultimately, we had a lot of questions in making it. What is the dream ballet, what do we want it to do? There was a time where we wanted it to, or where we thought the point of it was to shake up the audience experience to really put them in a very different place than they have been throughout Act One.
D: I read that you called it a tilt.
J: Yeah, we wanted the audience to feel like that was happening a little bit. What's going on? And it's achieved through several different means. One of them is the amazing sound design by Drew. He did this amazing sound design, where the sound is in surround in the Circle in the Square which is audience on three sides. So you're hearing something from behind you and then it's across the room, and then it’s to the side. And then also the dancing that Gabby is doing is another way to sort of make us feel off balance, as an audience.
So one of the ideas was, how do we take the audience off balance and we were like, well this isn't not Laurie's dream ballet, it's the audience's dream ballet. But then I would say somewhere between St Anne’s and Broadway, it became clear. Well, this is very connected to Laurie. It may also be the audience's dream ballet, but it is Laurie's green ballet too... Or it's the production’s dream ballet, and Laurie is part of the production so this dream is connected to her.
So that's where we wound up, that's where we went up on Broadway was this idea that Laurie and Gabby were connected.
D: When you were developing it, and the themes and the tilt and everything, being of kilter... Did it come from text, words, gesture, colour, energy.
J: Yeah, I guess I would say all of those things. Like images for instance, like there is something that happens in the dream ballet that I is one of my favorite moments in the entire show, and I cannot take credit for this. This was Daniel Fish's idea, but he had an idea that at some point, it starts raining cowboy boots. To me, it’s such a poetic image and it's so startling and also kind of funny, and it does all of these, it makes you, it's complicated, it makes you feel like several different things simultaneously, and that complexity is really, really captivating I guess I would say. And I just found it every single night that I would see that so fantastic.
So there's like for instance, there's that image. Then other things that are happening… it follows structurally the same dream ballet as Agnes deMille. It essentially includes most of the songs from Act One, and largely in order. So we're getting sort of a recap of what we are familiar with, but now it's being played on an electric guitar and now you're seeing one dancer do something.
And also, here's the other thing, the show, the movement throughout the rest of the show is often fairly stationary. It's a lot of people sitting in chairs, talking to each other, standing still. There's a lot of stillness in the show, which is very captivating to me and also important. But then what the dream ballet did is suddenly we were introduced to an entirely different physical experience, which is also some of the power I think of what we were trying to achieve.
D: OK, I do want to spend some time talking about teaching because a lot of the viewers are trying to navigate online teaching and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
J: Sure. Well, yeah, so I would say I'm a month into leading, I teach at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Yeah, and so a month of teaching on ZOOM... what I have discovered is that one thing that's important is to just accept what the convention of it is, to try as much as we can to not… I mean, of course we may feel longing or loss about being together in the same room, but we just... At a certain level, we just have to accept - this is the technology we're using and embrace that, to a degree, because I will also say there are pleasures that are only possible in Zoom.
I will say, yeah, there are things about Zoom that I'm enjoying - virtual backgrounds are very important a lot of the time, but also just seeing where we all live or where we are all staying at least, it's very personal... You know what I mean? I'm seeing my student’s living room, and she is seeing my living room and I don't know, it adds vulnerability to what's happening. We are able to connect to each other in a real way, even though it's two dimensional, and we're all facing forward on a screen. Yeah, so I guess that would be my biggest advice as much as possible. Try to enjoy the formats rather than wallow in the depression of what used to be.