Creating cultural hybrids happens a lot these days among performing artists. Opera, theater and dance companies, along with music ensembles of all sizes, often collaborate on new works that can attract wider audiences.
But two companies from Chicago — Hubbard Street Dance and the famed Second City comedy troupe — have created something truly original. Their show, “The Art of Falling,” melds modern dance and sketch comedy. Its premiere was last year in Chicago.
Glenn Edgerton is artistic director of Hubbard Street, and Carisa Barreca is a writer and member of Second City. When they joined us at The Frame studios, they talked about the origins of their comedy/modern dance hybrid, and what the two camps had to learn from each other.
Glenn, from the outside this seems like a shotgun marriage, but obviously there was a point of inception where somebody said, Comedy and modern dance go together like a hand and a glove. What was that initial conversation, and what was the inspiration for bringing these two companies together?
Edgerton: Kelly Leonard of Second City approached us. Second City had done a project with the Lyric Opera in Chicago and they had a wonderful experience. From what I understood, Second City wanted to do something like that with dance.
With the Lyric, they created a program that was making fun of opera. But, with us, Second City created story lines. So even though we do poke fun at dance, it's more that they use dance as a vehicle to tell a story.
What convinced you that it could work? Did you have to do a staged reading, or see it up on its feet to make sure that there was a proof of concept?
Edgerton: I had no idea it was going to work, and we didn't know that it was going to work until the preview the day before. The first joke happened and everyone onstage got excited. You could see in everybody's eyes the energy starting to build, and it was really a roller coaster of momentum.
As the show went on, everyone got more and more excited, and it was really fun to see that we did have something that was going to be fun and that the audience was going to be touched by it as well.
Carisa, for this production, what did the Second City members have to do in terms of dance training? How did that introduce you to what it means to be a dancer, and how did it affect your comedy?
Barreca: [laughs] Well, we went to a few of their company classes, but we kind of got thrown in to the mix during rehearsal. Our first day we learned the opening number — that was the first day of rehearsal for all of the actors, and it's a huge opening number with tons of energy. It's lovely and beautiful, and I actually appreciate that there weren't many concessions. He just put us in place, told us what to do, and it was wonderful. [laughs]
Glenn, basically the opposite question for you — what did the dancers in the company learn about comedy? Did they study doing improv or comedy sketches? And, if so, how did that inform their dancing in this piece?
Edgerton: Prior to getting into the process of producing the piece, we had several sittings where we did improv together, where Carisa and several other actors came in and worked with the company. It has enhanced their dancing, because we're both used to doing improv, but in different ways. So we took on their theory and their method for doing improvisation, which is to say, "And yes."
Barecca: Yes, and?
Edgerton: Oh, excuse me! See, I knew I was going to get it wrong. To say, "Yes, and," as opposed to "Yes, but..." or "No," or "I don't know" or "I can't." You just say, "Yes, and," and you have to go with it or fall with it.
And the idea for the title of the piece comes from that. When you're falling, if you try to restrict yourself, you'll hurt yourself. And it's the same in improv — if you try to restrict yourself, if you put a negative on it, you will not roll with it as well and the improv won't be as good.
One thing I noticed when I saw a video from the premiere is the way in which people watch dance and comedy in ways they don't typically. And what I noticed is that people noticed the grace of comedy, and they laughed at the choreography. I assume that's part of the intention.
Barreca: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's our overall intention just to present an amazing show, which I believe we have. But I think we saw so many parallels between our two art forms that we could draw on. There are so many intricacies of comedy that you wouldn't usually think about, and there's just so much broadness in dance that we also wanted to bring out.
Hubbard Street and Second City's collaborative piece, "The Art of Falling," is at the Ahmanson Theater from Nov. 6-8.