Lifelong musical theatre geek Claire Willett interviews Christopher Stowell about her all-time favorite work in the OBT rep: Stowell’s sparkling, sexy, witty Cole Porter ballet Eyes On You.

Christopher Stowell. Photo by Joni Kabana.

What inspired Eyes On You?  How did you come up with the idea?
Well, the practical reason was doing something to recording [because of] not having finances for live music for that program.  We opened in the Newmark that year because of The Lion King, we got kicked out of the Keller . . . so there was no orchestra for that program . . . I needed to make a new ballet and I couldn’t use live music.  And my thing with recorded music is, if it’s a great, famous, vintage recording, and it’s something we can’t recreate now, then it’s fine.  Like, we had done Paul Taylor’s Company B, which is all Andrews Sisters recordings, so of course you do the recordings, you know – those are the people!  You know what I mean?  So I was looking for a composer that was fun, and that there were interesting recordings of their work, and I liked the idea of vocals in the program.  And then it took a turn when Pamela South said, “Oh my God, I love those songs, I would love to sing them,” and I said, “Well, we don’t have any money for you,” and she said, “Well, let’s not worry about that.”  But I had already gotten attached to some recordings, so I said, “How about we alternate between vintage recordings and live?”  Which is actually kind of cool, I think.
So were you, like, a lifelong Cole Porter fan?  I know you’re kind of an old-movies buff . . .
Not particularly Cole Porter – I discovered actually a lot of songs that I knew, that I didn’t –
That you didn’t know were Cole Porter?
Exactly, and I think we all do that, you know?  Like, “Oh, I love that song, who wrote that?  Cole Porter.”  You could say that about, like, eight hundred times.  He wrote ‘em all.  (Laughs) I don’t remember, but it’s possible that I was not even attached to necessarily Cole Porter strictly in the beginning, but then I saw the wealth of great songs.  And what’s really good is that there are a lot of recordings that are not all the same – they’re not all from the same period, they’re not all necessarily sung.  Like, “Begin the Beguine” in the ballet is a non-vocal version.  “Night and Day” is usually a slow song, but the recording we have of it is fast.  So you can have all Cole Porter but you can also have it from different eras and different approaches.
Who picked the music?
I picked all the recordings myself, and then picked songs where I couldn’t find  . . . recordings that were danceable, or that I felt like were going to fit in, and those were the things Pamela ended up singing because we could adjust the tempo, take out the bridge, or whatever.
Christopher Stowell’s Eyes On You. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
One of the things that really struck me the first time I saw it was how cinematic it feels, with the “The End” marquee and the costumes – was that a deliberate choice or did it evolve as you were working?
I honestly don’t remember exactly the route to that particular idea.  What I do remember is just liking the idea of some stereotypical characters, or notions, or situations that happen in those Hollywood movie musicals of the 30’s and 40’s.  Like, there’s frequently a bellhop, and there’s often girls that are secretaries on their lunch break.  And Latin locales, themes and rhythms were really popular then, so, you know, non-Latin people doing rhumbas and sambas and feeling really sexy is also in all of those movies, frequently.  So there’s that in there.  The actual marquee – I think that the very first image I had that included the seats was being ironic and starting at the end of something.  And what would people be going to in the 30’s and 40’s?  They’d be going to the movies.
You mentioned the rhumbas and the sambas, and there are so many different other kinds of non-ballet dance that are sort of incorporated throughout –
Yeah, I guess because it’s natural to those rhythms to want to move in a social dance way.  I have actually no social dance training, so everything that’s in there I made up based on some feeling of, like, “Isn’t this kind of like one of those things?”  (Laughs)  There was one social dance that I had somebody teach me and I can’t remember who it was – it’s in “Begin the Beguine,” the main step in that –
That one’s legit?
Yeah, that one’s legit.  The rest I made up.
It’s like the Christopher Stowell version of a foxtrot.
Exactly.  If you wiggle your hips, it’s a mambo.  (Laughs)

Alison Roper and Ronnie Underwood in Christopher Stowell’s Eyes On You. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert
So what’s your choreographic process for a work like this?  Anne talked about it a little in her interview from her perspective as a dancer; what’s it like from your end?
Well, this one in particular, the structure of it was comforting, or non-scary, in that it’s episodic – it’s a bunch of numbers.  And each number – there should be an arc, but it doesn’t have to be an arc of logic, it needs to be an arc of aesthetic or style, or at least highs and lows that feel like you’re on a little bit of a journey or whatever, but they’re each separate numbers.  So I thought, “Who are the principal characters in this?” and then assigned the characters and the dancers I had in mind to particular songs.  And then that process makes me feel comfortable; it’s like not having to think about, I don’t know, like reading all of War and Peace.  It’s just a chapter, so everybody calm down.  It’s just a chapter at a time.
Baby steps.
Exactly!  Baby steps, yeah.  And then I decided, “Okay, I’m gonna pick a song, and it’s gonna be a song that I associate with Anne, and that’s just gonna be how we get started.”  So I’d get in a room with her, with a song that I feel like is about her or for her, and just see what comes up.
Is that different from how you’d choreograph something like Rite of Spring with the bigger arc to it? 
No, actually.  Rite of Spring scared the shit out of me – unlike, you know, ten cute Cole Porter tunes.  (Laughs)  And I started the process exactly the same way, to calm myself down.
Break it into little chunks.
Break it into chunks, and get one person in the room – Anne, let’s say – and let’s make something up.  Because as soon as I have something to work with, I feel better.  When I feel like I have to come up with thirty-five minutes of steps, I’m like, “Oh my God . . .”
Anne Mueller in Christopher Stowell’s Eyes On You. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
When it’s like, staring you in the face and you’re like, “Holy crap.”
Yes!  Exactly.  So it’s like, “Okay, let’s make two steps, and then we’ll make four steps . . .”
One of the things I like about Eyes on You is that it’s so funny – I feel like that’s something that comes through in a lot of the works in our rep.  Is that something that you like in your work?
Yeah, definitely.  I do like to do that.  But I like to mostly make situations that can be funny, and not say, “Here, do this gag,” and “Here, do that gag,” overtly.  There are some gags in this – there are, but they need to be done subtly.  I didn’t want it packed with one spit-take after another.  Like, that’s too much.
Slapstick.
Slapstick, yeah.  But it also makes sense with both the music and the aesthetic that inspired the thing, because those movies often were comedies, so I like the funny situation more than the fall-down-on-your-face stuff.
Did you watch a lot of the old 40’s movies when you were a kid?  Did you grow up with that aesthetic?
Fred Astaire movies, for sure.  Fred and Ginger stuff.  My father is a huge fan of all of those movies – Gene Kelly, the whole genre.  Yeah.  So I did grow up seeing those.  But then I actually got my hands on – I can’t remember what they were now – some movies that I did not know that were Cole Porter scores.  And that was actually helpful because they were kind of obscure, so, I mean, they were probably fun at the time but they’re not classics, you know what I mean?  But it gave me some insight into different situations than the ones we remember all the time.  They were so specific, you know – they did a lot of, like, they’re in a war, or they’re stuck in Panama . . .
The catalog is just huge.
Yeah.
The number of things he wrote –
They must have churned them out, those movies.  Like, make it in two weeks, boom, let’s go.
Did you do musical theatre as a kid?
Nope.  I would have been happy to, though.  I acted a little bit when I was a kid, before I started ballet, in school.  I did do Annie, Get Your Gun.  Yes.  I was Little Jake in Annie, Get Your Gun.  If I’d had any kind of voice I would have preferred doing that, frankly.  Way more fun.
More fun than ballet?
Yeah!  Ballet’s hard!  It’s a lot of work!  (Laughs)

And there’s no jazz hands in ballet.
No jazz hands!  I know!
Anne Mueller and company in Christopher Stowell’s Eyes On You. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
Eyes On You is such an audience favorite.  Why do you think people respond to it so much?
I hate to use the word “accessible,” but I think the thing that scares people sometimes about dance is “I don’t get it,” and there’s no question of not getting it, really.  Well, actually – once, I forget if it was a review or if it was someone talking to me, but they said, “I don’t get why they’re in their underwear,” and I’m like, “Uh, it’s funny.  That’s it.  That’s the end of the story.”  “Well, if they were in the movies they wouldn’t be in their underwear!” And I’m like, “Um, you’re thinking way too hard.” (Laughs)  Like, it’s madcap.  Whatever.  What was the question?  Oh, accessibility.  Right.  So, comfort level – I think it makes people relaxed, like, “I get this genre.”  I think a lot of people like a little glamour too, and it has beautiful costumes that move a lot.  And all of that also makes the dancers relax, and I think audiences get to see maybe more personality than they might in other [ballets], which is more appropriate in this, too.  And it’s very infectious music, too.  You feel yourself snapping your fingers a little bit, like, “I know the words to this song.”  It’s just fun.
What’s your favorite Cole Porter song?  Do you have a personal favorite?
My favorite recording in the show is the first one, “De-Lovely,” because it’s really, really clever – the lyrics are really clever.  You know what’s really good – it’s not in the show – is, how does it go?  (singing unintelligibly under his breath) Oh, it’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love.” Brilliant lyrics, so funny.  I almost used a recording of Alanis Morissette singing that [from the film De-Lovely], but it kind of fluctuates tempo a lot – so you’re like dancing dancing dancing, “Wait, why is she slowing down?” [EDITOR’S NOTE: Rather than transcribe for you the next 5 minutes where we geeked out about the De-Lovely soundtrack, I’ll just give you the link and tell you that Christopher’s favorite track is “True Love” sung by Ashley Judd, and mine is “Night and Day” sung by Kevin Kline with John Barrowman of Doctor Who and Torchwood fame.  Now back to our regularly-scheduled programming.]
So how does the process change, now that you’re doing it again with different dancers?
Honestly, with a ballet like this, it is a little – not “challenging,” but there’s another dimension to it.  Because you want, if not the same, a similar, equally effective effect, and people are different people with different bodies and different personalities.  So I probably adjust things in this more than I would in something else, because the point is the ultimate effect and not the individual steps, necessarily, or where to put the emphasis of either a gag, or a romantic look, or whatever like that. But I do get attached in something like this more than in other things, like, “You’re not doing that thing that so-and-so did that was so funny!”  But then I have to step back and go, “They can’t be that person.” And I’ve found that asking them to do something that was basically an inspired moment by one dancer, asking another dancer to do it is usually not effective.  It wouldn’t feel natural to them.
So what made you decide to bring it back for this season, and how does it fit in with the other pieces in Song & Dance?
Well, we brought it back because, you know, marketing directors are always happy.  Like, “Give me something that’s gonna sell a lot of tickets!”  (Laughs)  In this particular program – so Square Dance wasn’t on the program yet when I planned it because we added it later.  [With Left Unsaid and Speak], well, I don’t know if “heavy” is the right word, but there’s some darkness and some earthbound-ness and some seriousness about those works that needed some complementing with something light.
How did you come up with the name Eyes On You?  It’s not in any of the songs in the piece.
The naming of the piece was actually fun.  I was choreographing it during OBT Exposed!, when we had the tent in the park in the fall, and I think we showed some Cole Porter movies in the evening and had some popcorn, to sort of get people who were interested in the ballet focused on Cole Porter and the process of creating this new work.  And then I think I had to give a lecture one night, and I hadn’t come up with a name for the piece, and I said, “Well, I’ll throw it out to the audience.”  There were maybe fifty people there, and everyone wrote down their thought for a name for the piece and we collected them, and – it was actually longer, it was “Eyes on blah blah blah blah blah something,” but I read all of them, all those little slips of paper and then saw that one.  And I reduced it, edited it a little bit, and liked it, and got in touch with that person, and they got credit and free tickets to the ballet.
That’s awesome.
Yeah.  I like the title.  People have said, you know, is it “Eyes On You” or I-apostrophe-S, like “I’s on you?”  (Laughs)

It works on so many levels.
Yeah.

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Song & Dance, featuring Eyes On You is at the Newmark Theatre April 21 – May 1.

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