Behind the Scenes With Brian, Lucas and Yuka
Newly-promoted Soloists Brian Simcoe and Lucas Threefoot (who came up together through the School of OBT) and Principal Dancer Yuka Iino are playing the triumvirate of friends who are the principal characters in Nicolo Fonte’s new Petrouchka. OBT blogger Claire Willett sat down with them after rehearsal for an engaging, interesting and laughter-filled chat about reinventing these characters, the excitement of new work, why they love working with Nicolo, the pressure of playing a lead role, and what “Petrouchka” actually means in Russian. (Hint: you see it a lot in diners.)
So Brian, have you worked with Nicolo before? Has he made anything on you?
BS: Yeah, I think Bolero . . . He made Bolero on us, didn’t he? I was there for that first time. And Left Unsaid, both times.
Do you like working with him?
BS: I love working with him, yeah.
He seems like a cool guy. Huge personality.
BS: (laughs) Yeah. It’s infectious . . . Just the energy, you know? You have to be on your toes, all the time . . . for Nicolo. You have to be prepared for anything. Which is good. And Nicolo really stretches you, too, he really challenges you to take risks.
So this show is a big deal for you. You’re the title guy. Is that a lot of pressure? Are you kind of freaking out?
BS: Kind of, yeah! (laughs) I mean, he sort of told me about it last spring when he was here for Left Unsaid, so I’ve just been sort of stewing it over all summer and thinking about it.
So he had you in mind from the beginning?
BS: Yeah. It’s really an honor.
What about you two? Have you worked with Nicolo before? Yuka, you want to take this one?
LT: Yeah, because I haven’t.
LT: That wasn’t made on me. I learned someone else’s part. And in fact, I never performed it. But you have worked with him.
YI: Well, he’s an awesome choreographer, I think . . . I love dancing his pieces, no matter [which one] so far – Bolero and Left Unsaid – one of my favorites that I’ve danced at OBT.
LT: He has a lot of energy for sure.
YI: Yeah, and extremely like free, physically, and so hard but somehow very satisfying.
BS: Like it makes you feel really good. Like it almost gives you more energy.
YI: Yeah, kind of torturous, though, the angles and stuff, because it’s all extreme, the joints are that way and then the legs are that way [she contorts herself in her chair into a crazy position to demonstrate].
LT: Ballet’s hard enough already.
YI:Yeah. I can’t figure it out why . . . it’s different, isn’t it? Maybe it’s his energy, I don’t know. But for me, it’s really satisfying, even with how tired I am. (laughter)
Lucas, what’s this experience been like for you, in terms of the process?
LT: He has a lot of energy. You can see it in his eyes. He also likes to mess around a lot, he likes to play around, and ask if you’re going to call your agent –
YI: Yeah, if you mess up.
LT: All sorts of stuff. I mean, he’s just a character, you know? He’s fun to work with in that way. When I first started learning Bolero in the back of the room I thought he was just wasting time, but I think that’s part of his creative process . . . now that we get to work in detail with him, we get to see that that’s part of how he works. He kind of steps away . . . It’s like people doodling, you know, or going on Facebook for a second. It’s kind of an escape so that when you come back you can give your full attention to it, and you can move from there. But he’s definitely very free-flowing, and his movement is organic.
YI: Yeah, because most of the group section today and yesterday, you would come in and do something and Nicolo would say, “Oh, I like that,” and then you see –
BS: He sees what happens naturally and works with that.
LT: But Nicolo still has an overarching idea of what to do with a section, he just goes about it in a really natural way . . .
BS: He starts from a different place.
LT: Right, it’s like, “okay, you’re in this position, what would you do next?” . . .
These characters have been pretty radically re-imagined for this version. So who are they now? What is the relationship dynamic like? So, Brian, who is Petrouchka? What is he like?
BS: (under his breath) Mr. Parsley. (everyone stares at him)
LT: Yeah, what? (laughter)
BS: Artur told me that Petrouchka means “parsley” in Russian. (laughter)
LT: You’re kidding.
LT: That’s crazy.
So you’re playing him parsley-ish?
LT: So that’s your answer?
BS: Yeah, you know, herbal . . . I’m really green, just like Portland . . . (laughter) No, but I’m discovering lots of similarities between Petrouchka and myself, actually.
BS: He’s supposed to be very free-spirited, independent, doesn’t like to be controlled . . . that’s one of my secret fires. He likes to break the mold, that kind of thing. And I like the fact that we’re all friends in this story.
YI: Friends in the story, but not in real life. (laughter) We never hang out, we never talk . . . I go take a shower, “Ugh, Lucas’ sweat all over me!” (laughter)
So Yuka, what about you? Who is your character?
YI: I’m still trying to figure it out. We are being masked from the beginning, right? So when you [Brian] take off the mask is my first time being unmasked, so it’s like for me, like discovering a different world, seeing – and then you [Lucas] bringing back my familiar world, so going back and forth . . . so it’s like a child, kind of. Kind of like a doll, controlled by Artur. But discovering different things, trying to see a different world. Like life. (laughs) Growing as a person. And we have a little bit of a romantic moment too [between her character and Petrouchka] that I experience little butterflies in my stomach that I don’t think I would have felt if I’d been masked, you know? So it’s like discovering.
LT: I think in a sense it’s like Plato’s cave. Because in that, everyone is living in this cave and they think that the shadows are reality. In our version of it, we’re all wearing masks, and that’s what we know. Brian of course is the guy that comes in and changes it all. He kind of one-by-one convinces us to take off our masks and see reality as it truly is. Nicolo always talks about how, with [Yuka], he takes her mask off first and he wants her to feel like she’s having her first breath of air. Ever. So it’s truly refreshing. I’m kind of . . . in this version, I’m still the antagonist, like, I’m his friend at first, but when he starts shaking things up I don’t like it. I fight it. As your friends may do when they’ve known you a certain way for so long or whatever. They might be the hardest people to convince to change. But I do like that I’m his friend in this, instead of being the enemy. And I think eventually I’ll come around. We haven’t even gotten there yet, there’s still like five minutes of choreography left. Probably not even, probably like two minutes. We just got to the point where he rips Artur’s mask off – the Charlatan – and we’ll see where we go from there.
BS: Yeah, I really like the dynamic between you and I.
“Doppelganger” is the term that Nicolo was using.
BS: There’s a moment after I’ve taken my mask off for the first time and Lucas comes in and sees the “real” me, it feels like that point in a relationship when you bare your soul to a really good friend, and you get to see their reaction. I always enjoy that moment. And it’s so awesome and amusing that it’s Lucas and I because I feel like we’ve grown up together at OBT, and we have that close bond already. Art imitating life. How glorious isn’t it?
Plus you both got promoted this year – I feel like this is a really big show for you guys. It’s really exciting.
LT: It is. I mean, we’ve never really been choreographed on to this extent. This is a huge, huge role for both of us.
Tell me about that process, of having something created on you, as opposed to stepping into a role that exists already –
LT: Or having all the steps mapped out for you.
LT: Nicolo really likes saying, “Where does this position go? You do it.” He wants a little bit of the artists themselves to come out.
BS: There’s an element of trust.
LT: And I think a lot of times he likes what Brian does, so he’ll go, “Oh, that’s cool. You’re on your heel? Sure, that’s great, let’s add that in,” you know.
So he takes what you’re physically doing and incorporates it?
BS: Yeah, yeah, that’s a lot of it.
LT: I definitely like being able to make it my own because I don’t have to look at someone who’s in the front and be like, “Oh, okay, that’s how you’re supposed to do it.” It’s basically an open palette, you know? You can choose how you want to approach a certain act or scene or whatever and make it your own because you don’t have someone who’s doing it first cast or who’s inventing it themselves and you’re like, “Oh, okay, I guess I have to do it like that because that’s how it was choreographed.” You’re kind of a co-creator, I guess, in a sense.
What moment of the ballet so far is your favorite? What’s the “wow” moment for you?
LT: There’s a lot.
BS: I know.
LT: There’s a lot of really cool ones. Yuka has some –
YI: Of what I’m dancing, my favorite is the trio between us, because it’s very dramatic, and the section that I’m not dancing that I love [watching] is you two, right before the group section, you go (she starts humming part of the music) . . .
BS: Oh, that one? Right.
LT: Oh, yeah.
BS: The little conflict moment.
LT: When everyone’s taking their mask off, and I’m the last one left and I break out and I’m like “Oh no!” and he kind of walks at me slowly like he’s –
BS: Like the final –
LT: Like you’re triumphant, basically, and I’m still fighting –
BS: Like it’s the final opportunity to take your mask off.
LT: Not yet, apparently.
BS: And you’re still not gonna do it!
LT: No way, I’m gonna fight you to the end, man. (laughter)
YI: It’s just a beautiful piece that he’s done so far. And it’s so nice to watch Artur. He’s just gorgeous.
LT: I was really curious how all the elements of the story were going to come together in the ballet, because Nicolo’s very contemporary, so the storytelling’s different, I think, in a sense, but he’s managed to blend all these ideas together really well with movement, and it’s not jarring, or – nothing really gets in the way.
YI: Not artificial.
LT: Yeah, it’s organic, right? Man, I can’t wait to know what other people think of it.
So, talk a little bit about Artur’s character, the Charlatan, since we don’t have him here. Especially between him and Petrouchka, there’s this push-pull thing going on –
LT: He’s The Man. He’s the puppetmaster.
BS: Yeah, because I start out like testing him, testing boundaries, and resisting him a little bit.
LT: I think he’s The Man, you know? He’s that force saying this is what’s right, everybody do what I say, you’re not gonna get past that, you know?
YI: You and I don’t have much contact with Artur directly –
LT: No, not much.
BS: I kind of like the fact that once I sort of start resisting him and discover a new reality, I like the fact that I have you two to sort of, I don’t know, who are closer to me, that can observe me –
YI: A team!
LT: Yeah, test you out –
BS: People who influence you more, to a broader future.
YI: Team OBT! (laughter)