Behind the Scenes With Chauncey and Alison
OBT Principal Dancers Alison Roper and Chauncey Parsons are playing opposite each other for the very first time in the lead roles of Carmen and Don José in Christopher Stowell’s new Carmen. OBT blogger Claire Willett caught up with them on a rehearsal break to talk about playing these two iconic characters, doing “sexy ballet,” Christopher’s creative process, what they hope audiences will take away from this program, and what they like most about dancing with each other.
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Alison, how is Carmen different from other roles that you’ve danced?
AR: Well, there are both similarities and differences . . . [Carmen is] kind of earthy for a classical ballet; the actual movements and vocabulary that [Christopher] is using for her are kind of more grounded and “gypsy” . . . walking around flex-footed and shoving people around. I don’t know if she has any redeeming characteristics yet. Which is unusual too, I think. The ballerina is usually pretty sweet, she’s usually a nice girl; or, like Black Swan, [where she’s] very clearly evil, with maybe not a lot of complexity. It’s pretty straightforward. You’re either charming and sweet and ingenue, or the evil bitch. And with Carmen I feel like it’s [more complex than that]. We’ve been talking about what our motivations are because it’s not exactly the same as the opera or the libretto – there seem to be some different twists that our characters are going through.
CP: I haven’t actually had a chance to read the book yet, but I’ve seen the opera, and I’ve re-watched it a couple of times since then. It’s sort of interesting how the way we’re doing it here is very . . . the same, but not. The impression I get that Christopher’s driving for is that [Don José] is – sort of like you were saying, as the lead male usually you’re the hero of the story and very in charge of the world around you, and he’s not so much. He’s more a guy who came to the city and isn’t fitting in quite right but trying very hard, and he has a nice girl that his mom likes (Micaëla) but is just not actually a very mature person . . . when he has a desire or something, he doesn’t understand how to control it, he doesn’t understand how to deal with losing something, or having it not go the way that he wanted to. Largely I think it’s because Carmen sort of incites him more than anything he’s [experienced before]. He’s in the military, he’s a very controlled person, and always has been up until this point, when he’s like, “Oh my God, what is all this?”
What’s physically different in the way you move playing these characters as opposed to other roles, like in Sleeping Beauty or something like that? What does your body do differently?
CP: That’s sort of an every-ballet question.
AR: Well, I think that in Sleeping Beauty or in classical ballet, there’s a sort of meticulous presentation of the feet and the chest and the arms, it’s really formal and stylized. And very high – like even when you’re not on pointe, you’re often walking up with your heels up off the ground. I was actually just in rehearsal saying to Christopher that a lot of times with Carmen, it’s not that she’s slouching, but she’s walking leading with the hip, and maybe even with the heels –
CP: Down into the ground.
AR: Very down, maybe with a hand on the hip, and the hip kind of shot out to the side. She’s very casual most of the time. [Christopher] doesn’t want any formal ballet positioning. And a lot of the pas de deux that I do with Chauncey are really atypical of classical ballet too; I imagine because we’re so close to the same height, we do a lot of dancing side by side, we do a lot of dancing face to face, we do a lot of just actual dancing and less formal pas de deux work, like girl in front on pointe, guy behind, manipulating –
CP: Holding her up –
AR: And so that’s been kind of interesting. We were actually just talking today about how it’s a lot more complex in a lot of ways, it’s just not as straightforward as “I’m staring at your waist while you do a pirouette.” There’s all these different actual dancy steps that we’re doing around each other, revolving in different patterns. [It’s] a little bit more like social dancing, it feels like there’s a lot more –
CP: Lots more opportunity to step on each other’s feet. (Laughter)
AR: It takes a lot of work to make that kind of stuff really smooth, in its own way.
CP: It’s a whole other way of moving than we typically do in ballet.
Alison Roper in The Stravinsky Project, choreographed by Anne Mueller, Jamey Hampton, Ashley Roland, and Rachel Tess. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
And it’s a little racy, this ballet, isn’t it?
AR: Oh yeah. There’s kissing, lying on the floor . . .
CP: Though not at the same time.
AR: No, you can’t kiss and lie on the floor. That’s like outlawed in ballet. (Laughter)
That would be a little R-rated.
So Chauncey, for Don José, what’s physically different about the role for you?
CP: It’s much the same. He holds himself well, but he’s not king of the country, so he doesn’t walk like he’s king of the country. All of his dancing is like . . . the act of holding yourself together without actually having been born to that role, as opposed to when you’re dancing Prince Florimund (in Sleeping Beauty) or Albrecht (in Giselle) or someone who’s royalty and who’s always sort of like that. [Here] the soldiers are very straight and rigid, but they’re not that regal. And it’s sort of the same as [Alison was saying], I don’t have any jump in this ballet at all, actually, it’s very attached to the floor. And that seems to be the running theme with the movement – it’s down down down, as opposed to up up up.
Chauncey Parsons in Christopher Stowell’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
What is the process like when you’re building something from scratch? Does Christopher kind of come in and say, “I know what I want you guys to do?” Is it sort of experimental in the studio? How does the process work?
CP: It’s a bit of both. Definitely there have been days when he’s come in and it’s been, “You do this and then you do this and then you do this and then you do this,” and then there are days when you come in and it’s like, “Well, let’s play the music and see what happens,” and just sort of, “Well, we could do this or we could do this” or “That doesn’t work, and so we’ll do something else,” and it sort of amoebas into a piece of work, as opposed to like building blocks.
AR: I concur.
Alison, Christopher’s made a lot of stuff on you, hasn’t he?
AR: Yeah, we’ve done a few things. I was here for Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, but again, that’s very classical stuff –
CP: Midsummer was done on you –
AR: Midsummer he did on me and Ronnie [Underwood], so I had that experience of having a story ballet and creating a real character on me. And this has been kind of similar, but kind of different. I feel like he thinks a lot about the libretto, what’s being sung – even though we’re not going to have singers, it seems like he’s thinking about that, what piece of music he’s using –
CP: What the intent of each piece of music is –
CP: Because it does actually speak, whether or not you know what’s being said. It was written for a purpose.
Alison Roper and Ronnie Underwood in Christopher Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
AR: I feel like that has been an important part of his process at least for lining up what scenes are going to be told and what scenes aren’t; I mean, the opera obviously is in four acts, so we can’t fit that into forty minutes. (Laughter) But I feel like he thinks about that, and that’s been a kind of interesting part of it for him, telling the story.
What’s been your favorite moment of Carmen so far? What have you enjoyed watching come together?
CP: I like the Soldier Dance. That one sort of turned out a lot better than I expected it to.
AR: Is that the early on one?
CP: It’s early on, it’s the one that [new Principal Dancer Yang Zou] does, the Captain and all the guys, with the flute, it goes like (He starts to sing the flute part and Alison comes in and joins him) I mean, it’s just a bunch of boot-stomping, but it’s awesome.
AR: It did come out really well, though, you’re right.
CP: I really like that bit of the ballet.
AR: I’m trying to think if I have a favorite part so far.
CP: Your turning section? (Laughter)
AR: Yeah, it’s probably my turning section. (Laughter) What I liked the most so far is the way [Christopher] started creating. He started just sort of making pas de deux, right? For you and Xuan –
CP: . . . And you and Brett. (Principal dancers Brett Bauer and Xuan Cheng play Carmen and Don José’s other love interests)
AR: . . . And me and Brett. And we didn’t at that point even quite know who was who. Well, I knew I was Carmen, I was pretty sure you were Don José, but I didn’t know like, “Are we in the same cast?”
CP: It was like, “What’s going on?”
AR: Like, “How’s that going to work?” It’s just funny, the way he’d gone at it.
CP: We never knew – it wasn’t until like our first rehearsal that we actually were called together and knew we were dancing together.
AR: Yeah, or even like what the order might be, or how any of it lined up. For me, my favorite thing has been, it’s been very fun to be dancing with Chauncey. I’d go home after work and be like, “I think Chauncey and I are the stars of this ballet!” (Laughter) And my husband would be like, “What? You and Chauncey?” And the other dancers too.
CP: Everyone! I’d be like, “I just had a pas de deux with Alison!” and they’re like, “What?” (Laughter) And I’m like, “No, it’s awesome! It works!”
AR: Some of the other principals who are dancing the soloist parts in Petrouchka, they’re not in the Carmen rehearsals, and they’ve been really shocked because we would never dance together normally. So that’s been really fun, I think, to get to do that.
So you guys have never partnered together before?
CP: Not really, no. We sort of –
AR: I was his Lilac Fairy [in Sleeping Beauty].
CP: You were my Lilac Fairy, right. We learned the jump –
AR: We learned the jump together for like two seconds –
CP: But we didn’t actually dance it together, we got switched off.
AR: Yeah. But we just would never dance together because we’re the same height.
AR: I mean, it would be very rare.
CP: Though clearly it can be done. (Laughter)
Alison Roper, Yuka Iino and Chauncey Parsons in Christopher Stowell’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
AR: One time, last year, we were joking with Christopher, and we were like, “When are you casting us in a ballet together? When do we get to partner?”
CP: He gave us this look that was so like, “What on earth are you . . . how could you even . . . NO!” (Laughter)
AR: Like, “It’s just never gonna happen.”
AR: So it’s been really fun. I like to try to enjoy those moments, you know, like, this isn’t gonna come around again –
CP: Very often.
So when you’re partnering with someone you’ve never danced with before, what’s the orientation process? Is it awkward in the beginning?
AR: It can be, yeah, but I don’t feel like it was very hard for us.
CP: She’s pretty freakin’ easy. (Laughter) I mean, there’s always sort of a period where you’re like, “Oh, and that’s where your waist goes.” And the first couple times you try something are a little bit weird, but some people are very difficult to figure out and some people are not . . .
AR: I mean, sometimes there are just basic issues like, “You’re really tall on pointe and I’m a small guy,” you know . . . but interestingly, I didn’t feel like we had a lot of issues like not being able to figure out each other’s weight –
CP : How to balance it correctly, or where we needed to step in a fall or a lift or whatever –
AR: Plus we get along well, so if we do have a problem –
CP: It’s not like the end of the world.
AR: It doesn’t feel problematic. Which it can be sometimes. It can feel like a struggle with someone if you make a mistake and it seems like they’re –
CP: And they get like (growls, mimes wringing Alison’s neck) and somebody gets angry about it.
AR: And then of course it gets worse. (Laughter) We haven’t had to deal with any of that.
What do you hope audiences take away from this ballet? What’s unique about Carmen that audiences will like? Other than the fact that, you know, you guys get to be sexy together for the first time?
AR: (Laughing) It is just so sexy.
CP: I mean, like, does there need to be anything else? (Laughter) Isn’t that enough?
AR: Isn’t raw, hot sex enough for the audience? (Laughter) Wait, what was the question?
CP: I think any night you can get the audience to take away anything is really a big success. You know, most of the time, especially with big classical ballets, if you actually think about the story, there isn’t always that much to it . . . you can see Sleeping Beauty twelve times and sleep through it all, and then one time you can see it and be absolutely enthralled and you won’t know why, but you were. And that’s sort of the ultimate goal for this, and I think for anything – [to] really try and just communicate what we’re feeling as we portray our roles, and if that’s legible to them, hopefully they’ll get it and take whatever they will away from it.
AR: I hope . . . people will just be caught up in the story and how it unfolds. It seems like – and [this goes for] Petrouchka too – it seems like they’re going to be really beautiful visually, you know, beautiful and kind of horrifying and crazy. It can be nice to go to the theatre and experience all these emotions, not just the kind of happy, “good triumphs over evil, now they’re married” [stuff], but there’s a story and . . . like Chauncey was saying earlier, you can watch these two main characters . . . struggle with their own destiny that they have to play out, and kind of go on that ride and enjoy that vicariously.