Dancing Through a Dream: On the Town's Joshua Bergasse, Tony Yazbeck, and Megan Fairchild Bring a Ballet to Life
For this trio of dancers, fantasies come true at the Lyric Theatre.
It begins with a sleepy clarinet and a single stage direction: "The subway train to Coney Island." From there we enter a foggy New York City dreamscape with two striking figures: handsome hoofer Tony Yazbeck and dazzling New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild. As their bodies entwine in the new Broadway revival of On the Town, now running at the Lyric Theatre, they tell, without words, a story of love lost and found. This sequence becomes one of the sexiest moments on a New York stage. "Part of it," says choreographer Joshua Bergasse, "is that these guys are so sexy anyway. But a lot of it is seeing dancers move like that. Seeing these fine athletes do what they do, and to have them tell this beautiful story through it, I think that's the attraction."
Bergasse is following in the footsteps of choreographer Jerome Robbins, who created the movement for On the Town's original 1944 production, as well as for Fancy Free, the ballet that inspired the show. Within this thrillingly danced production is a nine-minute dream ballet that must effectively communicate how Gabey (Yazbeck), lost in his imagination, finally catches up with Ivy (Fairchild), the woman for whom he has spent his one day of shore leave searching. "The ballet is showing Gabey's journey," Bergasse explains, "trying to find Ivy, her eluding him, and eventually winning her over. And then they both fall in love and are pulled apart by this world."
Creating the World
Bergasse, an Emmy-winning choreographer for his work on TV's Smash, cut his teeth on this dreamy sequence in the summer of 2013, when John Rando's revival first played Barrington Stage Company. Yazbeck was part of that cast, but Fairchild came into the equation later (Deanna Doyle played the role in Massachusetts). When the run ended and it was made clear that On the Town would continue past the Berkshires, the men returned to New York and dove into a two-week dance lab, where they further refined what they had already created.
"It was an open conversation pretty much the whole way," Yazbeck notes of the process. "Josh had a lot of professional dancers in that room who knew how their bodies worked. He had an overall vision of what it had to be, so it was like we were creating, but there was a structure to everything. As long as we stayed in that structure, we were allowed to play and experiment and find the best version."
"What we did was really figure out the story we're trying to tell," says Bergasse. "Where does the story start? It starts on the subway. Then he gets to Coney Island, but there's a little extra music there, so we have to journey to Coney Island. It was a constant dialogue of finding what was right and trying to match that to the music. Is Ivy in love with him now? Has she come around? Are they fighting? Is the music saying the same thing we want to say? It was quite a journey. We spent a lot of time on it."
Ironically, it was Fairchild's sister-in-law, fellow New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, who participated with Bergasse and Yazbeck on that lab. "I don't mind missing out on starting from scratch," Fairchild adds. "What's important to me as a dancer is that it feels comfortable to you and you're capable of doing it every night. But it's nice to talk about little moments and change things here and there." It only took a week for Fairchild to learn the whole thing. It's a time frame that seems unfathomable but is actually pretty standard in the dance world, where casting occurs only two weeks before the performance. "At New York City Ballet they'll put a ballet together in a week, and then you run it for the week, and then you perform it."
Acting Without Words
"We've been dancers our whole lives," Yazbeck replies when asked what it's like to tell a story without using dialogue. "If you look at it that way, we've probably expressed more through dance than we have through words. You have instincts in your physicality that might be harder to express in words. Sometimes it's more exciting to dance that." Fairchild agrees. "It's easier because you have the music to cue you where it's going. For me, this is what's comfortable. I can kind of fly and not have to think too much. I just get to dance."
Is the story they're telling within that dance actually a dream? "I think that's up for interpretation," says Yazbeck. "As I'm experiencing it onstage, it does feel like it's in my head and the audience is going for a ride through the journey. Then it becomes more romantic as they are really able to dance with each other. It becomes a heightened reality of what Gabey and Ivy wish they could have." "I don't really feel like I should make eye contact, because then we'd be real people [and not dream figures]," Fairchild adds. "You're looking at me, but I'm not really there."
Adding to the dreamlike milieu are their costumes. At first, Ivy wears an evening gown and Gabey his sailor suit. As the dance progresses their clothes dissipate leaving Fairchild in a flesh-colored leotard and Yazbeck shirtless. "If it wasn't like that, it would not be as easy to tell the story," says Fairchild. "It feels a little freeing," Yazbeck adds.
Dreams Do Come True
"I love when the ballet is done and we're just there for a while and the audience is applauding," Fairchild says. "It's a bigger response than I would have expected." From the audience's perspective it's hard not to echo that sentiment. In a production that utilizes both large set pieces and massive video screens, what receives the longest ovation is simply two people in each other's arms as the lights turn golden. "I feel so lucky and fortunate," Bergasse concludes. "The fact that I get to do something like this on Broadway — when it's not done very often — and with these two and the rest of the cast? It still hasn't quite hit me how special it is."