At a Sarasota Ballet lecture earlier this month, Iain Webb and Michael Donald Edwards — Webb with sunglasses perched on his head and Edwards in dark denim jeans — sat on stage at the Historic Asolo Theater and bantered back and forth like old chums.
Webb, 50, Sarasota Ballet’s artistic director, and Edwards, 60, Asolo Repertory Theatre’s producing artistic director, were exuberant, self-deprecating and playful while they discussed “Contact” — their first joint project.
“We’re like Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin,” Webb joked, ribbing Edwards, who, in his slight Australian accent, dismissed the comparison.
“Contact,” marks the first time in Sarasota history that the theater company and the ballet company have collaborated on a show.
It is also the first time “Contact,” the four-time Tony Award-winning “dance play,” inspired by director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s brush with an elusive swing dancer in a yellow dress, is being performed by a classically trained ballet company.
“It’s big news,” says Edwards. “The fact that we’re working on this together not only brings attention to our companies, it brings attention to Sarasota.”
Edwards has been itching to collaborate with Webb since he saw Sarasota Ballet’s 2007 production of “Las Hermanas,” a dance/drama based on Federico García Lorca’s play, “The House of Bernarda Alba.”
“In a way, Michael was the one who initiated the friendship,” Webb says. “I remember he walked away from ‘Las Hermanas’ like, ‘Oh my God. I don’t ever want to see the play again.’”
The two men have a lot in common. Edwards assumed his post in 2006 following Howard Millman’s retirement. Webb took control of the ballet one year later, following Robert de Warren’s retirement.
In Edwards’ first year, he directed “A Tale of Two Cities,” a Broadway-bound blockbuster with a $14 million budget. In Webb’s first year, he staged Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Two Pigeons,” a ballet so rarely performed in the United States it garnered a 1,200-word review in The New York Times.
“We were both producing things of very high caliber and to a very high standard,” Webb says. “I think that was something we immediately saw in each other.”
Whatever perceived rivalries existed when Webb arrived in Sarasota have since been eclipsed by “Contact.” Ten years have passed since the show wrapped its run on Broadway and, rumor has it, Stroman is planning to revive the production soon.
“There’s a lot of interest in what we’re doing because of that,” Edwards says. “People know it’s in the air.”
Tomé Cousin, a Broadway dancer and choreographer who performed in the show’s original Lincoln Center ensemble, was personally chosen by Stroman to direct the Sarasota cast. Cousin was in town last spring to run a two-day boot camp and begin auditioning dancers for seven roles — a challenge, given “Contact’s” sultry swing and flirty jive choreography.
Set to prerecorded music by The Beach Boys, French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the popular 1990s swing band, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, “Contact” is considered outside of the comfort zones of many ballet companies. Webb, however, has built his Sarasota reputation shattering what he calls “bun head” stereotypes, so dancers are not unaccustomed to nailing edgy roles.
And, then, there’s the issue of acting. Although “Contact” has minimal dialogue, the script includes some speaking parts, forcing dancers to practice lines and delivery. Soloist Tracey Tucci, cast as a pregnant woman in the show, laughed and screamed so much in rehearsal last week she became hoarse.
“We’re so used to pantomiming emotions through dance,” Tucci says. “It’s definitely been a challenge.”
But there’s a kind of coziness among the show’s 18 cast members that Tucci says has been calming. The dancers, the Asolo’s resident actors and the show’s Broadway stars all get along extraordinarily well.
Last week the gang ventured out to Lido Beach for a little sun and relaxation. The dancers from New York were craving it, particularly Shannon Lewis, who plays the show’s famous Girl in the Yellow Dress.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” says Webb. “I don’t want to be all corny and say it’s like a family, but it almost is.
Everyone is helping each other. It’s fantastic and inspiring. They’re all so desperate to do ‘Contact.’”
What’s up with the little yellow dress?
Clingy, bias-cut, with a plunging neckline and a dangerously high hem, “Contact’s” yellow dress is as much a character in the show as is the woman wearing it.
“I never thought I’d look good in yellow,” says Broadway dancer Shannon Lewis. “But there’s something about the way this dress is designed. I feel beautiful in it and it’s easy to move in.”
The dress was specifically tailored to hug Lewis’ curves and hemmed higher to play up her athletic legs. In 10 years, the yellow dress, designed by Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long, of “The
Producers” fame, has changed little. First spotted by “Contact” creator Susan Stroman on a woman dancing at a New York City swing club, the little yellow dress, says Lewis, is more intriguing given New York’s affinity for the little black dress.
if you go
“Contact” runs Oct. 23 through Nov. 22, at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. For tickets, call 351-8000 or visit www.asolo.org