“Silent Dancer,” a Jazz Age romance “play with dance” that includes Gatling guns, snazzy costumes and jewelry, gangsters, and gaga shoes for cast members of all persuasions opens April 10 at Salt Lake Acting Company and really should be the Talk of the Town by now — perhaps we just don’t know enough about this mysterious show.
Plenty of patrons seem willing to go into this blindfolded (it’s a world premiere, of course, always exciting): SLAC communications director Joshua Black reports that opening night has sold out; that the first weekend is pretty full, but they do currently have availability through the run. That surely will change swiftly once reviews are out, and he encourages patrons to book tickets soon for the best remaining seats.
We thought we might provide some further information by interviewing the people with real insight into what is actually a new production format being presented with this play, really a new form of theater: the writer, Kathleen Cahill; the director, Cynthia Fleming; and the choreographer — this is unusual — Ballet West’s Christopher Ruud.
Taking real people in a real era and building a fictional story around them is not necessarily a novel approach to theater. Having them communicate through dance in the manner they will in this play certainly is.
We spoke first with Kathleen Cahill, SLAC playwright in residence for the past seven years, writer of the Pulitzer-nominated comedy, “Charm,” among many other widely produced plays, and former writer of short stories; once a PR person at the Hartford Stage who got the “Robert Broadhead Fellowship” (you have to be married to Robert Broadhead to get it, Cahill explains). She is also author of the drama, “The Persian Quarter,” inspired by her time in “the lovely city of Shiraz” during 1976 teaching English to young Iranian women students. “What I remember most about them is the poetic quality of their minds, their culture. I remember I played them a recording of Dylan Thomas reciting ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and while they probably understood about one word in ten, they loved the sound of the poem. I remember that everyone wrote poetry: students, teachers, doctors, engineers, everyone. I shopped at a grocery store named after the poet Saadi.”
We had the opportunity to submit a few questions to Cahill about herself, her craft — her art, really — with the understanding that she would answer only those queries that interested her (embarrassingly few, as it turned out.) “The theatre is about magic,” she wrote gently, when this writer admitted having had difficulty with one of her previous plays. “Art and magic have a lot in common, in that they present us with an experience we haven’t had before, so we may not understand it entirely.”
Example of (another) embarrassing shutdown:
AP: What did you learn from [13th-century Persian poet, scholar, and mystic] Rumi? Please talk about this a bit. “
KC: “I am still learning from Rumi.”
End of example. (Sadly, there were more.)
KC on process: My ideas form over time. I don’t know how to explain the process… and frankly, I don’t want to become too conscious of it. Something in me connects with something out there. I can’t exactly say how I became interested in writing “Silent Dancer” or how it’s connected to my other work, because it’s a complex process that even I don’t understand. I get interested in something, and I start pursuing it. (If you saw my nightstand you’d be presented with a visual of this process — piles of books all over the place on many subjects.) Also: I wanted to write a play with dance which would speak to [director] Cynthia Fleming’s background because I wanted to work with her.
AP: Why this particular slice of Americana?
KC: “Silent Dancer” is a play set in the past, it’s about that era, the early 1920s, but it’s also a play about time itself, how time works on us as a force of emotion. Sometimes the characters tell us what is going to happen to them in the future. We live in an era when we can call up images of the past at the touch of our keyboards, and sometimes I like to imagine that these images from the past reach out and speak to us on their own.
AP: Why this particular era?
KC: There are so many similarities to our own: former soldiers walking around with PTSD; great changes in the role of women; new technologies bringing enormous changes to the way we live; immigration issues; brand new ways to make lots of money; racial prejudices, gender prejudices; the advent of movie stars and celebrities.
Asked about an affinity for the Milford, Dorothy Parker or F. Scott Fitzgerald vision of Zelda (of course, there was Zelda’s of herself, too, as I recall), Cahill replied that she had her own sense of Zelda Fitzgerald — “of who she was and that’s the character I wrote.”
AP: Do you consider the play to be action driven or character driven? Why?
Cahill doesn’t think in those terms. This is not surprising.
But the director, CYNTHIA FLEMING, as it turns out, does. This is surprising.
Cynthia Fleming: All plays are completely character driven for me — no matter if I am directing or choreographing. I start by asking myself “who are they?” A dance step will not even come to my mind until I fully understand a character. Even the simplest movement of a leg is indicative of the character’s background–where they’re from, what they want, where they work, even who they love.
AP: What were you looking for primarily as you did the casting? Acting capacity or dancing capability? Or did that vary depending on the role? In other words, which came first, the actor or the dancer in casting a part?
CF: From a director’s perspective, this play had so many unknowns. The passion that Kathleen and I had for creating a world in which dance was used as a storytelling device, in addition to spoken word, was so strong and we used it to propel us through the creative process. That eliminated a lot of the worry and fear. I told Kathleen from the beginning that even though I’m a choreographer, I was not the right person to choreograph the text of the play — I actually coined the term choreotext — because I felt that the project required a choreographer whose entire life was dedicated to dance. Someone who could create these words using their body.
I was such a fan of Christopher [Ruud’s] and … luckily … he was very much on the same page in wanting to pioneer this new way of storytelling. During the first rehearsal in which Christopher choreographed, I got the chills. I knew that we had selected the right person for the job. He understands the world of “Silent Dancer” so well.
When we knew that creating this artform was going to be a reality, we … were really looking for the best actors and the best dancers. Each of our cast members is gifted as both — but if I had to choose one that was more important to the production, acting wins out every time.
Fleming says she doesn’t believe SLAC has ever produced “such a romantic play of this level.” And that there are moments in the play that have affected her more than any other in her entire career in the theater. She won’t go into detail, “because I don’t want to spoil anything.”
AP: Is directing your favorite role at SLAC? You have played many. And have reportedly been excellent at each. But are you thriving now?
CF: Yes, I have played many, many roles at SLAC. Incredibly, I’m still learning new things after all these years, which is what keeps me engaged and excited to come to work each day. Being in rehearsal is my absolute favorite way to spend my time here — whether I’m performing myself, directing, choreographing, or observing as a producer. In a perfect world, I’d rehearse every day of the week!
The marvelous Ballet West principal dancer Christopher Ruud took on “Silent Dancer” as his first choreographic project as he looks into his future away from the company that has been his home base for 21 years. (He danced his last role with Ballet West at the end of February.) We managed a phone interview after a couple of failed attempts on SLAC’s conference line as communications director Joshua Black listened in. Ruud was comfortable in his Salt Lake City apartment; this writer hunched over the iMac in her designated office space in hers, headset on, straining to hear over a staticky line. Ruud, clearly prepared, maybe a little too prepared — is he always this eloquent? — starts by assuring that “There is certainly a Zelda moment” in his choreography, then explains that his job was to create a dance language as a way to communicate a script as a play. He said he asked Kathleen Cahill to create the feelings she wanted to be conveyed – to write those down so that he could choreograph her words.
CR: To me, dance has always been communication. Dance has always been more than steps: I’ve always tried to put meaning behind my steps beyond the general kind of emoting we do. So I was able to write a language that was never meant to be spoken and from that, I started seeing steps. And as soon as we started workshopping the play I started to choreotext. That’s what we called it. Text that was written but never meant to be spoken. I tried to convey the angst but also the hope of the Roaring 1920s, of the classes and also the races. In the end, I think that’s one of the things we’ve talked about over and over again: The relatively low themes about racism, homosexuality, and repression thereof, and the overall theme of hopefulness and the promise of bettering your life. It is fascinating to me because the themes themselves are so current that they tie to the current age. No matter the time period it is set in, it is a relatable story to our humanity.
He explained that his wife, assistant choreographer Loren Ruud, who was previously a dancer, is a teacher and choreographer who “has an eidetic memory for many things and an eye for style and intention.” She would assist “this aging choreographer” [Oh, c’ mon Christopher!] by telling the acting dancers how to use parts of their bodies to convey certain emotions.
CR: There is a moment that we can’t articulate how we feel and that’s when the dance starts. There is a point when the most eloquent poet can’t describe what you are feeling and that’s when you start moving your body and that was my job in SILENT DANCER.
Ruud thought the play was “equally story and character driven. The story drives the play but the characters are written in such a rich way. It’s becoming a fantastically realized story. It’s not easy to follow [Ahem!] but it’s fun to follow. All great art involves a certain amount of effort. Nothing good was ever easy. It is absolutely a challenging play with many complex elements.“ And he would certainly be involved again given the opportunity: “Theater in this way is adding another layer of richness. I would very much like to be part of it again. I found it refreshing. It’s very different as far as choreography for professional ballet dancers. It is challenging and draws on some of the skills I excel at: Trying to divine what is the real missive of our expression. If this type of theatrical story catches on I’ll list my number at the bottom of the article … it’s mind-blowing to be a part of this world.”
“SILENT DANCER,” Salt Lake Acting Company, Salt Lake City, runs April 10 through May 12. Tickets via tickets.saltlakeactingcompany.org, at the SLAC box office, or 801-363-7522. Mature themes.
Kathleen Cahill is reading at SLAC on April 29, “a play called ‘The Robertassey (Robert’s Odyssey. SLAC doesn’t produce everything I write, she says, “but they are very supportive in helping to develop my work.”) Information: 801-363-7522
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.