With 24 dancers and six actors, “The Art of Falling,” a collaboration between Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the improvisational comedy troupe, the Second City, is not only startlingly original, but, in a way, unclassifiable.
According to Hubbard Street’s artistic director, Glenn Edgerton, “Comedy-wise, we don’t always go there, but it felt right for this story to have a sort of transformative action. And,” added Edgerton, who danced 11 years with Joffrey Ballet before taking the helm at Netherlands Dance Theater and then, in 2009, landing in Chicago full-time to direct the troupe founded in 1977, “it’s a different way of seeing Hubbard.
“Also—for audiences who might be a little afraid of modern dance, it’s a way for them to feel comfortable with the form.”
Second City’s director, Billy Bungeroth, added, “It’s not a Broadway show, it’s not comedy, it’s not dance, but an amalgam of all of those.”
As a two-act, 20-scene work, interwoven with three main stories scripted by five writers (and the Second City casts), “Falling” has been realized by five choreographers. A huge endeavor that premiered in the Windy City in October 2014, to rave reviews, the show makes its West Coast debut November 6-8 at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre.
Speaking by phone to these dynamic, albeit strange bedfellows from Chicago, the words “terpsichorean dramedy” were offered up by this reporter. That Bungeroth didn’t know the meaning of ‘terpsichorean’ only added to the quirky and courageous nature of the collaboration, one that led all participants, including members of both Hubbard Street troupes, into uncharted, but ultimately, fruitful territories.
“I think I might use that,” quipped Bungeroth, whose 2013 partnering with Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “The Second City Guide to the Opera,” paved the way for “Falling,” no matter that neither Edgerton nor Bungeroth had known each other.
“We had no idea the other existed,” confessed the director of Second City, whose illustrious alumni have included the late John Belushi and Joan Rivers, as well as Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Steve Carell, “but after doing a show with Lyric Opera, which was fun and cool, I wanted to do something that was more organic and used another form.”
Bungeroth has been steering the 1959-founded company since 2010, with his bio marking his age at, er, 70, one that also includes his leaving the classic rock group, the Yardbirds, “at the height of their success.”
And if you believe that, well, Bungeroth has a lake to sell you in drought-stricken California! Seriously, Bungeroth explained that Second City’s executive vice president, Kelly Leonard, initially called Hubbard Street’s executive director, Jason Palmquist, to talk about the prospect of a collaboration.
Edgerton, 54, chimed in: “Jason just walked in and said, ‘Do you feel like doing something with Second City.’ I said, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s do it,’ without knowing what they were talking about. But because I know the reputation of Second City and their place in theater and comedy, there was no question.”
Bungeroth noted that a conversation ensued about how the two disparate troupes could team up, explaining, “Until the month before we didn’t know what we had or what we were doing.”
Edgerton, a modest, soft-spoken type, deferred to Bungeroth, who said he then did a workshop with Hubbard Street 2 director/choreographer, Terence Marling, making use, as well, of several writers and dancer Jacqueline Burnett.
From that initial seed sprouted a show about which the Chicago Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss wrote: “…the large, multi-faceted creative team… has found a seamless way to interweave the “high” and the “low,” and the topical and eternal, so that everyone comes out stronger in the end.”
“I don’t dance,” Bungeroth confessed, “but I felt like I was dancing in this workshop. It was then that [I realized] the writers and I had something to say: We wanted to do a show about taking a risk, being vulnerable, letting go.”
Indeed, there are three main tracks—a love story, a story about death on an airplane and one concerned with working in an office, themes that Bungeroth said were arrived at by head writer Tim Mason. “We started to write full stories and began to improvise around the stories.”
Edgerton jumped into the conversation, explaining how the tales intermingle. “Billy fashioned it like a sitcom with three stories and how they overlap and connect in different ways,” adding, “it all makes sense in the end.”
Edgerton also knew that he wanted both companies involved, not wanting to single out one dancer over another, or “have any sort of hierarchy.”
Bungeroth, too, was excited about doing something Broadway-esque and “bigger,” while Edgerton attributes some of the work’s success to a Second City credo. “Billy has a phrase of saying, ‘Yes, and….’ That says it all, instead of saying, ‘Yes, but…’.”
Hubbard Street dancers Adrienne Lipson and Jules Joseph with Second City director Billy Bungeroth. Image Todd RosenbergWith the fear of falling in love or having an emotional detachment—philophobia—stitched into the fabric of the show, this reporter asked if either of the directors suffered from that particular affliction.
“All of us in some ways are philophobes,” Edgerton replied, “that’s why it’s called “The Art of Falling.” You have to let yourself go, you need to let it roll and see where things take you.”
“If you had asked me that a year ago,” Bungeroth declared, “I might have said, ‘yes,’ but I got engaged during the process of putting this show together—and I’m still engaged.”
That Bungeroth’s fiancée is Julie B. Nichols, the musical director whose original compositions and sound design are paired with everything from Satie and Arvo Pärt to Bobby Darin, also contributes to the occasionally rip-roaring spectacle. One segment features David Bowie’s hit, “Life On Mars?,” wherein a subdued piano arrangement accompanies a dance routine in which a man seduces his blow-up sex doll, courtesy of choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams.
“Julie has been the glue to the whole program, creating a score and [also] playing a lot of things live with a bassist, Emma [Dayhuff],” added Bungeroth.
The vignettes range from high-energy group numbers to smaller, more lyrical pieces. With the comic elements also comes a substantial dose of dance drama. Credit the quintet of choreographers, which also includes Alejandro Cerrudo, Lucas Crandall and Jonathan Fredrickson, for packing their movement vocabulary with emotional heft.
From a director’s standpoint, Bungeroth said that the work was exciting, although, at first, he confessed, “It was also scary. But with the choreographers and the writers, it was best to let them work their own pieces and not get too involved.
“That was one of the great things about this project—if you work with really great people, you have to just trust them. You can’t micro-manage. If I learned anything from this collaboration,” continued Bungeroth, “it was that [when] you get great people in the room, let them be good at what they’re good at. I tried to do that for the choreographers and writers, and in turn, they did it for the actors and dancers.”
The synthesis of dance and comedy is, in fact, incorporated into the sketches in provocative ways. The relationship storyline, for example, is between two men, while the office scenes not only include dancers being turned into inanimate objects—a messenger bag, a staircase and a typewriter —but is also a spoof on that eminently spoofable classic, “Swan Lake.”
Marling’s “White Office Swan,” is set to some of Tchaikovsky’s score, but instead of dancing avians, the scene features a flock of office workers whirling and twirling on swivel chairs.
Bungeroth said that this vignette was derived from a Second City scene from a few years ago. “It was very simple and it was funny, but not necessarily beautiful. I kind of knew I wanted to do something with that, so I let Terry take it and run with it.”
Of course, cinema’s greatest clowns, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx, were also light on their feet and able to move in ways to evoke genuine emotions, from pathos to hilarity.
Edgerton elaborated: “A lot of physical movement that creates the comedy—moments where the dancers are acting out an object or some sort of odd way of putting their bodies in situations we wouldn’t normally think of—I’m really proud that we are a company that can do these things. Once the work premiered I was excited that we went into the project.
“I could have in the beginning thought, ‘Oh, we don’t do that,’ that we are too elite. But I thought we need to make fun of ourselves,” Edgerton maintained. “We need to laugh and see the humor in the art that we are making. There are so many stereotypes that need to be looked at and laughed at. I was happy we went completely into the unknown with this.”
As is dancer Jessica Tong, who has performed in some 60 different choreographies and is currently in her tenth year with Hubbard Street. She, too, agreed that “Falling,” is fairly indescribable.
“It’s pretty crazy,” she said by telephone from Chicago. “A lot of us were skeptical at first. Billy had come in and done some workshops, some shared exercises with us, and that was really fun. But for us, we were also more in the dark. We were excited, but thought, ‘How does this relate to what we do? What are we going to make together?’”
However, as Tong, who dances throughout the work, soon discovered, the process did turn into more of a collaboration. “It was almost like a comedy musical. There are songs that are sung, and dances that go along with the songs, but it’s not like a Broadway musical number where it’s showy and projected towards the audience. It’s more abstract.”
Having recently performed in an all-Forsythe program, Tong, said that, “Falling” has been less “pressure” for the dancers. “Because there are so many people on stage, and the actors are there, it’s definitely kind of even on both of our contributions to the piece, and I think it’s a little bit more fun.
“We can come in and have a good time,” added Tong, 32. “Another thing that keeps us more relaxed is that the actors are more spontaneous, so we can feel that we can take on that role, as well. We are less strict on ourselves, which gives us more wiggle room to do different things.”
As comedy and dance are inherently different animals, combining forces has also yielded an added benefit: bringing new audiences into the theater.
Recalled Bungeroth: “When we set out, we never talked about creating a younger audience or trying to merge the audiences. Luckily, that was an outgrowth of the work itself. We were just hoping that people would buy tickets, but we didn’t think about it too much.”
The glowing reviews also helped. “What happened,” continued Bungeroth, “was that we got new people who weren’t looking for a comedy show or a dance show, but thought, ‘That sounds cool.’ And because of that we wound up with a wildly diverse audience.”
Edgerton pointed out that creating the hybrid theater work wasn’t necessarily done to attract new audiences. “That wasn’t our goal, but new people coming to the performances that hadn’t seen Hubbard Street before is a good thing. I also think [the work] is universal. People want to laugh. They want to see humor in themselves”
Edgerton is particularly happy to be performing “Falling” in Los Angeles, which holds a special place in his heart and where, from 2005 to 2008, he was director of dance at the Colburn School of performing arts.
“My love for L.A. started in the ’80s,” added Edgerton, when we toured there regularly with the Joffrey, along with the residencies we did at the Music Center. I feel like I’m still entrenched in L.A.”
As to word on the street that Edgerton—spoiler alert—will show up in a cameo role in “The Art of Falling,” the director was a bit coy.
“We wouldn’t want to put it out there,” confessed Edgerton,” because of the element of surprise. I learned from Billy’s world that the element of surprise is what the joke is about, so let’s not say anything.”
Victoria Looseleaf will be leading the pre-performance talks at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre November 6-8, one hour before curtain time, with participants from both Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Second City Chicago.