Boston choreographer, director, and triple-threat performer Ilyse Robbins was nominated for Best Choreography for her work in The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s 2013 production of On the Town. Amidst preparing for THREE upcoming projects, Ilyse took the time to join our Interview Series and within minutes had danced her way even further into our hearts.
What was your first theatrical performance? Did you know then that you wanted to make theatre your career?
My first theatrical performance was a play called The Point the summer before I was in third grade. My line was, “All the churches had a steeple.” Prior to that I had been in dance recitals beginning when I was four years old. I cried through my first performance, but my teacher bribed me with a bracelet to go on as I was the only one who knew the steps. So, no, I didn’t think this would be my career.
It sounds like you have been performing for a long time! Tell us a little bit about your educational and professional background.
I grew up in Worcester, MA, and I danced at the Charlotte Klein Dance Centers. I wanted to study with jazz dance master, Gus Giordano, in Evanston, IL, so my guidance counselor at Doherty Memorial High School recommended Northwestern [University]. Northwestern was the best thing that could have happened to me. I went as an acting major and minored in creative drama education. I spent a summer at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England, and I went on to get my Ed.M. from Harvard University.
I have danced in several dance companies and I performed in and continue to perform in theaters across New England; I also choreograph and now direct. I began choreographing in the late ‘90’s when, as a young dancer in one of his shows, Spiro Veloudos noticed me. He asked if I would like to choreograph a show for him, which started a long and wonderful friendship and working relationship.
Spiro must be a wonderful collaborator; your work together on On the Town was stunning! What is the most challenging part about choreographing for you? What is the most rewarding?
The most challenging parts about choreographing are also the most rewarding for me. Telling stories through dance in an interesting and exciting way. And working with non-dancers. I love telling stories. Dance is an extension of that for me. Boston is full of wonderful performers, but most dancers go to New York. I get to work with a lot of “movers” in Boston, and showing them that they can dance is challenging yet incredibly rewarding.
Wow, it sounds like you’ve jumped in with both feet. It’s great that you can both direct and choreograph as the projects inspire you. Your actors really excelled with your choreography, particularly in On the Town. How did you work with actors who might not be triple threats (singing, acting, AND dancing)? How do you accommodate actors who may not be able to dance?
My mantra is, “If you can walk you can dance. Dance is simply walking with rhythm.” Of course, there is much more to dance that that, but it is a wonderful place to start. Living in a small town like Boston, you tend to know people and their strengths. I like to build on people’s strengths. Some actors can tumble, some can’t turn. You work with and around things.
I noticed a broad range of styles in both The Lyric’s On the Town (2013) and, most recently, in The Lyric’s Working (2014). How did you learn so many different dance styles? How do you decide which styles are appropriate for a song or show?
Such a great question. One of my “day jobs” is teaching History of Jazz Dance at Wheelock College, so I have been studying and teaching American dance styles for years now. I was also raised on the tap/ballet/jazz/modern dance diet. A guilty pleasure is watching So You Think You Can Dance and I try to see as much musical theater as I have time for. I do a lot of research.
For On the Town, I tried to stay true to the feeling of Jerome Robbins’ style, though I would never use his choreography, or suggest that I could create that choreography. I also decided to use tap as an homage to the Gene Kelly film version of On the Town. Working has a variety of musical elements and I tried to use choreography that felt like the music (some being very ‘70s) and still tell the stories as that is really the heart of Working.
Speaking of research, do any other choreographers or directors inspire you?
All of them. Of course the greats – Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Gene Kelly. I was greatly informed by Gus Giordano and Danny Buraczeski. I am thrilled by the work done in Chicago by Lookingglass Theatre and Mary Zimmerman. Also by the work done in Chicago by the House Theatre and Nathan Allen and Tommy Rapley. I love the work of Jimmy Saba – a children’s theater artist in San Diego. There are so many wonderful directors and choreographers here in Boston – Spiro Veloudos, Jim Petosa, Weylin Symes, Scott Edmiston, Bridget O’Leary, to name just a few. I have been lucky to work with Caitlin Lowans and am about to be directed by Emily Ranii. I have worked with choreographer Kelli Edwards whose movement is a joy to dance and, of course, Jeannette Neill and Jim Viera at the Jeannette Neill Dance Studios.
You mentioned earlier that your newest endeavours include directing. Can you tell us about your journey into directing? How and when did you start? How is directing more or less challenging than choreographing? Which do you enjoy more?
I began directing three years ago. My first production was 42nd Street at the Stoneham Theatre. My very good friend and, as I like to say, my own” Julian Marsh,” Weylin Symes had worked with me as a choreographer on several productions. One day, he asked, “Why don’t you direct? You would be good at it.” So, I took the plunge. There is so much more involved when directing. I get to create the vision rather than working my choreography into someone else’s vision or melding visions. I love working with designers on the entirety of the piece. And I love working with the actors on the whole of the piece. It is challenging in different ways than choreography. And as I always say, I tend to enjoy whatever I am doing at the time the most.
Do you have any advice for people who want to improve their dancing, either for the musical theatre or dance performance?
Go to class. Find a class that works for you and go. The Jeannette Neill Dance Studio in downtown Boston is a treasure. Julia Boynton and Thelma Goldberg are fantastic tap teachers. Find a teacher that you like at the Dance Complex in Central Square. Go dance.
Is, or are, there any show(s) that you wish you could choreograph? Direct? Perform?
Yes, yes, and yes. Some oldies that I love. Pajama Game, Wonderful Town, Chicago, Guys and Dolls. I would love to work on Laura Eason’s adaptation of Tom Sawyer. I would have loved to have danced Anybody’s in West Side Story, but alas, I am too old now. There are actually so many shows that I would like to work on – too many to list.
You seem so full of life! What makes you laugh?
What is your favorite theatre memory?
Oh dear. There are so many that I don’t think I can pick a favorite. There are favorite shows that I have been in – The Sparrow at Stoneham Theatre, Wild Party at the New Rep, Urinetown at the Lyric, A Chorus Line at Reagle Players, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse at Wheelock Family Theatre – I got to do that one with my daughter. Choreographing Urinetown was a game changer for me. It’s when I first felt like a choreographer. Choreographing Avenue Q at the Lyric and learning from Roxanna Myhrum how to choreograph for puppets was thrilling. Directing 42nd Street and Thoroughly Modern Millie at Stoneham, Marry Me a Little at the New Rep, and now Working at the Lyric.
Moments on stage? When Russell Garrett refused to drop me when I was slipping out of a lift with him during My Fair Lady at Stoneham Theatre and I wound up with my head between his legs. Having to tap gracefully offstage during a performance of Anything Goes at the Publick Theatre to pow-wow with Spiro as to whether the lightning was enough reason to call-off the show. Watching Ken Baltin break-up [laughing] in Lost in Yonkers at the Lyric. The list goes on.
How about a memory from your real “non-theatre” life?
Sounds corny – but the days my two kids were born.
You sound very busy! Directing, choreographing, performing, mom-ing. How do you find the time?! I guess a better question, how do you choose your projects? Do you have any favorite local companies? Any companies with which you wish to work in the future?
I choose projects based on the material and the people with whom I will work. Having a family makes me choosier. I need to be invested in the project to take time away from my family. That said, work is important to me and I want and need to work. I consider several theaters my homes away from home: Stoneham, New Rep, the Lyric, and Wheelock Family Theatre. I do work elsewhere and love doing that as well. I am excited to work at Underground Railway Theatre for the first time this season and have worked at the beautiful Hanover Theatre in Worcester for the past four years. I would love to work at the Huntington at some point and have yet to get to work at Speakeasy Stage. I am also really interested in the work that the Nora Theatre produces and Whistler in the Dark.
Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?
Sure do. I am about to choreograph Brundibar for the Underground Railway Theatre under the direction of Scott Edmiston. I am thrilled about this project. It is the children’s opera that was smuggled into and performed by the children of the Terezin concentration camp. It is an important and beautiful piece. Directly after that I will be playing the role of Dessa in Tongue of a Bird at the New Repertory in Watertown. It’s a non-musical – don’t want anyone to come and expect song and dance! After that I will be doing two benefit staged-reading performances of MOMologues – a fantastic piece about being Moms.
Do you have anything else you want to share with our readers?
Keep seeing live theater. Please. It is a shared experience and one that we get more and more rarely these days. We spend so much time individually now that more people work from home. We text and e-mail and don’t interact. Theater is a place that we sit in a room together, respond together, create together. And there is a lot of theater, good theater in the Boston area. Enjoy it.
Ilyse Robbins’ production of Working by Stephen Schwartz (et al.) performs at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston now until February 1, 2014. You can find more information about the production on The Lyric’s WEBSITE.
You can also see her choreography again in Brundibar, music by Hans Krasa and libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, and directed by Scott Edmiston and produced by the Underground Railway Theater. Brundibar performs from March 6 to April 6, 2014 at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Find out more information on the Center Square Theater’s WEBSITE.
At the same time, Ilyse will perform as Dessa in New Repertory Theatre’s Tongue of a Bird, by Ellen McLaughlin, directed by Emily Ranii from March 8 to 30, 2014 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. More information available HERE.