In 2008, when the grip of the economic recession was perhaps at its tightest on the arts, Natasha Middleton, artistic director of Burbank-based Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre [PBDT], was trying to get a production off the ground. Her idea was to base a show on the 1931 iconic song "Brother Can you Spare A Dime?" that could speak to the hardships the country was experiencing.
Middleton had established the company in 2001 (then called Media City Ballet) based on the values and principles of the Ballet Russe style of dance, which was the first to embrace other art forms with classical ballet performance. So it only made sense that her vision was multi-faceted, involving a production of dance, song and film. Ironically, the recession prevented the project from moving forward. But she held on to the idea of somehow, someday capturing that Great Depression era on stage.
Flash forward to present time as Middleton debuts Dance in the USA at the Ford Amphitheatre August 17, 2012--and that germ of an idea has blossomed into a full-blown retrospective of American theater. The production is appropriately timed with the company unveiling its new name that Middleton feels better supports the type of high-octane performances the company will mount, such as the one she had in her head nearly five years ago. "I picked back up on Brother Can You Spare A Dime; and then just kept going through theater history," Middleton says. "I thought, Wow, let's do this!"
Think Fred & Ginger. Along with ragtime "cakewalking," some Aaron Copland "clogging" and a little Go-Go dancing... and that might get you through the first half of the show. There's also disco, doowop, the twist, swing and of course, the Charleston with music by Duke Ellington which will be performed with a piano on stage.
A cast of 32 performers is led by singer/dancer Chris Trousdale of Disney's Shake it Up and Les Miserables fame, Alexander Fost from So You Think You Can Dance and Allan McCormick, who just wrapped a Vegas gig performing as a dancer/acrobat/aerialist in La Reve. Carrie Lee Riggins, a former dancer with New York City Ballet, as well as dancers who trained at Middleton's school, will also perform.
"I want to remind people of how fabulous we've become in the past 100 years and how we have gone from decade to decade with the best music from different cultures that influenced dance, music and the arts around the world," Middleton says.
It's Middleton's goal to continue her family's performance legacy. She is a third generation entertainer. Her grandmother danced with Ballet Russe, and her father, Andrei Tremaine, with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlos, arguably the most famous company in the world. Middleton's mother, Natalie Garrotto, was a soprano with San Francisco Opera, and her aunt is late Hollywood star Yvonne de Carlo (The Munsters.)
"Following in my father's footsteps is really important to me," she says. "Ballet Russe was high atmosphere. They went all out in their productions. I try to keep that going."
Assisted by Edward Arno who helps Middleton stage her choreography, she is in full cleaning mode one week out from the show. Arno is drawing an imaginary diagonal line as four dancers perform rapid "shenae" turns across the studio to Madonna's "Borderline" (1984) as Middleton corrects timing and arms. Next up, Troudsdale and PBDT dancer Amara Baptist rehearse a piece to Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music" (1936). Swirling about elegantly with Astaire-worthy relish, Trousdale is dapper in coattails and Baptist flourishes in a rose petal gown. Trousdale, who has auditioned for The Voice this season, stops to serenade his partner at various points, which he will do live during the performance.
"It's kinda hot in this [costume]," he says, flashing a smile after a run-through. "And I don't even have socks on."
This will be the company's second go-around at The Ford Amphitheatre. Last year, the company's performance of Axis Mundi, a multicultural celebration of dance, was named second in the top 10 shows of Southern California that year by the Beverly Hills Outlook, Middleton says. "I wanted to go all USA this time; all American especially with the Olympics taking place. And why not? It's perfect timing!"
Middleton admits to having fun while studying all the historical iterations of dance as she choreographed the production. In addition to the Go-Go era, some of her favorite pieces are rooted in African American history. "Tap dancing started from tapping code. That's how African Americans communicated from across the street, because they weren't even allowed to talk to each other! And that developed into tap dance."
After Friday's show, she'd like to try and recreate the whole shebang based on British theatrical history. And any future productions first and foremost will stay true to her family's Ballet Russe legacy.
"I want to keep it very stylized and atmospheric, with acting in the dancers' faces; almost as if they tried to bring the film screen onto the stage, that's what I like and that's what we do. That's why we have the word dance now in the company. We are going beyond the '9 dots'. I'm not taking no for an answer with this company. We have a lot more to say."
For tickets to the August 17 performance of Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre's Dance in the USA, please visit the Ford box office.
Top Image: Photo: Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre.