Texas Ballet Theater Company member Carl Coomer has a lot to be excited about this weekend at the company's first Portraits Ballet Festival. He will be premiering his new work Evolving as well as taking on Balanchine's Apollo, a role performed by some of ballet's greats, including Lew Christensen, Jacques d'Amboise and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Originally from Liverpool, England, Coomer began dancing at the age of 13 and has trained in a variety of styles, including ballet, tap and modern. Over the last 20 years he has studied and performed with the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Houston Ballet and starting in 2007, Texas Ballet Theater.
He has performed lead roles in Ben Stevenson's The Nutcracker, Dracula, Coppelia, The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella; John Cranko's Onegin; George Balanchine's Four Temperaments; Paul Taylor's In the Beginning; and Christopher Bruce's Ghost Dances, just to name a few.
TheaterJones asked Coomer about his inspiration for Evolving, what it takes to become Balanchine's Apollo and how British ballet training differs from American.
The Portraits Ballet Festival will run for two weekends, April 20-22 and April 27-29, at the Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas. Evolving and Apollo are in the fest weekend, along with Stevenson's Bartok Concerto. The second weekend features Stevenson's Image, Val Caniparoli's Lamparena, and another premiere from a TBT dancer, Peter Zweifel's The Finding. (Look for an interview with Zweifel next week on TheaterJones.)
TheaterJones: What do you want to accomplish with the Portraits Ballet Festival?
Carl Coomer: There's such a variety of dance forms and different subjects in the show that I hope the audience can walk away liking two, if not all three of the pieces. I really enjoy triple bills because it keeps your attention for the full 20-30 minutes and you can walk away and say "oh I like this one" and compare them against each other. Triple bills give the show a lot of variety.
Is this a new venue for the company?
Yes. Usually we perform at the Winspear Opera House [in Dallas], so this will be our first time at the Wyly Theatre. I think that's to our advantage because it's a smaller house so it will make the show really intimate and the audience will feel really close to us.
Did you take the venue into consideration when you were creating your piece for the festival?
I kind of did. I took in the fact that it was going to be a lot more intimate and that people were going to be closer. So, I tried to incorporate a lot of little expressions that you might miss the first night, but the second night you might catch something else. I added little quirky things in the expression of the dancers' bodies that hint at something without saying it to your face. And since the audience is right in your face they should be able to catch those little quirky moments.
Are you also performing in the Portraits Ballet Festival?
Yes! My piece opens the show and after that it's Apollo, which I will be performing every show, and then it is Mr. Stevenson's Bartok and I'll be doing the principal role in that on Sunday. So, on Sunday I will be doing both pieces as well as showing my piece.
Did you have the option to say "no" to doing so much or where you up for the challenge?
I was totally up for it. I love being busy, especially in the kind of neo-classical/contemporary works that we are doing. I mean, I don't know whether you would call Balanchine's Apollo contemporary. It was made I think in the '30s and he was way ahead of his time. But I was totally up for the challenge. I feel like I'm in shape and I feel inspired in both choreographing and in dancing.
Did you find it difficult switching from the choreographer's hat to the performer's and vice versa?
I have taught a lot of ballet classes before so, I kind of know how to approach people and communicate what I want and need. I thought it was going to be a challenge at first, but it hasn't been really. Like you said, it's just wearing another hat. I'm still being an artist in the studio just in a different capacity. It's definitely different sitting at the front rather than actually doing it and looking in the mirror and having somebody else watch you. It's really taught me a lot being at the front. You can see things you typically wouldn't when you dancing. And it's been great.
What was your inspiration for your piece Evolving?
At 30 I am thinking about starting my own family and the concept of the piece is about how we wish the best for our children and hope they can evolve into more loving and better human beings than their predecessors. It's to give people a better understanding of others' relationships and how these relationships prevail and grow and keep evolving. Kind of what you learn from your parents. Gaining that knowledge and taking it further. That's where my concept of evolving came from.
How would you describe the movement style of the piece?
I am very inspired by some of the choreographers I have worked with, such as Mr. Stevenson and Christopher Bruce. You will see some classical movement in there, but I would say it's more contemporary. And there are a lot of quirky moments in there that are kind of unusual, but still express what I want to say. It's not abstract. I'm trying to tell a simple story about a life that keeps going.
It starts off with a couple (the parents) who love each, but have a lot of misunderstandings. From their love is born a daughter and the story follows her as she learns to move and walk, meets and forms relationships with other young females and finally comes across males for the first time. It ends with her in love and kind of goes back to the beginning where now she is going to have a child.
Was it an advantage or disadvantage to work with your peers?
I think it was an advantage because I know the people. I am in the same work place with them all day. I know how people can move and what they struggle with because I see them every day. I tried to push them in certain ways, but I also know what makes them look good. And I want them to look their best.
Have you performed the role of Apollo before?
No, I haven't. I've seen it a bunch of times and we did it a few times at the Houston Ballet, but I've never got to perform myself. It's definitely one of the roles that I've wanted to do and I think every male principal would really like to dance Apollo in their career. I am very grateful to get the opportunity to do it. It's a very special ballet and I've had a lot fun working on it.
How do you make Apollo you own?
When I say make it my own I don't mean to change any of the movement. What's so special about dancers is that you can see the same piece and someone might do it a little differently based on their style and the presence that they have. Apollo is a God so you have to be strong and commanding and look very in control. So, I try to focus on that, making myself big and strong and powerful.
I read in your bio that you spent some time with the Royal Ballet. How does ballet training in Great Britain differ from training in America?
When I went to the Royal Ballet School I was trained in many different styles. We had a lot of Russian teachers and then they brought in an Australian woman, Gailene Stock, who is still the director of the school now. So, I had a lot of English and Australian influences as well.
But one of the things that made me audition for the Houston Ballet Company here in the States was when I saw the company perform in London. In the Royal Ballet School you work on the classical style and the lines. But I feel like for me the American dancers have a lot more pazazz, power and athleticism behind what they're doing. And I really liked that. I remember seeing Stanton Welch's Bruiser and Trey McIntyre's Second Before the Ground and I was really wowed and in awe of their energy and athleticism. And that's what made me come over here to the States.
◊ Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com.