Q&A: Choreographer John Selya

Courtesy of SMU

Courtesy of SMU

The Twyla Tharp dancer on his journey from ballet to Broadway and creating his new work, Darkside, as part of the SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts Spring Dance Concert.

Dallas — John Selya is not your typical ballet dancer. In addition to classical ballet, Selya is also well versed in Twyla Tharp’s free flowing movement style and is an authoritative voice when it comes to the ins and outs of dancing on Broadway. A native New Yorker Selya attended the School of American Ballet before joining American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in the late 80’s. It was here Selya was exposed to Tharp’s classical, yet quirky way of moving for the first time. Selya spent 11 years with ABT before leaving to join Twyla Tharp Dance. In 2003 he made his Broadway debut performing the central role of Eddie in Tharp’s Tony-winning show, Movin’ Out. His performance earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a musical, an Astaire award for outstanding dancing on a Broadway stage and a Theater World Award for outstanding Broadway debut. Since then, Selya has also appeared in Damn Yankees, Guys and Dolls and Tharp’s recent Come Fly Away.

Selya is currently an artist-in-residence at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts where he is working with students on his new work, Darkside, part of the Meadows Spring Dance Concert which runs March 25-29 in the Bob Hope Theatre. Using music from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, Darkside adds a visual element to the groundbreaking musical composition (which is the second best-selling album of all time after Michael Jackson’s Thriller according to Wikipedia). The work follows an inquisitive philosophy student named Emily on her journey to decipher the teachings of her professor and fulfill her destiny. The program also includes Danny Buraczeski’s acclaimed 1999 piece Ezekiel’s Wheel, inspired by the life and work of author and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin and a new work by Dallas-based choreographer Joshua L. Peugh entitled The Hi Betty Cha-Cha.

TheaterJones asks John Selya about his experience working with the legendary Twyla Tharp, transitioning from ballet to Broadway and creating his work, Darkside.

TheaterJones: Going into rehearsals did you have a clear vision of what you wanted Darkside to look like?

John Selya: Going in I knew I wanted to use Tom Stoppard’s radio play which is inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album. The radio play is split up between dialogue and music, and the more I listen to it and the more I see the work; it’s more like a musical than just a dance. You have your spoken word passages and Tom Stoppard has segued seamlessly into songs from the album. So, when I initially decided to use this for the SMU piece I did have a clear aesthetic vision. I had a vibe that I wanted to create. I wanted to go for an interactive dance piece where the dancers were not confined just to the stage. In the musical Hair, the director, Diane Paulus, had the actors come out into the house and I thought this would be a great exercise for young performers such as the students at SMU to really become comfortable with being themselves at close range. So, that’s what my aim was.

Darkside follows a strong storyline. Do your prefer creating more story-driven pieces vs. abstract work?

I really go for a mix. I like to rely on the storyline just as a general compass, but then I don’t like to adhere to it too much. But what really appealed to me about the Tom Stoppard/Pink Floyd collaboration was that I feel Stoppard was able to add another element independent of what the songs had already said. So, you’re not just reflecting it; you’re adding to it. But that storyline has your compass pointing you where you want to go, and once I go there then I try to become abstract. I also want to add that this radio play is not a simple storyline. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it takes me a long time to fully absorb what Stoppard is saying and why he is saying it. So, I wouldn’t call this a simple storyline. At least not for me.

Were any of the dancers familiar with Pink Floyd prior to this piece?

Some of them knew their greatest hits, but not everyone was familiar with the music and frankly there wasn’t much time to delve into the history and the body of work of Pink Floyd. And I’m sure the dancers kind of felt uncomfortable like they were flying blind because I didn’t explain much to them while we were working except for the basic quality of physical movement that I wanted. I think it was tough for these dancers to not deal with definites. A lot of times in my process of choreographing the intention of a part is unclear and I’m waiting for it to reveal itself. Again that is kind of flying blind and is a much different approach to making work than they’ve been used to so, that was a learning curve all around. They would ask me questions like what are we here and the most I could tell them was that they are the weather of the piece.

After this experience what would you say is the biggest difference between choreographing for college students and seasoned professionals?

I think for the students it’s just a matter of trusting their own artistic identity. They haven’t had that long to forge their own artistic identity and their own movement quality, and I think they’re not used to relying on that and capitalizing on the individuality that they bring to a piece. That’s the biggest difference between so called seasoned professionals and students. I chose these dancers for the piece because there was something about their individuality that appealed to me and that fit right in with what I wanted to do.

What can you tell me about the dance sequences in the piece?

It’s mostly group dances onstage, but there are pas de deux that happen in the audience. What I wanted to set up is the protagonist, named Emily, goes on this journey as cliché as that sounds. So, I have her travelling around the auditorium and ultimately coming onstage to join the other dancers at the end. So, it is mostly group dances and the transitions, I hope, are seamless because as a director that is what I really work hard at is making things flow naturally. I tell the dancers it’s like these Italian road bikes are made really well and the way you see the craftsmanship is the links between the tubes where all the ornamenting is so, I go for that. I hope it flows and if it doesn’t there is still work that needs to be done.

What kind of atmosphere are you trying to create for the audience?

I would say it runs the gamut it terms of emotions. I do like psychedelic especially in the theater, but then there are moments of darkness and at the end I have attempted to do kind of an epiphany.

Looking back on your career what made you decide to leave ABT and join Twyla Tharp Dance?

I met Twyla at ABT when she was hired as the artistic associate and as a result the company absorbed some members of her company. I was amazed to see these totally different dancers in our ranks. ABT had been a solely classical company and in comes Twyla’s group of free formed versatile dancers. Classically trained most of them, but they had something that I had never heard before called movement quality. It was just amazing to have that kind of exposure to a whole other vocabulary of movement. So, anyway Twyla saw me in class during my first tour and she came up to me after and gave me a bunch of corrections on grande jetes and ever since then she has always invited me to work with her. I was just so fortunate that someone took an interest in me and was able to take my training as a classical dancer and extend it into something a little more accessible. Which is what I love about Broadway because you access a whole other audience.

What was the hardest part of transitioning from classical ballet to Broadway?

I don’t think it was hard at all. Working with Twyla on Movin’ Out I just felt at home and I felt like I had a role that was kind of tragic and I loved it. I mean it wasn’t Tommy Tune’s Broadway we were in. We weren’t in tap shoes and sequin vests. My character in Movin’ Out was a mix of Michael Jordan and Bob Dylan and it was a role I could really relate too. I would say it’s more difficult leaving Broadway. For me it’s the ultimate way to really work on your dancing. You have the same thing to do every night and you really get to refine it and really get into the role. It’s fantastic!

How was Twyla’s Broadway work different from what other choreographers were doing at that time?

What Twyla brought to Broadway it was she calls deep dancing. You are basically telling the story through the dancing and very seldom is that done. And it is not done as extremely as it is done by Twyla. I think she crafted a story that was relatively easy to follow, but for me was challenging to execute. Her trust in dancing to tell a story to a Broadway audience is the main thing I think she brought to the industry.

What are some of the lessons she has taught you as an artist?

I’ve learned from her to take no short cuts in the work that you do. I’ve learned to always keep it interesting for yourself. I’ve learned never to keep a regular rhythm when you dance. And I am still learning. There’s a new lesson basically everyday with Twyla.

This Q&A was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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About kddance

I am a dance fanatic living in Dallas, TX. Not only do I teach dance but I also love writing about it. My love for dance started at the age of six when my mom signed me up for my first dance class. I have training in ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, modern and acrobatics. In college I minored in dance and majored in journalism. I have had articles published in Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher and the Dance Council of North Texas' DANCE publication. Let me share my stories with you.
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