Since there are currently no dance performance going on around town due to COVID-19 I wanted to draw attention to the local dance organizations who are using online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube channels to connect with new and established audiences by offering free content within a specific time frame. To date I have viewed Bruce Wood Dance in Joy Bollinger’s Carved in Stone, Texas Ballet Theater’s (TBT) premiere of Ma Cong’s Firebird, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance in Joshua L. Peugh’s Aladdin and an excerpt of Jennifer Mabus’s Citizens of Loss for Avant Chamber Ballet.
So, ahead of TBT’s streaming of Carl Coomer’s Henry VIII May 8 and 9 at 8pm on the company’s YouTube channel @tbttheater, I wanted to revisit my conversation with Coomer about the making of this balletic work. Below is a copy of my Q&A with Coomer, which was originally posted on TheaterJones.com in February 2018.
Texas Ballet Theater brings all the glitz, glam and romantic intrigue of Carl Coomer’s new work Henry VIII to Bass Performance Hall this weekend.
Fort Worth — From the moment Carl Coomer stepped on stage in George Balanchine’s Apollo at Texas Ballet Theater’s (TBT) Portraits Ballet Festival in Dallas back in 2012, I was immediately drawn to his sculpted body lines and effortless classical technique as well as his chiseled good looks. But he also grabbed me emotionally in Evolving, in his first choreographic work, which was also being showcased that day. Since then I have watched Coomer grow in both artistry and stage leadership with prominent roles in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake (2014), Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort (2015), Jonathan Watkins’ Crash (2015) and Val Caniparoli’s Without Borders (2016), just to name a few. He premiered his second work the company entitled Clann back in 2014. On a more personal note Coomer is married to former TBT Leticia Oliveira and they have two children, the second of which arrived only two months ago.
For those unfamiliar with Coomer’s background, he hails from Liverpool, England, where he starting dancing at the age of 13. Soon after he was offered a scholarship to attend the Royal Ballet School under the direction of Dame Merle Park and Gailene Stock. After moving to the States, Coomer danced with Houston Ballet for six seasons before joining TBT in 2007. In addition to the works mentioned above Coomer has also performed in lead roles in Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker, Giselle, Dracula, Four Last Songs, Three Preludes, Five Poems, Mozart Requiem, Coppelia, Cleopatra, Peer Gynt, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
The last time I interviewed Coomer in 2015 for Petite Mort I asked him if we would be seeing more of his choreography in future and his response was “if Mr. Stevenson offered me another opportunity to choreography I would be more than willing to do it.” Well, here we are, three years later and Coomer is once again testing his choreographic methods in Henry VIII, a 55-minute ballet that focuses on the second Tudor Monarch’s relationships with his six wives as well his transformation from a viral young king to a sickly old man.
Set to Gustav Holst’s famous musical work The Planets, Henry VIII includes a custom-built, Tudor-esque set, dramatic period costumes and three-dimensional mapping and projections. Texas Ballet Theater will present Henry VIII along with Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, March 2-4, at Bass Performance in Fort Worth.
I caught up with Coomer in between rehearsals this week to ask him how he prepped for creating a ballet around such historical figures, his musical selection and choreographing sections for six very different female characters.
Carl Coomer: I knew a lot about Henry VIII anyway just from growing up in England and learning about him in school. But once a lot of the shows like The Tudors and Wolf Hall came out I just started watching everything I could to get a deeper understanding of his character. I also watched a lot of documentaries and a lot of books as well, with some being fictional and while others were just historical accounts on that time period. So yeah, I just gathered as much information as I possible could so I could build my own perspective on how to tell the story.
What were some of the highlights of this time period that you clearly wanted showcased in the ballet?
I really wanted to make it about how different each one of the wives is and how differently Henry VIII was with each one of them. Like he was together with Catherine of Aragon for so long (1509-1533) and they were in love, but it was definitely more of a political marriage. And then when Anne Boleyn (1533-1536) came along and that all happened their relationship was a lot more sensual and sexual and he was really seduced by her. And then with Jane Seymour (1536-1537) he was madly and deeply in love with her so, I just wanted to show how different each one of the wives is and how Henry VIII is with them.
In terms of the ballet’s structure is it set up like a story ballet or broken into specific vignettes?
I think it’s a bit of both because it is a story ballet so there is narrative happening throughout it. But at the same time having to tell somebody’s life story of 50 to 60 years in a about 50 minutes there is just no way you can include every little bit of information. So, I had to pick and choose what’s important and what to include so I decided to focus on the wives and each one of them has their own piece of music, which is the seven pieces of music from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Each wife has her own piece of music and then the seventh piece is saved for the battle scene. So, the ballet does contain these little vignettes in a way because of each wife, but then the passing of time can’t really be explained to the audience without the entire cast carrying on with the larger narrative. So, it’s a little bit of both. It’s a story ballet, but spilt up into seven sections.
Having yourself performed in so many story ballets, what was it like to create your own?
For me, and I think I have probably told you this before, the music always comes first. What I had to do was to decide which piece of music would go with which wife and how does all of their personalities match with each piece of music. And once I had that figured out I literally sat down and scoured through every second of the music while thinking how I could tell the story minute by minute through this music. And then I used the music to kind of create a script if you like in order to break everything down to tell the story. I don’t know how others do it, but this was the best way for me to do it.
What led you to Gustav Holst’s The Planets for the ballet’s score?
It was one of the first pieces of classical music that I had ever heard when I was really young and it’s a pretty epic piece. I went to an all-boys school and they made us sit down in the assembly hall and made us listen to some classical music and when they put The Planets on I was just wowed by it, especially the war and Mars battle scene. It was a lot of drums, and horns and violins and I just loved it so much that even after I started dancing it has remained one of my favorite pieces of music as a whole. Each section has something different to offer and I think with this story it just blends so perfectly.
I noticed that a couple of the wives are being danced by new-to-mid-seasoned company members such as Samantha Pille (second season) and Alexandra Farber (sixth season), while others will be danced by more seasoned pros like Carolyn Judson (15th season), Katelyn Clenaghan (14th season) and Michelle Taylor (12th). How did you go about selecting the dancers to play each one of Henry VIII’s wives?
Well, the number of years the dancers have been with the company never really crossed my mind. I picked who was going to do what based on what I thought would suit all the dancers movement-wise and personality-wise. I mean I know all these dancers really well, but I have known Carrie and Katelyn and Michelle for a lot longer than the others so I know what they’re capable of and what suits them. I mean Michelle, is a really good actress and she likes to be dramatic so I picked her for Catherine of Aragon. Now with Carrie you know she has done so many romantic leads like Romeo and Juliet and so Jane Seymour suited her really well. And Katelyn just dances with a whole lot of abandon and with Anne Boleyn I wanted a lot of running and jumping on pointe and I knew she would be down for that.