Dancers don’t talk,” says the arrogant but brilliant choreographer, basically telling a questioning young hoofer to zip it. But “The Studio,” a play about choreographing a dance written, directed and choreographed by Christopher d’Amboise, very much wants to talk about dance and the agonizing process of artistic creation. Predictably, much of the dialogue comes off as a torrent of near-cliches, but even if d’Amboise has a less-than-firm grip on the theatrical form, “The Studio” has enough sincerity — and enough excellent dancing — to overcome the rawness of its characters and the hesitations of its narrative.
In the world premiere at South Coast Rep, Terrence Mann — Broadway’s original Javert in “Les Miserables” — plays the choreographer Emil, a genius artiste with a European accent and a perfection problem. Once the toast of the dance community with his inventive early works — titled “Tightrope” and “Pretty Ugly” — he is now the stuff of legend, having disappeared for the past dozen years after failing to finish his dance set to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
In this three-hander, Emil is joined by two “movers,” whom he guides in the formation of his new work: Jackie (John Todd), Emil’s longtime lead who knows the choreographer’s secrets, and Lisa (Nancy Lemenager), the awestruck and resolutely insecure dancer who learns to resist asking too many questions.
In the early scenes, as Emil attempts to get started with the new piece — “It is about finding a spark, before you can have fire” — he amusingly throws out a series of suggestions for the dancers to embody: corkscrew, washing machine, sticky feet, flying nun. He tries to find the right sequence of movements to match the ever-more-elaborate graphs he creates to visualize the structure of the music.
These early scenes give us a view into the mysteries of choreography, and while they’re undoubtedly manufactured, or at least exaggerated, they ring true as a theatrical expression of the process. These scenes also are highly entertaining, as the talented Todd and Lemenager, both veterans of Broadway’s “Movin’ Out,” contort themselves into odd and imaginative positions.
The story that develops is less odd and imaginative, and thus its contrived qualities can be more bothersome. Jackie and Lisa have an affair, which seems less a narrative imperative than a convenience, a means to air the full depth of Lisa’s insecurities about her talent and to hear some backstory from Jackie’s perspective.
Meanwhile, Emil struggles more and more with his dance, creating endless variations and heading pretty predictably toward a conclusion that will pit his fears and neuroses against his genius.
D’Amboise continues to throw out lots of lines about art that feel selected from self-help guides –“It’s not the doing, it’s the deed”; “The edge — the only place where anything worthwhile happens” — or that sum up the internal battles that must be fought: “If I go for it,” Lisa wonders aloud, “will he be there?” And while the commanding Mann proves capable of making Emil’s bombast real, the purely spoken scenes have an air of phoniness lurking, a fact that is perhaps more noticeable here, in a play largely about truth in art.
While the lines and the acting sometimes feel canned, there’s a decided integrity in d’Amboise’s writing and directing. Like Emil, he doesn’t want his work to be too simplistic, and thus the flailing of the story has something deeper in it: an admirable desire to resist pat resolutions. What’s more, he doesn’t resort to gimmicky stagecraft, another potential temptation. Christopher Barreca’s set is graceful in its restraint, a series of mirrors that can be transparent or reflective depending on the immediate need.
Fortunately, d’Amboise has an ace in the hole: the dance itself. For while the conclusion is a bit pat, it’s also fitting and affecting. In the end, the dancers do in fact stop talking, and they dance. “The Studio” is ultimately successful because all the talk manages to make that final dance more beautiful.