On Broadway and dancing up a storm Performer: Mindy Cooper is so busy with her stage career that even her husband has to make an appointment.

February 21, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Most Broadway actors and dancers spend more time in

unemployment lines than chorus lines. But not Mindy Cooper.

At least not lately, when the Baltimore native has been dancing in Broadway's hottest hit, "Chicago," by night and rehearsing the new Broadway musical "Titanic" by day.

"There have been a lot of days I go to a 'Titanic' rehearsal, go back and do the matinee of 'Chicago,' come back and finish the 'Titanic' rehearsal, and then do the evening performance of 'Chicago,' " Cooper said in a rare -- and hurried -- break from "Titanic" rehearsals.

And that's not all she's up to.

When she's not dancing on the deck of the Titanic or portraying a convicted Chicago murderess, she's been busy rehearsing "Thingsezisee'm/Degenerate Art," a multi-media dance piece that will be performed at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts tomorrow and Sunday.

This will be only the second time Cooper, who grew up in Pikesville, has performed professionally in her home town. The first was 10 years ago, when she danced in the touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance" at the Mechanic Theatre.

"Thingsezisee'm/Degenerate Art," which had its first full premiere at New York's Guggenheim Museum in December, is also a homecoming of another sort since it gives her a chance to work with her husband, David Grenke, a former principal dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Choreographed by Grenke and performed by his company, whose name is also Thingsezisee'm, the piece is based on the 1937 exhibit organized by the Nazis to show examples of the modern art Hitler deemed un-German.

Against a musical score that includes Bach and Tom Waits, three "degenerate" paintings -- by Otto Dix, George Grosz and Chaim Soutine -- come to life. Cooper's character is the German journalist Sylvia von Harden, who is the subject of a Dix portrait.

Cooper's schedule has been so crowded that Grenke, who appears in the piece together with his wife and seven other performers, had to make appointments to rehearse with her. "I see her less now than when I was on tour constantly with Paul Taylor," he says. "Our thing was, 'Great. You'll be off the road. We'll be together.' No."

But he adds, "She's doing some wonderful projects."

The most high-profile of those projects is the revival of the Kander and Ebb musical, "Chicago" -- a show so popular, Cooper had trouble getting tickets for her mother, Niki Fortunato, a retired English and drama teacher who helped spur her daughter's interest in theater by taking her to see the original production of "Chicago" on Broadway in 1975.

Cooper's life will be a little less hectic after today since this is her last day in "Chicago." It might seem odd that she is trading a major hit for the untested waters of "Titanic," a new musical -- score by Maury Yeston and book by Peter Stone -- which begins previews on Broadway March 27.

Cooper acknowledges, "I'm crazy to leave the big hit of the year, but this is a wonderful opportunity for me. I enjoy the creative process. 'Chicago' was a revival. There was a process, but not as integral as 'Titanic.' "

In addition, she is guaranteed to be on stage every night in "Titanic," unlike "Chicago" in which she is cast as a "swing" -- a performer who understudies the ensemble roles, in her case, six women convicted of killing their husbands.

As a swing, she frequently hasn't known until the day of the performance whether she'd be in the show. In one case, she even replaced an actress in the middle of Act One, when the actress succumbed to a coughing spell. "On the monitor, as she was trying to say her monologue, I could hear nothing but coughing. So she left the stage a blonde and came back a brunette," recalls Cooper, who says overall she has averaged about four performances a week.

In "Titanic," Cooper -- who has danced with Twyla Tharp, the Feld Ballet and the Kansas City Ballet -- will play, appropriately, a dancer who works as an entertainer on the ocean liner. Modeled after a real-life Titanic survivor named Dorothy Gibson, she will dance the lead in a ragtime number performed on the ship's deck.

She's also the show's dance captain, which means, she explains, "I keep the show clean. I put in new company members as people leave. If there are any problems, I fix the problems

along the way [and] keep it looking just as it did the first night."

In her contracts for both shows, 35-year-old Cooper insisted on having tomorrow and Sunday off to perform "Thingsezisee'm/Degenerate Art" at the Gordon Center. Her mother, who boasts, "I've seen everything she's ever done," plans to be in attendance both days.

Fortunato clearly remembers the day, two decades ago, when she and her two daughters saw "A Chorus Line" at the Mechanic Theatre. Though she had known for some time that Mindy wanted to dance professionally, on that day she realized Mindy understood the commitment her career would require.

"She didn't show much emotion until after the show," Fortunato says. "The audience was leaving and Mindy was sobbing. She wouldn't leave the theater. I said, 'Why are you crying?' and she said, 'It's so scary that this is what I want to devote my life to.' "

Although Cooper's current schedule is surely the envy of many out-of-work Broadway performers, she also knows how fickle show business can be.

"My mother once said to me, 'The ups must really be worth it, because the downs are so down.' You have to love this life," says Cooper, whose ups these days are higher than a tour jete.

'Thingsezisee'm/ Degenerate Art'

Where: Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow and 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $30

Call: (410) 356-7469

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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