Putting dance students through their paces

THEATER

`Lion King' supervisor brings her experience to bear at her alma mater

Theater Column

September 08, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

On a warm afternoon at the end of the first week of school, 25 dance students executed perfectly synchronized leaps across the sunlit studio at the Baltimore School for the Arts. In dance lingo, they were performing grand jetes. But it didn't take a leap of the imagination to see them as a graceful herd of gazelles in The Lion King.

The comparison came to mind because the students were attending a master class taught by Rachel Tucker, a 1986 School for the Arts graduate and dance supervisor of the touring production of The Lion King that ended its run at the Hippodrome Theatre on Sunday.

Before Tucker put the students through their paces for two strenuous but exhilarating hours, she told them that the training she got at the school was college level. She then joined them in a warm-up that included holding a stock-still pose on their toes - a pose none of them broke.

"Oh, I love you guys!" she proclaimed when she let them set their heels down. "My goodness! Very impressive." They were phrases repeated several times throughout the afternoon by Tucker, who danced in the original Broadway company of The Lion King and whose credits also include a stint as a Radio City Rockette.

"There's a funny thing that happens when guest teachers come in. They'll be working on the same core things, but the student hears it a little differently," explained Norma Pera, head of the dance department. "It's like a present - they know if they work hard, something will open up."

As the class progressed, Tucker led the students in increasingly complicated combinations, at one point demonstrating a double pirouette with one leg at a right angle. This feat left a number of students with their mouths hanging open and prompted Pera to remark, "She doesn't flinch. ... She's doing all this like - no effort."

"It's all because of you, Norma," Tucker kidded her former teacher. "All those sweet memories."

When Tucker began to combine all of the choreography she had taught the students, she explained, "With all the stuff going on in the world today, I decided to do something [that shows] how the walls feel like they're closing in on you."

She then instructed the students to add some abrupt head turns. "Look around as if you're seeing devastation all around," she said. Suddenly movements that had suggested gazelles turned into the gestures of a startled, even shocked, citizenry.

Anna Rammelkamp, a 17-year-old senior who spent the summer studying ballet, said she enjoyed returning to modern dance. And, she added, "It's nice to be taught by somebody who's been here ... and went off and did something good."

Junior Jacqueline Green, 15, beamed when Tucker used her to demonstrate a point. "I can tell she loves to dance," Green said afterward. As to being taught by an alum, "It's like, ooohh - that could be me next time!" she said.

For Green, Rammelkamp and the other students, Tucker's class was a way to jumpstart the school year. For Tucker, it was a fitting farewell to her hometown as The Lion King tour set off for its next stop.

With The Lion King no longer in residence, the Hippodrome is gearing up for its new season. Potential subscribers are invited to test-drive the theater's seats from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow. Theater staff will be on hand to help patrons try out available seats in various locations and to answer questions about the subscription season, which begins Oct. 25 with a revival of Evita. For more information, call 800-343-3103 or visit www.broadwayacross america.com.

Speaking of seats at the Hippodrome, there will be 38 fewer when the subscription season opens next month. That's because a row is being removed from the front of the balcony. "Because of the historic nature of the theater and the terracing that exists in the balcony, it's a little tight up there. The ... tightest was the first three rows," Hippodrome executive director Marks Chowning explained.

Told that many patrons have complained to this critic that almost all of the seats in the refurbished theater are too tight, he said, "If we ended up taking out four rows of seats in the orchestra and trying to re-space all that, you look at it on a weekly basis and it cuts a substantial amount out of the gross potential. ... You get to the point of a diminishing return, a la what happened with the Mechanic. If you take out 200, 300 seats, all of the sudden your capacity is below 2,000, and the economics become a lot more challenging."

They have a word for it

Two area shows are on the Associated Press' list of 10 "intriguing" regional theater fall productions. Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play, opening tonight at Washington's Arena Stage, is described as "ambitious" and director Irene Lewis' production of King Lear, scheduled for Sept. 23-Nov. 6 at Center Stage, is called a "spare, streamlined version of Shakespeare's majestic tragedy."

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