It’s Lonely at the Top

I’ve been looking forward to publishing this piece for a while, since I remembered loving how it brought me into the story when I watched it at SHOUT! in 2013.  It’s even better now that I can see how skillfully Curtis and Elizabeth worked on their storytelling, making conscious choices about how specific to be with details and figuring out how to tell it all honestly through the blues aesthetic!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

C+E: The story of “Lonely at the Top,” which was our starting point, was originally supposed to be an exploration of a pair of performers and their relationship to fame and to each other. We toyed with the idea of Elizabeth’s character struggling with a real mental­physical issue, like depression or addiction. We ended up deciding that it wasn’t really THAT important to decide the “real” problem, but just expressing a real lack of zest/zeal/enthusiasm for the act of performing. She can still pull it together for the sake of being on stage, but “the thrill is gone,” as they say. She loves the accolades and adoration, but really despises herself. Curtis’ character, on the other hand, is the go ­getter of the pair, and the glue that really keeps them functionally together. He is the one who is on ­point and ready to go, both on stage AND off, and he wants Elizabeth’s character to be there with him, so he drags her reluctant self along.

By the time we had developed all of THIS, we decided ­ wouldn’t it be interesting if we could encapsulate the juxtaposition of this pair of performers’ on­stage presentation with their backstage struggles? So we shopped around for some music to transition us from on­stage to backstage, where we can be our “true” selves, and not the hams that we present to the crowd.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

E: I am a near constant listener to NPR while I’m driving. I heard this song [“Lonely at the Top,” Randy Newman] on one of their programs, and it just grabbed me. I had never heard it before. But I looked it up when I got home, and the lyrics really spoke to me. I haven’t had the personal experience of the lyrics ­ of really having “made it” financially but feeling terrible about my life ­ quite the opposite, in fact. But I knew I wanted to do a performance piece with it LONG before I pitched the song to Curtis. I wasn’t sure what format I wanted it to be, though ­ solo, partnered, or group. I kept the idea to myself for a moderately long time, so it was really refreshing to finally share the song and concept with Curtis so the piece could finally start taking shape.

C: The first time Elizabeth had me listen to the song, I thought it was just okay. But I REALLY loved the concept!

C+E: The other two songs (the tail­ end of “Sugar Blues,” Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the beginning of “Your Heart Is As Black As Night,” Melody Gardot) we picked excerpts of so we could set the stage for our offstage interactions. “Sugar Blues” seemed to be an appropriate showy ending, while the intro of “Your Heart Is As Black As Night” seemed to be an appropriate transition to a darker, more pensive mood. And finally…the most important part of the show…the applause track that takes up a bit of time toward the beginning. We knew we would be taking bows to our “adoring crowd,” but we didn’t want our real audience to be confused that we were doing an ending of something, and facing the “wrong way.” Hence, applause track.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

E: Since we were putting this choreography together truly for a presentation at BluesSHOUT!, we wanted to make sure it stayed as bluesy as possible. But I can’t get away from my ballet and fitness background, which always has me leaning towards strong lines and challenging moves. We actually had a running joke through the process of choreographing that I was just putting in planks for fun! (Really, I tried to have choices be character driven ­ and leaning on Curtis is a TOTALLY valid thing for my character to do!)

C: Suuuuuure…Anyway, I wanted to incorporate a lot of jazz­ type steps and jazz hands. I wanted to show the enthusiasm of the character, and I wanted to show what the performer ­pair WAS like when they were fresh. My posture was mostly upright.

E. Those strength moves I was choosing take a lot of good form and all, but I wanted to look really lazy and listless, so I ended up trying to have “terrible” posture and floppy arms much more than I’m used to.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?

C+E: The song came first, and we enjoy that about our partnership and our approach to dancing and teaching. We really try to pay as much attention to the music as possible. There is no movement or moment in any of the pieces we choreograph where it doesn’t honor or reflect something in the music. In this way, the song choice and the concept really mirrored each other quite directly. That said, we did decide on a few “moves” that would be cool/interesting that would showcase our skills in an expressive way as we were going through our listening process. As far as influences, we weren’t very deliberate about making sure to include or exclude certain influences of different styles of dance, as long as we were telling the story and being bluesy overall.

C: I must add that we (ahem; Elizabeth) tweaked and re­choreographed until the week before the performance.

E: And I will add, in rebuttal (thanks Curtis) that every change we made was AWESOME. Or at least better.

C: What? I didn’t say it was bad. I love the final product.

E: Good. As long as you’re not complaining. :­)