Backstage: At Synetic, learning the Lindy hop for the sake of Shakespeare

January 7

To the regular Lindy hoppers at the Jam Cellar dance night in Columbia Heights, the new odd couple was easy to spot. She was 40ish and European — Russian, maybe? — and he was her quick-on-his-feet, much younger partner. That they could dance was obvious, yet they were struggling a bit with a basic rock step.

The mystery couple turned out to be Synetic Theater choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili and actor-dancer Alex Mills, out on the town on a clandestine swing-dance mission to learn the Lindy hop and brush up on their Charleston before staging a 1920s-inspired production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

“People kept telling us, ‘You guys are picking this up so quickly,’ so finally we had to tell them why we were there,” Tsikurishvili recalled.

The results of their reconnaissance trip will be onstage Thursday night, when Synetic opens the 10th installment of its “Silent Shakespeare” series — ­dance-theater productions that convey stories through movement and music, without any of the Bard’s dialogue. On one hand, the setting feels calculated to capitalize on the “Gatsby” craze, but it’s also a choice that makes artistic sense for the troupe. Irina and her husband, Paata Tsikurishvili, who directs the show, have long been influenced by the aesthetic of silent films — particularly the comedic mime work of Charlie Chaplin — and they knew setting a show in the ’20s would open up new possibilities when it came to choreography.

But first Irina, who stars as Viola, had to get Lindy hoppin.’


Irina Tsikurishvili stars in “Twelfth Night” at Synetic Theater, part of the Silent Shakespeare series. (Koko Lanham)

“Swing dance and the culture of the 1920s is new for me, but I had so much fun doing research,” she said. In her native Georgia, Tsikurishvili trained at the State Choreographic Institute, a school that has turned out world-renowned ballerinas. What impressed her most about the amateur dancers at the Jam Cellar — a Tuesday night gathering held at the Josephine Butler Parks Center in Northwest — was that their abilities matched their enthusiasm.

“They were dancing so freely and so beautifully. I saw so many beautiful moves,” Tsikurishvili said. “You really can learn from unprofessional dancers.”

She also picked up steps from YouTube videos and watched multiple “Great Gatsby” film adaptations. When she saw a particular sequence she liked, she would set up her iPhone and record herself imitating it. Then, at the Synetic studio with her longtime partner Ben Cunis, she’d rewatch the videos and try out the steps. What audiences will see, especially in the closing nuptial dance party, is a variation of the Charleston, infused with occasional Lindy hop steps and some acrobatic lifts that you certainly would not have witnessed at a 1920s dance hall.

“It is still the Charleston, but I have reimagined it a bit,” Tsikurishvili said.

Arms will still be swinging and knees will still be torquing sideways to a 4/4 count. A distinctly American dance, the Charleston probably originated off the coast of South Carolina and on Georgia’s sea islands. In 1923, a male chorus sang and danced to James P. Johnson’s syncopated ragtime hit “The Charleston” on Broadway, in a musical called “Runnin’ Wild,” and without the aid of the Internet or the Video Music Awards, a worldwide dance craze was born.

As a choreographer, Tsikurishvili often integrates ballroom movements into Synetic’s shows. In last year’s “The Three Musketeers,” for example, she played a rogue assassin who led her partners in a stealthy, steamy fusion of the tango and the paso doble. But those are dances she knows well. This time, she was challenged to learn by being led, and then reversed positions to teach cast members.

“When I was at the club, this old man said, ‘I want to dance with you.’ I was like, ‘I’m not a swing dancer,’ ” Tsikurishvili said. “But he insisted. I was not able to do any feet work. He was spinning me like crazy every second. I couldn’t do any rock steps. He said I was dancing very well, but I was really fascinated by how guys learn to do all these steps. Slowly, I began to understand. But I need to practice this. I am definitely going back.”

After the run of “Twelfth Night,” that is.

Songs of ‘The Tempest’

Last year, Synetic’s addition to the Silent Shakespeare canon was a waterborne rendition of “The Tempest.” No local companies are tackling that maritime play this season, but if you can’t go another year without hearing Ariel’s ethereal ballad “Full Fathom Five,” head to the Washington National Cathedral this weekend. The District’s Folger Consort is teaming up with Philadelphia’s Tempesta di Mare orchestra to present “Brave New World: Music of the Tempest.” The program features soprano Rosa Lamoreaux and baritone William Sharp performing what may be the oldest surviving music from Shakespeare’s 1611 play: the songs and incidental music from Thomas Shadwell’s 1674 staging. They were written by three composers who never became big names, but for early-music fans and theater buffs who would like to imagine how the play was produced just after Shakespeare’s day, this is your chance.

‘A total technology failure’

Last weekend at Signature Theatre, there was very nearly an unamplified, generator-lights-only production of the musical “Gypsy.” At 10 a.m. Sunday, the theater’s security company notified production manager Michael Curry that the power was out. He called managing director Maggie Boland, who was home without Internet service, waiting for Comcast to show up.

“It was a total technology failure of a day,” Boland said, in the aftermath of a 30-hour odyssey that could have been a financial disaster for the theater — but wasn’t, thanks to Dominion Virginia Power, an enterprising staff and some (mostly) understanding theater patrons. The lights came on an hour before the 2 p.m. sold-out matinee of “Gypsy” and two hours before No Rules Theatre Company’s 3 p.m. staging of “Late: A Cowboy Song,” in Signature’s smaller theater. Whatever caused the power outage seriously messed up the theater’s servers, however: Without an Internet connection, Signature had no record of will-call tickets, which had been sold through Ticketmaster.

“In a classic the-show-must-go-on move, we decided to just let everybody in,” Boland said. “For once, the small size of our theater was an advantage.” Patrons who had printed tickets were seated first, followed by the (mostly) obliging people who had bought tickets online or by phone. The No Rules production, which was less than half sold, was treated as general admission.

Once the matinees were underway, Shannon Reynolds, Signature’s patron services manager, was able to contact Ticketmaster and get a list of patrons for the 7 p.m. show sent to her Gmail account. Everyone then scrounged for enough nickels to print out the list at the Shirlington library next door. From 5 to 7 p.m., a team of interns and box office staffers wrote out passes with each patron’s name and seat number.

“It was funny reassuring audience members that yes, this will actually get you into the theater,” Boland said.

What Signature couldn’t do was sell obstructed-view rush tickets or take credit cards at the bar. Boland stuck around so that if any patrons were unhappy, “there would be someone to yell at.” But by evening’s end, everything was coming up roses.

“The reigning opinion was, ‘Oh, that show was great,’ ” Boland said. As for the box office staffers, they may start printing out Ticketmaster seat lists the night before every show, just in case.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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