On the first day this year that Washington’s temperature hit 90 degrees, choreographer Christopher d’Amboise requested a bit of hot ballroom at Olney Theatre Center.
“Where are my tango people?” the choreographer shouted above the din of a busy rehearsal room. The cast and creative team were just two weeks away from the opening of “Evita,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical about Eva Perón, Argentina’s charismatic first lady.
“Oh, what a circus, oh, what a show,” narrator Che (Robert Ariza) had sung just a few moments earlier, and that’s more or less how this rehearsal was going.
In one corner, music director Christopher Youstra was at the piano running through notes with Rachel Zampelli and Nick Duckart, who star as Eva and Juan Perón. At what would be center stage, Jonathan Atkinson, playing tango singer Agustin Magaldi, was preening at his microphone, ready to belt out “On This Night of a Thousand Stars.” Slowly materializing in the middle of the room were four couples who looked not quite ready to rehearse the tango.
“Please sell me on this,” d’Amboise begged them. “We don’t have time to change it.”
Most tangos require the dancers to move as though their feet are tracing the outline of a square; they strut in straight lines and turn on right angles. But the dance that d’Amboise has created for “the night that Perón first met Eva” (as Che describes the scene) tracks in a circle.
“Take the most circuitous possible route to find each other,” director Will Davis instructed Zampelli and Duckart. “I want this to be like when Romeo meets Juliet.” The other couples began to swirl as if waltzing, but then executed angular, tango-like steps while the two lead actors locked eyes and slowly wove their way through the dancers and to each other.
“We aren’t really doing the tango here,” d’Amboise said later, during a break. “It’s an abstracted tango that directly relates to the story. What’s going on here is that [Eva and Perón] are negotiating the terms of their relationship.”
Connecting movement to plot is what drew d’Amboise to “Evita,” although he’s probably known in the dance world for everything but the tango. He’s the son of Jacques d’Amboise, the renowned New York City Ballet dancer and Kennedy Center Honors recipient. Christopher d’Amboise’s sister Charlotte has starred on Broadway in “Damn Yankees,” “Pippin,” “A Chorus Line” and other classic musicals. D’Amboise himself was a principal dancer at City Ballet, but also has a Tony nomination, more than 50 ballets and a stint as artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet on his résumé. In 2011, he and his wife, Kelly, moved to Fairfax County so he could take a teaching position at George Mason University. Both have gradually made connections to the Washington theater community. (Kelly is an assistant choreographer on Signature Theatre’s current production of “La Cage aux Folles.”) D’Amboise first worked at Olney in 2014 on the critically hailed football drama “Colossal.” “Evita” is his first local musical, and he hopes there will be many more.
“I’m interested in figuring out how we can use dance in the storytelling process,” d’Amboise said. “There seems to be a momentum in D.C. to do more dance in musicals, and I think I can contribute to that in a positive way.”
Many Washingtonians have thrown quarters in support of Brass Connection, a street band that often plays outside Verizon Center.
But recently, choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning threw her business card in the band’s bucket instead. Now the six-member group, including three trombonists and a sousaphone player, is gearing up to take the stage at the Lansburgh Theatre.
Bruning’s company, Chamber Dance Project, opens its third season Thursday at the Lansburgh, and Brass Connection will be providing accompaniment.
“This is just a very good thing for us and for D.C.,” said bandleader and percussionist Bill Banks, who moved the ensemble here from Charlotte, N.C., several years ago. The band will play New Orleans-inspired music for the dancers, past and current members of the Atlanta Ballet, the Milwaukee Ballet, the Washington Ballet and Philadanco.
In the weeks leading up to the dance concert, Brass Connection members have performed on corners near Dupont Circle, L’Enfant Plaza and the White House, wearing Chamber Dance Project T-shirts and passing out pamphlets advertising their collaboration. Rehearsals are going beautifully, Banks says, noting that this isn’t the first time they have performed for dancers.
“People come up and dance on the street with us all the time,” he said. “Just not at this level.”
The streets of Penn Quarter are often crowded with lanyard-wearing conventiongoers. To the list of sororities, doctors and bureaucrats who gather downtown for annual meetings, Washington can now add theater administrators.
This week, Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for nonprofit theaters, will be having its annual conference in Washington for the first time. About 1,100 people are expected, said Meghan Pressman, managing director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, who is chairing the host committee with Chris Jennings, managing director of Shakespeare Theatre Company.
It seems appropriate, Pressman said, to have opened the D.C. 2015-2016 theater season with the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and to close it with a national conference, both of which have put a national spotlight on Washington theater.
Representatives from 19 D.C. theaters, as well as Georgetown University, have been included in planning the conference. Events include a speech by playwright, actress and activist Anna Deavere Smith, meetings on Capitol Hill with members of Congress, and an opening-night party at Arena Stage.
“We’ve all worked together and gone to more meetings together than ever,” Pressman said. “We really do hope that this helps to strengthen connections in Washington’s theater community.”