Squiggle Room: Jackie and Lisa scratch out some steps.
Squiggle Room: Jackie and Lisa scratch out some steps.

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Jackie (Tyler Hanes) walks into Christopher d’Amboise’s The Studio looking like any other earthbound mortal—T- shirt, loose fitting pants, casually cocky attitude to match an attractively symmetrical face. He’s a performer, sure, but as he chats about his mildly misspent youth, he still seems one of us.

Then, all in one seemingly arbitrary instant, his head cocks sideways, an arm shoots skyward, an ankle stiffens, and he’s abruptly a creature apart. Jackie, it turns out, is a dancer, capable of moving with a graceful precision most of us can only aspire to.

Odd that his grace should be so unnoticeable until he turns it on. There’s a story about Marilyn Monroe—that she was window-shopping on Fifth Avenue one afternoon with a friend who was astonished that, though she was then at the height of her fame, no one seemed to be noticing her. Monroe allegedly said, “Oh, do you want them to?” then plucked a pair of sunglasses from her purse, slightly altered her posture, and was almost instantly mobbed.

A similar transformation happens in that moment onstage, irresistibly drawing the eye of everyone in Signature Theatre’s auditorium, and it makes what Jackie is saying faintly irrelevant—something about seeing Swan Lake as a child and wanting to be both the prince and the beautiful swan. The words he speaks are pleasantly crafted, but the movement is bliss. You want him to do something striking again. And, of course, he does.

The show he’s doing it in is a trifle contrived, but it’s built to showcase movement, so plot and chatter don’t really matter for a while. Jackie works for Emil (Stephen Lee Anderson), a dictatorial choreographer who’s been struggling to regain his creative, um, footing. When Lisa (Chryssie Whitehead) arrives, practicing a speech she hopes will set her apart, she’s about as unprepossessing as Jackie was when he first appeared. The speech is clumsy, her manner awkward; but when Emil says “dance me your name and where you come from,” she acquires that spark that Jackie showed us. Standing there, she’s just pretty. Speaking, she’s downright plain. But let the lady move, and she’s expressive enough not merely to land the gig with Emil but to make an audience root for her.

She and Jackie are thereafter the clay from which Emil tries to sculpt his masterpiece, and if the bumps that need smoothing aren’t terribly interesting—creative blocks, body aches, romance—the sculpting itself is entertaining. On the back wall of designer Chris Barreca’s mirrored studio space, Emil draws squiggles that approximate the music’s swoops and swirls. And then he bends Jackie and Lisa to the task of turning his squiggles three-dimensional. 

“Window,” barks the choreographer, “pretzel, jack-in-the-box,” and as the dancers make those words kinetic, a ballet takes shape.

Christopher d’Amboise, who wrote, directed, and choreographed The Studio, knows a little something about the terpsichorean milieu he’s recreating here for theatrical consumption. His father is legendary dancer/teacher Jacques d’Amboise, his mother celebrated ballet soloist Carolyn George, his sister Charlotte a Broadway hoofer who’s arguably the Gwen Verdon of her generation.

That the onstage environment should feel authentic is perhaps to be expected from a member of this clan, and if the plotting owes a debt to such romantic dance sagas as A Chorus Line, The Red Shoes, and Turning Point, well, does anyone really want jetés served up with anorexia and bloody toeshoes? The Studio doesn’t go anywhere particularly daring, but it’s clever and engaging, and it dances its way to its final fade with spunk enough to charm most viewers who aren’t committed balletophobes. Along the way, it even finds its own moments of grace.

“Dancers are above gravity,” growls Emil, by way of telling Lisa to keep her eyes up. “If they touch the floor at all, it is only because they choose to.”

Silly, of course—but you watch them leap and bound and float, and damned if it doesn’t briefly seem plausible.