A Portland theater director choreographs a dance piece for philistines (or just Gnarls Barkley fans).
By Will Grunewald[N]eed to find Celeste Green in a crowded, hipster coffee shop? Just look for the girl with blue-green hair, she says. Green (or Celeste! as she styles it, with the exclamation point) is co-founder and executive director of the Portland theater outfit Cast Aside Productions. Since launching in 2013, Cast Aside has staged shows that “vary from high class to dark and edgy to weird and hilarious.” For this season, Celeste! conceived of and choreographed Just a Thought, a “rock ballet” set to soul-hop duo Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 platinum album St. Elsewhere. (Remember when you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing “Crazy”? It’s that one.)
So you’re a Gnarls fan?
I really am! St. Elsewhere is one of my favorite albums ever. I used to have a long commute from Kennebunkport to my day job in Portland. I listened to the album on a loop in my hatchback, which had a decent sound system that allowed me to hear the layers of detail in the music.
That’s when you thought up a rock ballet?
Well, I love choreographing musical theater, but I’d had a lot of dance training at the beginning of my career, so I kept thinking about how I could marry the narrative quality of musical theater with the expressiveness of dance. On that album, all the songs flow together beautifully. I realized that there’s a strong narrative already built in, so I just started thinking about ways to personify the story through different kinds of dance.
It won’t just be ballet, then?
We’re weaving several different dance styles together, which isn’t uncommon these days with contemporary dance. You can throw every style into a blender. So we’re using elements of ballet, jazz, and hip-hop — with some tap thrown in just because I like the rhythm, and there are a lot of great rhythms on the album.
So the styles serve different purposes?
Absolutely. Anger, strength, and fury are strong hip-hop moves. Helplessness and isolation are great for ballet. And the staccato of jazz gives a nitpicky, perfectionist feeling.
How does all that translate into storyline?
The main character starts as a girl and becomes a woman. The story is about how she grows with depression, how she forms a bond with it that undermines her ability to relate to other people. So throughout the show she interacts with three dancers who represent different aspects of depression, like perfectionism, that weave in and out of her life. She’ll go to work, for instance, and something goes wrong and she’s criticized, and these three characters of depression show up again.
Is there a real-life basis for this character?
In my mind, she’s hypothetical. I think it’s easier, though, for any artist to speak from her own experience. So I wouldn’t be shocked if someone asked, “That was just about you, right?” But in my head it isn’t. It’s just a young lady who hopefully anyone can relate to in some way.
But you’ve had some personal experience with depression?
Oh, yes. I think most people have. It really helped inform the choreographic vocabulary I could use — how I can use the dancers’ bodies to show these feelings. So it was really great fodder. When done well, a dance piece can make a person cry without delivering a single spoken word.
It seems like there’s some risk involved in doing something so interpretive.
Well, we had an opportunity in our season to do something original, and we said, “Let’s try this. Why not?” There’s some great dance programming around here, but nothing quite like this. In our company, we try to create musicals for people who don’t like musicals and dance for people who don’t like dance. Picking an album with a couple of well-known singles gives a non-dance audience a lot to relate to. It’s like a gateway drug.
Speaking of other programming, where does Cast Aside fit in the wider Portland theater scene?
I met my business partner, Dave Surkin, who’s our artistic director, while we were playing opposite each other in a community-theater production of Kiss Me, Kate. We both had professional backgrounds, and we saw all these people in the area who had professional-level talent, but it’s really tough to break in around here. There are plenty of theater opportunities in Portland, but few are professional and fewer offer payment. We wanted to kind of find that stepping-stone for local actors — a professionalized company that’s a definite level up from community theater, in terms of intensity and quality.
Do you have any favorite moments from this show?
My favorite moment happens during a track called “Transformer.” The central character learns to control all her negative emotions, so we’re going to show them falling into line with her by creating human versions of Transformer robots, stacking people on top of each other and coming up with choreography that moves them all in the same direction.
How are you pitching Just a Thought to potential ticket buyers?
I usually just say it’s a rock ballet about depression set to Gnarls Barkley’s best album. None of those words belong next to each other, so that’s usually enough to hook them.