Allen Knee's play Syncopation takes place in turn-of-the-century New York City. Henry and Anna have very little in common, but a shared desire to leave their dreary factory jobs leads them on an amazing journey together.
They aspire, and conspire, to become championship ballroom dancers.
The Savannah Stage Co. opens its second season March 21 with Syncopation, starring Bryan Pridgen and Amber Hancock. True to the fledgling organization’s manifesto, it’s an intriguing production, in that it’s one of the few contemporary romantic comedies to fully integrate dialogue and dance.
To maximize the impact of the alchemy involved, Savannah Stage invited choreographer Brea Cali to work on Syncopation. Cali, who recently relocated to the city after more than five years with a professional dance company in Kassel, Germany, welcomed the challenge to help develop Henry and Anna.
This isn’t Anything Goes, where the dance numbers are just scene-buffering set pieces. “I integrated the physicality of the characters with the text,” Cali says. “We really are trying to meld that whole world together. It’s a different approach to the creation and development of a piece. It was important to me that it almost comes out of nothing, and that they are moving and you almost don’t realize it. The whole thing is really organic and fluid.
“As it develops, it just sort of seamlessly happens. Because they become so much a part of the dancing, and it’s so much a part of them that it’s a natural transition.”
Both Pridgen and Hancock had previous dance experience, which was helpful. “It’s not about me coming in and saying ‘OK, I want you to do this,’” explains Cali. “I work with them, I don’t work on them. That’s much more interesting. It’s a new door that we’re walking into.”
Collaboration, innovation and experimentation are near and dear to the Pennsylvania native. During her time with Johannes Wieland’s dance company in Germany, Cali was constantly pushing—and being asked to push—the contemporary dance envelope.
“I was performing in between five and 10 productions per season,” she says. “The season ran 11 months, and each production had anywhere from 12 to 75 performances. It’s really part of a large theater. Not only did we have a dance company, we had an opera house, a drama house, musical theater and a large orchestra. This was unbelievable to me.
“And not that that doesn’t exist here; it absolutely does. But it’s a different system.”
Cali, who’d also been part of Texas’ Sandra Organ Dance Company, and the Detroit-based Eisenhower Dance Ensemble, says her experiences in Kassel awakened a desire to create movement from unexpected sources. “I try to find different people to collaborate with, in different ways,” she explains.
“For example, for once piece I collaborated with an illustrator. And out of that came a set, and a concept, and the costume design. She had never thought of incorporating it into the movement sphere.”
There are no limits in her world. “Sometimes it just starts with a process. I was very interested in subconscious human movement. So I put my performer in a room for an hour, and I said she couldn’t do anything. We went to six different locations like that. I pulled what she was subconsciously doing as a performer. She couldn’t fold laundry, or wash dishes, or read. And that’s how I developed the movement materials; I developed an actual dance out of that.”
Cali’s triumphs are all the more astonishing because she has been, since birth, severely hearing-impaired. She credits her parents with the encouragement and support she desperately needed.
“They were very adamant in that whatever I wanted to do, there was no reason I couldn’t do it,” Cali says. “They really pushed for that, and they pushed hard for that.
“Dancing came easy—I didn’t have to worry about as many things as I had to worry about at school. It came much more naturally to me, and I fell in love with it. And I wanted to do it for a living. I was never told that I couldn’t. That it wasn’t possible.”
Working with music sometimes presented a challenge, since there are certain frequencies and tones Cali cannot hear. “In Germany, we did a lot of productions with water,” she says. “So once there was water, I had to take the aids out.
“You learn to function. You just adapt your world to fit it. If I needed to hear a cue, and I knew that this was going to happen before the cue, then this was my visual reference. I was aware of what the space was. You become very peripherally aware. I’m hyper-aware of my world, not only dancing but also in person.”
She’s also hyper-aware of the delicate dance that goes on between a community and its creative core. In a few weeks, Cali explains, she plans to make a momentous announcement, one that will have a powerful impact on her new adopted city.
So why Savannah for this restless world traveler? She and her boyfriend settled in here about six months ago.
“We chose Savannah based on a mathematical algorithm,” Cali says.
“We looked at New York, Portland, Minneapolis, Austin. Really big creative cities right now. We were in Savannah for about six weeks and we fell in love with it. It was so refreshing to be in a city that was incredibly creative. And really ambitious in that creative aspect.
“I found everything in Savannah. And a dance scene definitely does exist here. It’s just a matter of expanding it, and expanding the vision of what that means.”