My first encounter with choreographer-director Joshua “Josh” Bergasse was when I did a phone interview a few years back to ask him about working with Indy native Cory Lingner, who at the time, was an ensemble member in “On the Town,” a 2014 Broadway revival that Bergasse choreographed and for which he was nominated for a Tony. So, when I heard that the Primetime Emmy-Award winning choreographer of the NBC hit TV series “Smash” was in Indy to set a piece on the Indianapolis Ballet for its “New Works” showcase, which opened Thursday and continues through Sunday at The District Theatre, I reached out for an interview.
Luckily, IB scrambled on my behalf to make it happen. Eventually, I did manage to sit down a few weeks ago in a conference room at IB’s downtown headquarters at Capitol and Michigan Streets with the engaging Bergasse to chat with him about his piece in “New Works” and his career in general.
At the onset of our conversation, we joked about how intrinsically Bergasse is tied to the Lingner family itself. As it turns out, besides working with Cory, it just so happens that his brother, Chris, a principal dancer with IB and one of its first company hires, danced in “Aspects of Andy,” which Bergasse choreographed for IU’s Ballet Theater in 2010 when Lingner was a student there. Now, how ironic it is that Chris Lingner is dancing in the same piece, but now as a professional, working again with Bergasse. To sum up his relationship with the brothers Lingner, Bergasse laughed when he said, “I love me some Lingners.”
Bergasse’s “Aspects of Andy” is part of a jazz-inspired presentation, featuring music composed by legendary IU Jacobs School of Music distinguished professor David Baker, who died in 2016. As an aside, I had the privilege of knowing Baker well, having produced a documentary about him for WRTV-Channel 6 during the early 70s when I was employed at the station as a producer-director.
Inspired by Baker’s music, “Aspects of Andy” is a story about a detective trying to solve a murder-mystery. Bergasse, whose specialty is jazz and musical theatre and whose style has been described as “classic Broadway charm,” said, “It’s reminiscent of the films of the 30s and 40s, with many of those filmed by RKO and MGM. It’s very noirish.”
I asked Bergasse, who described his influences as “The older generation — Jerome Robbins, Jack Cole, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Michael Kidd, Syd Charisse, and Fosse” about how he like working with the IB company. “I don’t really do that many ballet companies. I do go to different dance studios and workshops and things like that. What’s great about being here is that these are professional dancers. They are not students. There is a level of not only professionalism, but experience they bring to any piece. I feed on that. When we were working on this piece, which was originally set on students, it’s different now that we are setting it on professional dancers. They pick it up and adapt to the style quicker because they have many more years of experience. That energizes me because then I am able to look at them doing this choreography and say ‘Oh, they can actually do this better. I can make this better for them. If they move well, I can show them off better.’ They are not as timid. They are obviously respectful, but they bring more of themselves to the table because they are not afraid of doing stuff.”
Bergasse, whose mother was an actress and dance teacher in a studio she owned and operated, grew up outside Detroit, where he briefly attended Wayne State University. As a performer, he has appeared in the Broadway companies of “The Life” and “Hairspray,” and the national touring companies of “Hairspray,” “Movin’ Out” and “West Side Story.” He has also toured with the Manhattan Dance Project, West Coast Dance Explosion and Tremaine. Besides “On the Town,” he choreographed the revival of “Gigi” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which is currently on a U.S. tour. Most recently, he directed and choreographed the New York revival of “Smokey Joe’s Café – The Songs of Leiber and Stoller.” Bergasse also has a string of impressive Off-Broadway credits and has choreographed multiple segments for Fox Network’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”
As far as musical theatre students with whom he works frequently, I asked Bergasse what kinds of questions he is often asked. “They are curious about body lines and things like that. They also ask ‘What should I be working on? As it applies to ballet technique, I always tell them, ‘You can always get better.’ One of my favorite dancers in New York was a graduate of the ballet program at IU. She has fantastic ballet technique, so she is able to understand and adapt to all these different styles—body lines and styles. They also ask about the business. That’s the hard part—breaking in. Auditions are like dating. You don’t go on the first date thinking, ‘I’m going to get married.’ So, you don’t go to your first audition thinking, ‘I’m going to get a Broadway show.’ You go on the first date just hoping you get a second date. So, you go to your first audition just hoping you get a call back,” he stressed.
Wrapping up the interview and confessing that I was a die-hard “Smash” devotee, I asked Bergasse what the prospects were for a stage production of the TV show, to which he answered “They have wanted to do the Marilyn Monroe show within “Smash” for a long time, but they can’t quite get it off the ground.” When asked what it was like working on the show he said, “It was great. I got to do what I love to do and I had a giant budget for it (laughs) and I got to work with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, my favorite songwriters.”
When asked what the future held, Bergasse smiled broadly when he announced he was getting married the following week to Sara Merns, a principal dancer of the New York City Ballet. Following that, he said he is traveling to Australia to direct and choreograph a production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” When I inquired as to what show, given the chance, he would love to do, Bergasse, with no hesitation, affirmed “The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd,” saying, “I listen to show tunes on the treadmill and when I heard the score recently, I thought it would be neat to dig into this piece and do a non-traditional version of it.”
Finally, while pointing out that often times Indy residents need outside validation to help them appreciate what we have available to us, I asked Bergasse what he thought of the Indianapolis Ballet. “I think it is amazing that this company has started here. I think it is wonderful for Indianapolis. It’s great for dancers to have more professional opportunities because Lord knows, there is not enough. As far as ‘Aspects of Andy,’ this piece started in Indiana, so this is home-grown. It was created at Indiana University and set to David Baker’s music and it’s so different than other things. When you go to a ballet, you expect certain things, but you will not expect this and will hopefully enjoy it a lot. When we were coming in, Vicky (Victoria Lyras, founding artistic director of the ballet) was pointing out the nearby museum and the fact that IB’s home is right here, downtown, in the heart of the city. Of course, the ballet is near museums. That is the way it is supposed to be.”
“New Works” will include another piece featuring an Indiana jazz icon, as saxophonist Rob Dixon’s “Blues for Velez” will serve as the backdrop for choreography by Roberta Wong. The production will also debut choreography by IB Founding Artistic Director Victoria Lyras (“Caprice & Variations, Diana & Acteon Pas de Deux”) and IB Ballet Master Paul Vitali (“Take it from Tony”).
For tickets and more information about Indianapolis Ballet’s “New Works,” go to indyballet.org.