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John Selya Tackles Tom Stoppard And Pink Floyd For SMU’s Spring Dance Concert

by Danielle Georgiou 24 Mar 2015 4:27 PM

It’s not like that’s a challenge or anything – taking on Dark Side of the Moon as re-conceived by intellectual playwright Tom Stoppard for a BBC radio play, and making it into a dance piece.


Darkside (in rehearsal); Photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University

Second up in our three-part series of interviews with the choreographers for Southern Methodist University’s 2015 Spring Dance Concert is visiting artist-in-residence John Selya, who will be premiering his new work, Darkside.

Based on the Tom Stoppard BBC radio play of the same name, Darkside was Stoppard’s “adaptation” of Pink Floyd’s album, Dark Side of the Moon — although Stoppard said he didn’t try to make his story into the album “writ large,”  but “invented a little story in the spirit of the album,” taking cues from the music.

Thus, Selya will bring a visual element to what has been a solely auditory work. The piece centers on a character named Emily, an inquisitive philosophy student who sets out on a journey to decipher the teachings of her professor and fulfill her destiny. Classically trained in ballet, Selya has danced numerous principal roles with American Ballet Theatre and Twyla Tharp Dance and is a veteran of several Broadway productions, including Tharp’s Movin’ Out, for which he received a Tony nomination in 2003.

His tackling of Stoppard is a bold move as Stoppard’s plays are known for a very specific aesthetic:  They’re highly verbal, intellectual and have a visual flair. He typically brings fresh energy to his characters and a twist or two in the action. All this creates a great sense of play between association and disassociation, attachment and detachment. In dance, that is not always the easiest concept to get across. So, it will be interesting to see how Selya translates this into movement.

How did you first find your way into dance, and is there one pivotal moment when you knew that dance would be your career?

JSI grew up in New York City and found my way into dance through my older sister who was performing with the New York City Ballet in their Nutcracker. I knew that dance would be my career when I started being recognized by my teachers at the School of American Ballet (ABT).

When did you begin the transition from dancer to choreographer?

JSI have always been and still am (believe it or not) both a dancer and choreographer. I started choreographing my second year at ABT. I had access to the best classical ballet dancers in the world and Baryshnikov had an annual choreographer’s workshop. He encouraged dancers in the company to try their feet at choreography.

And I would say you definitely dipped a toe or two in, and have been very successful. Has your experience working in the theater, as well as the dance world, influenced your choreographic process?

JSHmm . . . I guess by trying to get rid of the sterility and pretense that is so prevalent in the “dance world.” In theater, I find much, much, less pretense and there is usually more realism.

What tools/techniques have you utilized both in the creative process and in setting this work to pull out the “actor” from these dancers?

JSOnly the dancers can really answer that. And you’ll just have to see the show to find out.

What inspired you to adapt Tom Stoppard’s Darkside into a movement piece?

JSI had been listening to the play over and over and over again. I found it infinitely interesting and I just kept getting visions of a dance theater piece. Those visions wouldn’t relent, so I decided to try to make those dreams a reality.

The dancers will utilize the entire theater for this piece—they will be both on stage and in the house. Does this mean there is some audience interaction with this piece?

JSI really hope there is.

How has your experience been working with the students at SMU?

JSEducating, sometimes painful, always fun.

For what it’s worth, Aardman Animation (of the claymation Wallace and Gromit films) made a three-minute trailer for the BBC radio version of Stoppard’s Darkside: