With the jangled ‘one and-a two and-a’ rhythm of ragtime waltz, Emma Palmer led her partner around the room. If you’re not familiar with the conventions of dance, this isn’t a woman’s role. While she was a classically trained ballerina in a previous life and picked up ballroom dancing quickly, her partner often stumbled over the routines, all two-left-feet. But the pupil was her co-star and as actors their performance had to convince people they were adept as Fred and Ginger. Rehearsing for a play can be a delicate dance, but when Justin Stewart Cotta was finally able to ‘take the lead’ on the opening night of Syncopation they knew they’d accomplished a mighty feat.
“I was learning a new form,” said Palmer, “but learning the steps and the routines was easier because I’ve got that (dance) background. But the other actor in the play isn’t a dancer, so for him it was a real challenge; he had to basically learn an entirely new craft in order to play the role.”
The play is set long before teen idol hysteria and insalubrious rap music, but the music with an off-kilter rhythm marked the beginnings of cultural change. The show evokes 1912 New York where expression was becoming more important and new jazz styles were invented. And to showcase the dance of the time, a crucial element to the story is of course, the dance.
Emma Palmer plays Anna, a young Catholic seamstress. A girl, it goes, is drawn to the optimism of cultural change and responds to a want-ad “to dance with royalty”. As the second time Palmer’s toured the country in this role she’s well versed with its intricacies and the historical period it’s set in.
“The whole thing’s set to the backdrop of the industrial revolution and New York was a really exciting place at the time because it was growing at a rapid pace. There was new music emerging from composers like Gershwin, and a new form of dance. The people who made it famous are Vernon and Irene Castle, and they are, I suppose, the two people that Henry and Anna base themselves on as they embark on this journey of discovery.”
With musical styles like the Foxtrot, Tango, and Ragtime all ‘off the beat’, it sounded vastly different to what was around. As a title it’s a pretty good allegory for the characters trying to do something different in a slowly changing world.
“They’re both kind of offbeat characters. The thing we have to keep reminding ourselves when we’re doing this play is it’s set in a period of time where behaviours were very different to the behaviours of people now and the conventions and expectations on you from society are so much more intense.
“They’re going against what’s socially acceptable. So the title has resonance on those levels as well because they’re not sticking to the beat, they’re definitely veering off the path.”
And it may just be a journey for the play’s actors themselves. Where most people would despair at learning steps with sometimes fumbling co-stars, Emma looks at it as a tune-up: “It’s just about patience and helping them out as much as you can.”
Coming back to dancing has been an interesting experience for the now-actor. She was heavily involved in classical ballet until the age of 15, spending almost as much time at ballet school as she did in academic classes.
“I’m so grateful for having that experience because it’s come in handy on a couple of occasions, and most noticeably in this play. I grew in all the wrong directions basically to become a classical dancer,” she laughs, “so I started acting more and more and then dancing less and less. But I think it’s something that’s a bit like riding a bike.”
And it’s lucky, because there’s a lot of dancing in the performance. Playwright Allan Knee (Return To Wonderland) has integrated it so the narrative elements and the dance rely on one other. With only the two actors performing it’s a tough gig but effective.
“What he manages to achieve so brilliantly is he’s integrated dance into the story. And dance becomes another form of expressing their journey, so every time we dance during the play we tend to end up somewhere different to where we began. It’s always important when you’re integrating something like that, that it has to be really critical to the storytelling, and I think that’s what Allan managed to achieve quite wonderfully.”
And the play’s also been backed by some formidable support from director Stephen Lloyd Helper. He directed Café Rebetika! which has been successful in Sydney and Melbourne, and on Broadway, Steve’s production of Fiddler On The Roof was nominated for the Best Revival Tony Award. Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the piece de resistance of his work if you will, is among the 30 longest running Broadway musicals of all time.
“I won’t lie to you, I didn’t necessarily realise those things when I started working with Steve and then I slowly but surely came to the realisation that he’s achieved so much, but it was self evident when I started working with him just how much he knows about this particular form.”
“He’s definitely an eccentric character but we’ve known each other now for 18 months and I’ve got a real soft spot for him, I love working with him,” she giggled. The cast seems to have adequately preserved a slice of 1912 Manhattan, dancing shoes and all.
BY BELLA ARNOTT-HOARE
Syncopation plays at The Clocktower Centre on Friday April 20 and Saturday April 21. For more information visit www.clocktowercentre.com.au