Marin Independent Journal
By Rick Polito
The stage is bathed in black light when the DayGlo butterfly flutters across the stage in dance shoes. A black velvet bag crawls across the boards, with more neon shapes emerging from the negative chrysalis.
And the trio of Transamerica buildings are still waiting off stage, with the contortionist and the aerialist and the Russian dancer in the psychedelic skinsuit.
Life was simpler for Stephanie Barclay-Romano when she was choreographing Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire routines with her brother as a teen in Novato. Tying together musical comedy, showgirls and circus acts for “1906,” opening today in a Pier 39 theater space, makes the tango look like the Hokey Pokey.
“This show,” she says, sighing only slightly, “has everything.” In a way, Barclay-Romano has already done everything. Growing up through schools such as Marin Country Day School and the Marin Academy, the Santa Rosa choreographer marched from dance class to dance class and show to show.
“My mom made sure we did everything,” she recalls. As an adult, she’s returned DayGlo butterflies help tell the story of San Francisco’s history in ’1906.’ the favor, working with schools and children’s dance troupes to stage productions across the North Bay.
But “1906” is different. A production of Gregangelo Herrera’s Velocity Circus with lyrics by Mill Valley songwriter Rita Abrams, “1906” is billed as “a journey through the mythical city” and enlists 18 dancers, singers, actors and acrobats in artistic fantasy history of San Francisco. With comedy.
The acrobats know their arts. The dancers know their steps. Barclay-Romano’s job is to pull it together on a stage sized more appropriately for a kindergarten pageant than a Cirque du Soleil musical comedy.
She seems to be up to it. Four days from opening night, she stands notepad in hand, eyes in constant movement. The contortionists are warming up. The butterfly is on stage and the pair of infinitely flexible pre-teen aerialists are crawling in their blackout bag.
The artists are blocking out the “Utopia” finale, in the dark. Barclay-Romano is fixing blue splotches of tape on the stage to fix turning points and stops. She turns to the butterfly and says, “You don’t need to have your wings on right now.”
She climbs onto the stage to coax the cubist Transamerica showgirls into place — “You’re a little trio right over there” — and turns quickly to the contortionist. The lanky, impossibly limber young man has his petite partner pretzeled around his waist like a fashion accessory. Abrams looks on at how her story and songs are coming to the stage.
“ She’s got 18 artists to work with,” Abrams says, impressed with the choreographer’s ability to compose space and stage. “She was showing a black rapper how to move. How does she know this stuff?”
Barclay-Romano knows this stuff because she’s done so much of it. She grew up with ballet and every ethnic dance class she could find. She was in every show she could sign up for and has studied with the San Francisco Ballet School and the Oakland Ballet. She dances at corporate events and has laced on the tap shoes more than a few times.
The move into choreography was natural for her. She hasn’t hung up her dance shoes yet, but she’s spending more time in front of the stage than on it. “I own one formal tutu, that’s it,” she says, and laughs.
Nobody on the stage at Theater 39 is wearing a tutu at this rehearsal. The costumes for the finale are more abstract than that, the performers moving like psychedelic anatomic models. They just need to move around each other while avoiding the preteens spinning in the giant hoop suspended from the ceiling. The stuntwoman/acrobat in the giant angel wings edges cautiously across the stage. It’s getting crowded. There are nine performers sharing the space now, half of them sprouting wings or some Golden Gate/Bay Bridge appendage.
Barclay-Romano waves to the tech in the light booth to stop the music.
“This just has to be way faster,” she says, addressing the onstage assemblage.
The music starts again. The contortionists are crabwalking to the wings. Barclay-Romano looks concerned. “I don’t know if you have that much room,” she cautions them.
A few feet away, a stagehand is assembling a open metal cube that will spin one of the aerialists across the stage.
The rehearsal goes on. A Cirque du Soleil veteran has himself wrapped in velvet ropes, suspended from the ceiling. Barclay-Romano eyes the height and looks back to her notepad. The Russian dancer is spinning a ribbon on the end of a short stick. He’s “water.”
“Watch out for the angel and the stick,” Barclay-Romano cautions the butterfly.
This is actually one of the easy acts,” Herrera whispers in an aside.
They run “Utopia” from the top. The aerialist girls crawl out of their bags, emerging into the black light. The Transamerica buildings strut on stage. The “water” flows in ribbons. The angel flexes her wings.
It’s coming together.
But Barclay-Romano is on stage, adjusting angle and posture for the final pre-curtain postcard pose. Between the circus acts and the dancers and the singers — who aren’t even on stage yet — there is a lot of composition, especially when the only light is black light the edge of stage lost in DayGlo blur.
The choreographer likes what she sees. The third Transamerica headpiece peeks through the expansive angel wings, the butterfly flutters to still. Nobody has anybody’s feathers in her eyes.
She turns in place and faces the Russian dancer.
“Vladimir,” she says. “What are we going to do with you?”