Plays with Dolls

Since age seven, Ballet of the Dolls founder Myron Johnson has followed his passion for performance to ridiculous--and rewarding--extremes

"We left Ruby's and came [to the Loring Playhouse] and started doing serious avant-garde dance. It was not likable work and nobody came to see it. Now I've found the balance between art and entertainment."

 

In his latest creation, Hello Dali, Johnson has tried to craft a completely abstract piece that toys with reality in much the same way Dali approached his surrealist work. The dancers move through the sandbox as if they were emissaries from a dreamlike world. Although they move with high seriousness, their feet can't help but kick up the grains of this literal and metaphorical sandbox.

"As a kid, I saw Dali as a flamboyant character who really attracted me," Johnson starts, "but I was also afraid of him." Overcoming his initial intimidation, Johnson began to research the artist, uncovering many an unusual tidbit, including Dali's fixation on Jesus Christ Superstar. This despite the fact that his wife had an affair with the Broadway musical's lead ("She had to have Jesus," Johnson snickers). Johnson plays upon this piece of trivia by combining the Superstar score with some thoroughly dissonant 1930s avant-garde music and, of course, Barbra Streisand's full-throttle belting from Hello, Dolly! "It's a mind-reeling juxtaposition," confesses Johnson.

The Dolls are used to such seemingly nonsensical situations, and Johnson rewards their faith in his process by providing opportunities for individualism. "I used to power-trip, but now I give power to them. I say, 'This is the task, here are the steps that make up the framework, the rest has to come from you.'" Smith-Johnson echoes this experience with an observation on Johnson's evolving character. "He really has become very thoughtful. He motivates and he works so fast, like he has pictures in his mind."

"Life is short and so is your dance career," Johnson concludes, smoothing his Janet Jackson T-shirt. "I'd hate to be 45 and feel like something hadn't been fed [in my art]. That would be painful. It's simply not enough to do as you're told."

Of course, fights erupt and attitudes clash from time to time among the Dolls, as in any close-knit family, but Johnson sees these incidents as the logical outcome of a creative chemistry. He looks to inspiration from the spirits of dancers past, namely his icons Nijinsky, Pavlova, Duncan, and the great impresario Diaghilev. "They have something that connects right with me, the complete and total commitment. I don't mean sacrifice," Johnson explains a bit dreamily. "It's something about the inability to do it any other way."

And so the Dolls continue to do it Myron's way, which seems to work out well for everyone. With Hello Dali as the last Dolls production in the Loring Playhouse before moving to a temporary studio in Northeast, Johnson is dreaming a little bigger again. He awaits approval from the Dolls' board of directors to purchase and renovate the abandoned Ritz Theater on 13th Avenue Northeast, back in his old neighborhood. He imagines a grand chandelier hanging over the audience--a fantasy of elegance for this neighborhood of grain elevators and sports bars.

"It's funny that we're in our 14th year as a company, because it feels just like being a 14-year-old," he reasons. "We're eager, willing to take risks, and a little snotty. That's the Dolls."

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