THOUGH A LEGEND of late-night television, Johnny Carson has rarely won accolades for his work in the sphere of 20th-century dance. So it's surprising to hear Ballet of the Dolls artistic director Myron Johnson cite the Carnac the Magnificent's platform as a major influence. "When I was 12 and I saw Rudolf Nureyev on The Tonight Show wearing a fur and lizard boots," Johnson recalls, "I thought to myself, 'That's ballet!'"
It's no secret to Twin Cities dance audiences that Johnson has a certain fondness for all things glam. For some 15 years the John Waters of the dance world and his company have dolled up the classics, blending pop culture with the bigger-than-life aspects of ballet mythology. The Nutcracker starring Barbie and Ken? Now a holiday institution. A stage interpretation of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would have clawed each other's eyes out for the chance to star in Johnson's delightfully demented version. "I'm not interested in people paying $25 a ticket to see how hard it is to be a dancer," says Johnson, recognizing that audiences expect drama, romance, and diva attitude in addition to perfect pliés. "Why would you want to burst someone's bubble?"
And so it was probably inevitable that Johnson would take on The Red Shoes, a sort of morality tale about the dancer who wants it all but ends up with nothing. Opening this weekend at the Dolls' recently acquired Ritz Theater, an old movie house in northeast Minneapolis, the work largely eschews the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in favor of the extravagantly choreographed 1948 Michael Powell film starring Moira Shearer. The piece is the first to be presented by the Dolls at the Ritz, but Johnson prepared for a decidedly unritzy atmosphere. Right now the theater is an empty shell powered by generators, with renovations for the 250-seat house set for completion in early 2003. "We couldn't wait," laughs Johnson, who relishes the idea of returning to the neighborhood where he grew up.
"Your first reaction to the story is that it's old-fashioned and out of date," Johnson continues. "She gets involved with a man who runs a ballet company, so he's always controlling people. And she falls in love with a composer who is a bohemian and dreams of composing ballets with her as a muse."
But don't cry too much for this particular lost soul, as portrayed by longtime Doll Stephanie Fellner. "She couldn't have been all that naive going into the situation," Johnson continues. "She's got to have those red shoes and be famous. I think she has a bit of ego and quite a bit of vanity." The dancer's greatest folly might be believing that she can enjoy both greatness on the stage and a rich life out of the spotlight--competing desires that lead to her unseemly doom.
Melodrama aside, some aspects of the story transcend make-believe. "This girl is given the ultimatum of being a dancer or having a life, and she's torn between the two," says Johnson, warming to the personal side of the subject. "I've discussed this question at least five times with every dancer in the company. Even though they thought the movie was silly at first, they started thinking about it and found a connection. Everyone's struggling with how to be an artist and have stability.
"What do you do when you have to dance and not everyone understands that? Why work so hard and not get paid a lot? It's a short career and you have aches and pains. I'm surprised sometimes that there are still dancers around. But in my experience even if you say to them, 'You know you're not going to get a lot of money,' something moves them anyway. I suppose that will always remain a mystery."