Serenade's Cast Gains from Experience

TAMPA, FLa. (April 21, 2010) -- Rehearsing with acclaimed stars and learning firsthand about their creative process are exactly why students come to the University of South Florida College of The Arts. In the past, actor James Earl Jones, jazz artist Chick Correa, choreographer Donald McKayle, and many others have taught master classes and held workshops. This year, USF's student dancers, actors and singers worked collaboratively with acclaimed choregrapher and director Bill T. Jones to present Serenade/The Proposition.


The production was a tremendous success. Marty Clear’s review in the St. Petersburg Times proclaimed, “For the modern dance aficionado, though, the lasting impact comes from the beauty of the dance itself and the nearly flawless performances by the student cast.”


Known for his stirring and complex works, Jones once again challenged conventions with Serenade/The Proposition, a work that brings the life and words of Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries together to ruminate on nature. Can history, a legendary U.S. President and performers mix? Somehow Jones made it all work from the performers’ perspectives and they convinced audiences in Theatre I during the production’s run from April  8 – 17.


The students in the production started out watching a video of "Serenade/The Proposition" on DVD in early December. It wasn’t until early February that the cast began actively learning the steps and text when Leah Cox, from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company arrived on campus.


“The performers were also required to engage in some pro-active research on Bill's life/work/process, before beginning rehearsals,” said Michael Foley, a member of the dance program faculty. “The BTJ organization sent the cast and crew a 40-page packet of information pertaining to the concepts and production designs behind the work, to further illuminate the participants on Bill's ideas for the piece.  The cast worked seven days a week for the first two weeks, and rehearsed about four days a week since late February.”


Jones himself was on campus in early April to go over the final technical aspects of the piece and to engage with the USF community for a Talk of the Arts presentation. The experience has been memorable for all concerned.


Zo Vallejo-Bryant, who played the leading role in last year’s College of The Arts Theatre Department production of Bobby and the Chimps, had the largest speaking role in Serenade, but says this role differs from anything he has ever undertaken.  He was not the star of the show. None of the actors were.


“The interesting thing about the actors’ roles is that there are no particular characters, it’s more of an ensemble,” he said. “I learned to hold back my actor’s ego, realizing that it’s not about you, the individual. Normally, as a performer, you’re working along the lines of, ‘How can I make you (the audience) remember me.’ Bill T. Jones got me to realize this piece is about being part of something bigger than any individual role.”


The transfer student from Palm Beach State College also spent a semester at New York University performing for the Tisch School of the Arts in Florence, Italy.  Now a senior in the CoTA Theatre Performance program, planning to graduate this fall, Vallejo-Bryant values what he has gained in this production and what he learned working with Jones.


“For me personally, it’s been better than anything I could hope for. I had a lot of questions for him and he answered them all. I learned there is a method to every single thing you see on stage.”


Vallejo-Bryant had never worked with dancers before and he liked it.


“Every time I went to rehearsal, I wanted to dance but then I remembered how many hours it took for the dancers to reach their level of proficiency and I realized I don’t have the physical discipline for that.  I have renewed respect for dancers, I had respect before, but not nearly enough.”


One of those dancers, Eric Williams, was equally impressed with the production. The distinction he carried away from his work with Jones is that Serenade is not a “dance piece” but rather “dance theater" – a singular product – one that involves a unique kind of improvisation.


“There were lines we worked within, but we added, took away and changed movements every time we were on stage,” Williams said.  “I found it quite freeing, this freedom to express. At the same time he (Jones) was trying to put us in a particular place and time.  We were the people acting out what happened during Lincoln’s time in the 19th century.  It’s like we were inside a game.  The whole experience inspired me to rise to a new level.”


Even though the dancers weren’t on stage for the entire hour-long work, “the sheer physicality and the involvement of the mind and emotions left us all drenched at the end – and it was a quick hour,” Williams said.


There were singing roles in this production as well. Nikole Bird was one of two vocalists in Serenade and she describes her involvement as “a real whirlwind, and an incredible experience.” She joined the production a couple of weeks into rehearsals.  There had been plans to use pre-recorded voices, but when the decision was made to have live vocalists, she auditioned and was cast in one of the parts. During spring break, the musicians were fortunate to be able to work with members of Jones’ company, cellist Chris Lancaster and Julliard Music Director Jerome Begin, one-on-one for two days.


“It was an absolute blast,” Bird said. “They were so much fun to work with and able to present an idea of where the music was derived from. Knowing the origins and thought behind each piece of music only helped to develop a voice for it. The whole experience has reinvigorated my passion for music,” said the junior who is double majoring in English Literature and Theatre Arts. She was surprised to find, after pushing her interest in performing to a back burner, to be cast in such an "amazing collaborative opportunity."

Her fellow cast member Daniel Rosenstrauch was similarly surprised. The theatre performance major is a senior and has performed in six other USF Productions. But he’s usually an actor.  This time he moved back and forth from the orchestra pit playing piano to the stage as a member of the acting ensemble. He was drafted to serve as pianist when the decision was made to use live singers. 


“I’ve been involved with theater pieces that involved dancers, but this is a dance piece with actors, definitely different and a true collaborative effort,” he said. “It’s amazing to get to explore all the things I love – acting, music and dance – right here in a package for me.”


The company was at work for two months before meeting the famous director. His reputation preceded him, yet no one knew exactly what to expect.


“At first it was a little daunting,” said Williams. “He has a reputation for being intense, but he brought in a great flow and it was great to see his work with the actors.  I learned a lot from that.  He is a step beyond anybody I’ve ever met.” From Pennsylvania, the performing arts major with a focus on modern dance is a junior and has appeared in every fall and spring concert in his three years at USF.


Vallejo-Bryant said, “He’s just as epic as he was built up to be and he exceeded expectations.  Seeing his interest and his passion for dance, learning how to tell a story without words – utilizing our natural presence – that was just incredible.”


Cast member Rosenstrauch said, “He’s one of those figures you hear so much about and it can be a little intimidating,” But when he met Jones he found him, “a very open person, open to ideas and ready to listen to what we had to say.” Plus he learned a lot from listening to what Jones had to say to the dancers. And the dancers learned from what Jones said to the actors.


“This was the first time the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company set an entire production on a university or college, perhaps one piece and smaller pieces, but not a full production,” said Ashleigh Gallant, College of The Arts communications and marketing director. “Furthermore, to have Bill T Jones himself come and direct was quite a big deal.”



Story by Barbara Melendez

Video by Lynne Wimmer





The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.