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By PATRICK LEE
Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.
Charlie Neshyba-Hodges is charming audiences with his serio-comic portrayal of a nightclub busboy named Marty in Come Fly Away, Twyla Tharp's new Broadway show that stages loosely narrative dances to Frank Sinatra songs. Neshyba-Hodges, who has worked with renowned companies in both classical ballet and modern dance, spoke with TDF about the role and about working for Twyla Tharp.
TDF: What quality does a person most need to be a good dancer?
CNH: Maybe they need an open-mindedness. I had such an intense training in ballet that the first time I worked with Twyla and she asked me to sickle my foot, I wanted to cry. [A “sickled” foot is turned inward, whereas most ballet dancers crave a straight line.—TDF.]
It took me a while to realize that a sickled foot can be a powerful thing. You could be turned in, turned out, leg bent or leg straight—all are options to portray a character or an emotion or a mood. Ballet was always about fighting for one ideal, but once I let go of the idea that there is only one right way, I saw there are an infinite number of right ways.
TDF: How would you summarize Marty’s story in the show?
CNH: At the start of the show he has only a basic understanding of love. By the end, after his breakup, he has a more mature view. One of the pleasures of portraying Marty is to start the show as awkward as I can be. Opposition is key in dance—to use the opposite arm and leg—but in the beginning of this show, I use the same arm and leg to suggest his uncoordinated sensibility. At the end of the show I’m doing some of the same choreography but with grace and elegance, to demonstrate the change that the character has undergone. Throughout, I am lucky to have Laura Mead as my partner. So much of what I am able to do is thanks to who she is as a person and as a dancer.
TDF: Which is more challenging, portraying Marty at the beginning or at the end of the show?
CNH: The challenge is the same, which is to convey him honestly. For me, that means recognizing where my body is in that moment. The other day I came into work irritated because of an old workman’s compensation issue. It was an opportunity. Instead of pretending I was happy, I took the day’s events and said, “Okay, today Marty is going to be very frustrated when he’s washing dishes and mopping the floor at the beginning of the show.” The body cannot lie. It was a matter of calibrating the day’s events and being honest, while portraying the character within Twyla’s vision.
TDF: Is it fair to say that her choreography is tailored to each dancer?
CNH: Twyla knows very well that for a performer to love a performance they need to love what they are doing. She puts the responsibility on herself, with her method of working, to choreograph what makes sense for you physically. People tell us all the time that it looks like we are enjoying ourselves so much on stage. Of course we are, because we’re being allowed to do what makes sense for our bodies.
TDF: You’re 5’5” tall. Has your height ever felt like a professional disadvantage?
CNH: Every day. I get it all the time. For critics in the dance community, I have never been tall or long enough, I’ve never been lean enough, and I’ve never had enough hair. Those comments coincide with statements of shock: “for someone as short as he is, he travels on stage more than he should be able to”, or “for someone with so much muscle mass, he’s very limber.” Over the years, I have translated the comments into compliments rather than cry over the fact that I can’t grow taller.
TDF: What did you think about your reviews in this show?
CNH: I haven’t read them, so I don’t know how they’ve responded, but I have an idea from how happy my castmates are. I try to appreciate everything that comes my way, but it’s important not to get too caught up. I let myself have a really good time on opening night, and I was really glad that my mom and my partner Adam had the opportunity to be a part of it. But then you still have to continue to work hard. You still want to make sure that every night is exceptional.
Patrick Lee is a regular contributor to Theatermania and has written for various other theatre sites including BroadwaySpace. He blogs at Show Showdown, which he co-founded, as well as at his own site, Just Shows To Go You.