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Reconceiving 'Coppélia' for the 21st Century

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Dec 27, 2018

Director-choreographer Chase Brock premieres his first dance-theatre work Off-Broadway


After 15 years of assisting on or contributing to Main Stem productions, Chase Brock is about to make his full-fledged Broadway musical choreographic debut with Be More Chill in February. But instead of using the holidays to rest up for rehearsals, the prolific dance-maker is busy mounting The Girl with the Alkaline Eyes, his 31st work for The Chase Brock Experience, the company he launched in 2007. It's a contemporary tale inspired by the beloved 1870 story ballet Coppélia -- the first ballet Brock performed in as a young dance student.

Although Brock's eclectic career has included choreographing for TV (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Late Show with David Letterman), opera (Bartlett Sher's Roméo et Juliette at the Met) and the stage, The Girl with the Alkaline Eyes is his first full-length dance-theatre piece. In place of Coppélia's crotchety doll maker, a hip young coder creates robots, one of which slips out of his control. "I want it to be technological, I want it to be futuristic, I want to rewrite the sexual politics," says Brock, who also directs the production, which has a scenario and score by Eric Dietz. "It's consciously marrying the two sides of my work for the first time: My theatre work -- which I love to do, and it pays the bills -- and my company work, where I make passion projects in dance."


Previously, Brock created shorter abstract works for his troupe. But with The Girl with the Alkaline Eyes, he wanted to see if he could apply his high-powered, dynamic style to a narrative. "It feels like the energy in current concert dance is in non-narrative works," he says. "So I just wondered whether I could try to do a European story ballet but in our own American way."

Growing up in Flat Rock, North Carolina, Brock attended ballet class six days a week and performed in the local Nutcracker, but he soon developed an interest in theatre. During his early teens, he studied dance at the Broadway Theatre Project, founded by Tony-winning choreographer Ann Reinking. Living legends like Gwen Verdon and Gregory Hines taught classes. "From that program, which gave me the chance to work with those kinds of choreographers and directors, I became very serious and motivated to learn great old Broadway choreography," Brock says.

He was just 16 when he made his Broadway performing debut as an ensemble member in Susan Stroman's revival of The Music Man. Within a few years, he was assisting Reinking and Kathleen Marshall on shows before becoming an in-demand dance-maker in New York (his credits include Second Stage Theatre, the Public Theater, Encores! at City Center, and contributing movement to Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark) and beyond (Japanese and German productions of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, San Diego's Old Globe).

At the same time, the 35-year-old has continued to grow The Chase Brock Experience with undiminished energy, gracefully tackling the struggles and stresses that come with running a small nonprofit dance company. He was able to develop The Girl with the Alkaline Eyes thanks to a fellowship from the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU.

"We completed a first draft of the staging while we were there," he says. "They gave us a solid month of studio time -- four to eight hours a day -- during the fall semester, which was phenomenal. Eric and I had been dreaming for about a year of this scenario. You have all these ideas of how you're going to tell a story in dance but then, once it's on its feet, dance tells you how it's going to work. For this piece, I'm working in a variety of movement styles. Some of this feels contemporary, some feels a little bit jazzy. I feel like I have not over-decorated this piece. I've had a measure of restraint where I really tried to tell the story the entire time. I didn't put in a lot of extra."

The Girl with the Alkaline Eyes kicks off its 17-performance run at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre this week. It's a complex Brock knows well: His company celebrated its 10th anniversary there last year and is one of its artistic partners. So regardless of what happens with Be More Chill and his other outside ventures, Brock knows where his troupe will be performing for the foreseeable future. "Theatre Row has encouraged us to be programming ahead, so we already have discussed slots through 2020," he says, excited by the creative possibilities that stability affords. "When someone gives you a home and asks, 'What do you want to be doing here in two years?,' it allows you to think more broadly."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Girl with the Alkaline Eyes. Go here to browse our current offers.

Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Top image: Jane Abbott, Amber Barbee Pickens and James Koroni in The Girl with the Alkaline Eyes. Photos courtesy of The Chase Brock Experience.

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.