- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The idea for 10 minutes of the coolest ballet you’ll see this year came from a guy sitting on his couch watching a television show.

Using only recorded music, four chairs and a rack of costumes borrowed from the Virginia Repertory Theatre, choreographer Gavin Stewart created the idea of having eight members of the Richmond Ballet turn a blank studio floor into a dance interpretation of “Mad Men.”

“There was something there that inspired me to create a structure,” said Stewart. “The characters are very relatable. There are great themes that run through the show. And the costumes and sets looked like something I could re-create.”

Stewart is not exactly a couch potato.

He’s a professional dancer with the Richmond Ballet’s second company, a songwriter who has recorded two albums and a teacher who works with high school and college students.

His “Mad Men” work, called “Shadows in the Inside,” debuted last week along with three others as part of the ballet’s annual New Works Festival. All four pieces were being performed nine times over six days.

The list of choreographers includes Melissa Barak, who has created 11 works and danced for the ballets in Los Angeles and New York; Peter Quanz, who has seen a trio of his works performed at the famed Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow; and Edgar Zendejas, whose career spans more than two decades in ballet companies throughout North America.

That Stewart’s piece is included is something of a surprise.

He’s the first active member of the Richmond Ballet chosen to choreograph a dance in the 6-year-old series. And at age 23, he’s among the youngest, too.

The second-year member of the ballet’s second company has choreographed works for students, but this is his first time playing the role on a professional stage.

“It was a little scary leading up to it,” he said of applying for one of the four spots and of the thought of playing boss to the veteran performers in the ballet’s first company.

He wrote out the idea and submitted it with a short dance reel, the same as any other choreographer would.

Creating the work, he said, was the easy part.

“I had a picture in my mind,” he said. “The art was trying to re-create that.”

He quickly won the respect of the dancers he was asking to carry out his vision.

“He’s been wonderful to work with,” said Thomas Garrett, who is dancing the lead. “You don’t want to show a story. You want to tell a story. That’s what he does.”

Lauren Fagone, like Garrett a company veteran, said working with Stewart has been a treat.

“It’s really exciting to be part of the creative process,” she said. “Many of us were secretly crossing our fingers” that his work would be chosen.

Thomas Ragland said it was nice working with someone he saw every day anyway.

“There was a level of comfort,” he said.

“We didn’t have to get to know him,” Garrett said. “He’s already a good friend.”

Stewart said he was “over the moon already” that his work was chosen.

In the field where people tend to specialize, Stewart is also over the moon that he’s able to pursue multiple careers at the same time.

He began dancing in high school in Tulsa, Okla., where the only other boy in his five-person company was his brother, now an actor and stage director in New York.

Becoming a choreographer was a happy accident that occurred when he took a mandatory course in choreography while studying at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“Choreography made me understand what dance is,” he said. “As a dancer, you have to know your part very well, but you may not understand the whole.

“As a choreographer, you can look over the whole performance, and the pieces make more sense. It gave me a better understanding of what it takes.

“After that, I stopped questioning the things I used to question as a dancer. Suddenly, I knew why.”

Finding inspiration in “Mad Men” for his first professional piece as a choreographer, he said, was easy. Making it fit into 10 minutes was the hard part.

He started by piecing together a soundtrack, then imaging movement with it.

On the first take, he had 30 minutes of music.

“It was a process of trying to figure out what was most important,” he said. “It took several cuts to get it down to what it is. It wasn’t easy.”

Away from his new work, Stewart doesn’t worry much about finding singular important moments.

“I don’t sit still well,” he said. “I go from music to dance to choreographer. There’s always an idea for a story.”

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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