Monday, October 9, 2017

Interview: Choreographer General McArthur Hambrick

Meet General MacArthur Hambrick, versatile veteran of the Terpsichorean arts.  Among his many credits, Hambrick worked with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre; he was a soloist with Fort Worth / Dallas Ballet, now Texas Ballet Theater, and with Minnesota Dance Theater in Minneapolis; he’s been in major Broadway productions including Cats and Phantom of the Opera; he’s a professor of dance and musical theater at West Virginia University; and he’s a frequent guest choreographer for Madison Ballet.  That connection goes back a long way – Hambrick and Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith met back in the ‘80s, when both were dancing with Fort Worth / Dallas. 
Hambrick’s unique choreographic vocabulary pulls together the neoclassicism of Balanchine and the black church-inspired, ballet underpinned modernism of Alvin Ailey; Hambrick often wields this rich style in service of abstract narrative works steeped in mystery and edged with revelation.  He was just in town to set a new work, “Capricious,” on Madison Ballet, for the 2017-18 season debut concert, Push, set for Oct. 20-21 at the Bartell. 
I’m always surprised and delighted with Hambrick’s dances, and I wanted to know more about the artist behind those works.  I thought you would, too, so I interviewed him the other day.

CulturalOyster: Way back in the beginning, how did you get started in ballet?

Hambrick: I was a fashion design major at Texas Christian University.  My teacher came up to me one day and said “you look like you could be a dancer.” At TCU it was very specific – you either did ballet or modern, so I took ballet.  I immediately fell in love when they took me into that class.  I said to myself “this is where I’m supposed to be.”  I dropped fashion design the next year and changed my major – and they gave me a scholarship to do it.

CulturalOyster: You and Earle [Smith] go way back — do you have any stories to share about the two of you in the old days at Fort Worth / Dallas Ballet?

Hambrick: Just that we danced together.  I was really quiet back then.  I wasn’t a very technical dancer – I would watch those guys and try to simulate their classical training.  We were all friends, we always got along great, but I just didn’t hang out a lot when I was in Fort Worth, I didn’t do many social things with the other dancers, at least not that I remember – it was so long ago!

CulturalOyster: What are some highlights of your days as a dancer?

Hambrick: One highlight was when I was in Minnesota Dance Theater in Minneapolis.  I was given the lead in a Lar Lubovitch piece, “The Time Before the Time After (After the Time Before).”  But the biggest highlight was when I was in Martha Clarke’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” in New York – she was one of the original founders of Pilobolus and we flew all over the stage in that piece.  I got my first writeup in The New York Times for that ( and I was on the front cover – that was a real highlight. 

CulturalOyster: How did you make the jump from ballet to Broadway?

Hambrick: I left the ballet company for a modern dance company in Dallas but I wasn’t happy with modern, and I wasn’t making enough money to get by.  So one of my good friends, actually a stage manager, said Cats is coming through town!  So I took off one day and went to the audition at Dallas Music Hall – and out of 52 guys, I got called back!  I got to tour Cats and after that I just stuck with Broadway. 
I’d done musicals as a child – my mother was a performer.  They’d just throw me onstage as a little kid, I think I started in Showboat.  At TCU I got to be a pretty good dancer, and I’d audition for summer stock so I had musical theater in me, but I’d wanted to be a company member in Dance Theater of Harlem, or the Ailey company. That didn’t happen, but Broadway felt right.  I went from Cats to Miss Saigon and just kept going.  It all worked out for the best.

CulturalOyster: Did you do any Broadway choreography?

Hambrick: No, not on Broadway, but I did choreograph for smaller theaters. 

CulturalOyster: But now you have this really unique choreographic style that we see when you set your works on Madison Ballet.  When you’re making a dance, do you start with an idea and then find the music, or vice-versa?

Hambrick: I almost always find the music first – I’m inspired by a piece and then I see a theme or a story – I think maybe there was one time where I had an idea first and then looked for music, but that’s not normally how I work.

CulturalOyster: Can you give me an insight or two into the new work you just set on Madison Ballet?

Hambrick: I heard this music [“Caprices for Violin,” an early nineteenth century work by French violinist / composer Pierre Rode] in a choreography class I was teaching.  I wanted my students to get away from pop and find something new.  One student brought in some of Rode’s music and I looked at the rest of the CDs he had and listened to the Caprices – they’re full of variations in emotion and attitude – and I said “oh! I can do little dances that are as surprising as the pieces he composed!”  So – not to give it away, but I made a series of little dances that are full of unexpected little shifts in tempi and that kind of thing.  I tried to work with the dancers on the idea of the emotions in the music.  Some of the Caprices are happy, some are what I’d call precious – there’s one, a solo I set in Jackson Warring, that’s filled with angst and not knowing where to go.  So for each one there’s a very abstract theme line.  And I wanted to go from old fashioned classical to neoclassical to contempory movement style, so the piece as a whole goes in and out of those styles.

CulturalOyster: Is there one overarching theme that ties your life’s work together?

Hambrick: Everything I do is for my mom.  She was a soprano, she did musicals and directed the church choir.  If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t have gone into the theater – my life would have been totally different.
interview by SK

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