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Ballet Theater Gives the Stage to This Pianist’s Drag Persona

I didn’t leave the job completely, and I had enjoying working with Kenneth MacMillan. In 1985 Kenneth came back to stage “Romeo and Juliet.” In Los Angeles, there was an onstage rehearsal that Friends of A.B.T. could attend. The dancers were not in hair and makeup, and there was no orchestra; it was just going to be me in the pit following the conductor. Well, the conductor missed the rehearsal, so I had to play the whole thing under the stage, and I couldn’t even see the dancers. But I did it. No one said “Congratulations,” “Thank you,” “You saved the day.” I remember going to my car thinking: It’s always going to be like this.

By that time I had already found the Pyramid Club, so I was building an audience there. I finally wrote a musical, a parody of “Valley of the Dolls” in the ballet world called “Ballet of the Dolls.” Kenneth came to see it. I was in the wings playing the piano, but I did have a cameo. When I saw Kenneth at work a few days later he said, “I enjoyed the show very much, but John, the person the audience wants to see onstage is you.” No one had ever said that to me, and here was the great Sir Kenneth MacMillan. It was such a great validation.

How does it feel, then, to be taking center stage at A.B.T. now?

It’s very strange because I’ve always been behind the scenes there. And I’ve always known that was part of the deal. There was a pianist at A.B.T. named Barbara Bilach. She badly wanted to be respected more. She was pretty vocal about it, and it rubbed people the wrong way. But she was beloved. No matter what, I could always make her laugh because there’s a part of Lypsinka’s show where she says, “Barbara please!”

What other ways has ballet bled into your life as Lypsinka and vice versa?

I’ve never considered myself a real dancer. I do somewhat jokingly say that I learned dance through osmosis. I studied Makarova’s port de bras. There was a critic who said Lypsinka performs with the precision of a Balanchine dancer. I don’t know if that’s true, but if you’re working in the ballet world, there’s a discipline to it.

There are other pianists at A.B.T. with ambitions, I should say. I may just be the flashiest. But you know, there’s a hardworking group of musicians behind the scenes. Their names may not ever be in the newspaper, but they’re back there, and they have ambition and drive, and they deserve to be acknowledged.

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