Stage Preview: Gary Chryst keeps his foot in the door, from ballet to 'Chicago' tour

Following up on Fosse

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Gary Chryst may be the ultimate dancin' man. An acknowledged star with the Joffrey Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater, a mover and groover on Broadway in "Guys and Dolls," "Dancin' " and "Nureyev," Chryst has nimbly jumped between the concert ballet and theater stage for years.


Gary Chryst
'Chicago'
Where: PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh Series at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: Tues. through Sun.: 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.
Tickets: $20-60.50; 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org.
  

"Maybe it's because I never wore white tights," cracks Chryst, who has added staging to his career repertoire. For the past eight years, he has had a close connection with the upcoming PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series production of "Chicago," opening at the Benedum Center Tuesday, and its creator, Bob Fosse.

He would become known for what might be termed "character roles," which meant the drama of black tights and the part of Tybalt rather than Romeo and feeling more at home as the leering Profiteer in Kurt Jooss' landmark political ballet, "The Green Table" -- the part that led to his first encounter with Fosse.

Chryst was first attracted to acting at New York City's High School for the Performing Arts. As an aspiring actor, he had to take two dance classes a week. "They excited me so much more," recalls Chryst by telephone from New York. He gravitated to those character parts in which "many dancers don't feel comfortable."

The die was cast. Following graduation, he found his way to the Joffrey, where the company would go "barefoot to pointe shoes in one evening."

One night, Fosse was in the audience taking in Chryst's portrayal of the Profiteer. "It was a role that Mr. Fosse would have gravitated toward, a role he would have done if he was a ballet dancer," Chryst notes. "He related to it because it was dance used as theater."

Ballet was never Fosse's venue. Based on his own technical limitations, the famed choreographer created his own dance vocabulary on Broadway -- the tilted head, the hunched shoulders and legs turned in, forcing the hips askew -- and expertly turned it into a bonanza.

He invited Chryst to be a part of that in "Dancin,' " which also starred the leggy former Joffrey ballet student Ann Reinking.

"The hardest thing was doing a show eight times a week after growing up in a repertory company," Chryst says. Although Fosse had originally wanted two casts, Chryst had to bite the bullet performing the "athletic and demanding" choreography every night.

Despite the grueling work, he found it "so fulfilling" to be in an all-star situation with people like Reinking, Broadway veteran Wayne Cilento and American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Charles Ward.

Chryst would go on to parlay that show into a Broadway career, but the door remained open to ballet. Nederlands Dans Theater artistic director Jiri Kylian was starting a third company for older dancers, affectionately called NDT3. So, while in his 40s, Chryst moved to Europe. "We were lucky to be creating new work at that point in our lives," he says.

In 1996, "Chicago" was reborn to great acclaim, with Reinking choreographing it "in the style of Bob Fosse." Reinking was thinking about a European tour and, while pondering who knew the Fosse vocabulary as well as available European dancers, she thought of Chryst.

By 1998, he had staged the Austrian production of "Chicago" and has kept tabs on tours in Sweden, Italy, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil, among others.

Reinking also tapped him for the current U.S. tour. "This is a wonderful set of dancers," Chryst raves, ticking off a "newly assembled" group that stars Broadway and television star Tom Wopat as Billy Flynn, with Brenda Braxton as Velma Kelly and Michelle DeJean as Roxie Hart.

Casting aside, the biggest problem Chryst encountered was with the younger "Chicago" dancers, who have been well-schooled in the more frenetic style of hip-hop. He had to acquaint them with the single isolations of the Fosse shoulder or hip. "Less is more," he told them.

But that doesn't mean "Chicago" is boring by any means: "It's not about dancing forks and spoons; it's about content," Chryst says.

"Chicago," with its emphasis on Velma and Roxie and their "Razzle Dazzle" tales of murder and mayhem, still attracts a large and enthusiastic following that's more knowledgeable in recent years, after the 2002 Academy Award-winning film starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.

"It's smart," Chryst says. "A lot of people who don't like musicals like this one."


Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish@post-gazette.com .


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