Sunday, March 04, 2001

Goodlett's 'Graceland' a first for Ballet

SCPA grad tires hand at choreography

By Carol Norris
Enquirer contributor

Jay Goodlett watches dancers practice the piece he choreographed.
(Brandi Stafford photos)
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        He's known best in ballet circles for his gigantic leaps, but when Jay Goodlett presents “Graceland” at the Aronoff on Friday, he will be showing his creative side. He also will be making Cincinnati Ballet history.

        The premiere of “Graceland” marks the first time a company member has choreographed for the regular season in the company's 37-year history.

        “Graceland” is set to seven Paul Simon tunes from his popular 1986 CD. The work is a collaboration between the ballet's artistic director Victoria Morgan and Mr. Goodlett.

        “We've done everything evenly,” he says. “Some songs we've worked on together — she'd come up with a phrase and then I'd come up with one. Others we've done alone.”

        Mr. Goodlett believes he got the job to choreograph “Graceland” because of his open approach to rehearsals.

        “I'm not the only dancer in the company like this, but I'm pretty easy to work with. I like to help in the creative process and help figure things out,” Mr. Goodlett says.

        Ms. Morgan says it's more than that.

        “When I choreograph, I use Jay a lot because he is so smart and can figure out complex combinations almost immediately. He's been choreographing for a long time, and I felt he was up to it. And I was right. His work is earthy and connected to the music.”

A laughing leader

Goodlett practices with Kristi Kapps.
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        At a recent rehearsal, his rapport with the dancers seems little changed as he steps into a leadership role. Relaxed and teasing, he jokes, “Anyone want to volunteer to run to the other side for the next entrance? No? Then I volunteer you two.”

        He pulls two women out of the lineup and sends them scurrying to where the curtain will be. Running, they answer “But we didn't volunteer . . . ”

        Funny, clever and entertaining are the words dancers use to describe Mr. Goodlett. He has a reputation for laughing easily and often.

        When, for example, he steps on stage for the Russian solo in Nutcracker, audiences start clapping in anticipation of the heights he will reach. From the wings, dancers tease him about paying off the audience. He answers with a grin.

  • What: Cincinnati Ballet in Spring Festival.
  • When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.
  • Where: Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center for the Arts, downtown.
  • Tickets: $9-$49 at the Aronoff and Music Hall box offices, Ticketmaster locations, phone 241-7469 or online at; group rates of six or more 621-5282.
  Also on the program:
  • “With Timbrel and Dance, Praise His Name,” the work of the late African-American choreographer James Truitte. Mr. Truitte was a founding member in the companies of Alvin Ailey and Lester Horton. The work will be accompanied by the voices of the Community Gospel Chorus and soloist Theresa Bowers Parker under the direction of Clinton J. Bean.
  • “Four Temperaments,” an exploration by George Balanchine of the basic humors believed to govern our lives. Music by Paul Hindemith.
  • “Lament” — African-American dancer Desmond Richardson, a powerful presence in both ballet and theater dance, will make a guest appearance in Dwight Rhoden's “Lament.” Mr. Richardson has danced the classics with American Ballet Theatre as Othello and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Broadway's Fosse.
        The “Graceland” rehearsal moves swiftly.

        He calls it “the luxury of working with pros. You walk in and say "I want this and that' and they'll do it. And if they can't, they'll help find another way.” (Not long ago, he was making dances for high school productions, where experience ranges from years of training to none at all.)

        But isn't it intimidating working alongside the boss?

        “Victoria is good about the creative process. She doesn't take the whole load,” Mr. Goodlett says. “She's good about bringing in other ideas and people. It's her way of checks and balances.”

        That doesn't mean they've agreed on everything. They've gone around about casting, but, he says, “Victoria's honest and open about what she wants.”

        For example, she wanted Mr. Goodlett to dance in the piece. He said no. She won.

        “I didn't want to be in it,” he says. “But she wants me in it, and it's her call. It's hard to choreograph on other people and then on myself. I'm the last person on my list to think about.”

        This week is tech week, when the production moves onstage at the Aronoff under show conditions. It will be the toughest. “I won't be able to see how it all looks together,” he says.

Began with lost violin

        Mr. Goodlett, 27, got his first job at the School for Creative and Performing Arts when he was a student there.

        “I was 14 when I started doing dances for recitals. I remember helping (then director) Jack Louiso on Pirates of Penzance. I was, only one year older than most of the kids in the show. I went backstage, and everyone was giving high-fives and saying how good the show was, and I got livid.

        “I lit into them telling them all the things they had done wrong. When I walked out of the room I thought "What did I just do? I've turned into Jack!' ”

        He came to SCPA with violin in hand prepared to make music. When the violin got lost at a bus depot (accidently, he insists) he looked for another major. Drama, dance and creative writing were his strengths. He picked dance because it was the most difficult.

        After high school graduation in 1992, he spent several summers and an entire year on scholarship at New York City Ballet's famed School of American Ballet. He came home to Cincinnati when then Cincinnati Ballet director Nigel Burgoine asked him to.

        “I realized I could start a professional career here right away or spend another five years in New York trying to get one going. I didn't have any trouble going to a smaller pond. I was happy with the way things were going here.”

        The only downside to his decision has been the change in directors at Cincinnati Ballet (three in seven years), which translated to a steady turnover in dancers — not the best way for a company to grow.

        “You expect some turnover, but since I've been soloist (1994-95 season), there've been 15 other male soloists come and go. It takes about five years for a director to stabilize things,” he says, adding that with Ms. Morgan into her third year and committed to more, the company appears solid.

        With extended family in the area, he and wife Jenny Leinberger Goodlett, a former Cincinnati Ballet dancer, try to juggle dance with visits to family, getting the laundry done and spending time with 17-month-old daughter Megan Elise.

        “I'm missing evenings at home,” is his only complaint about dance demands on his time. “Not many people get to dance in the town they grew up in. I've been blessed to be able to stay here.”


        Some costumes for “Graceland” were created by the Massachusetts artist Carter Smith, whose hand-dyed silk creations make up the exhibit Shibori Unbound at the Contemporary Arts Center.

        Twenty-two of Mr. Smith's Japanese and African kimonos, carpets, coats, dresses and room-length pieces of silk will be on view through April 1.

        Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan calls Mr. Smith's designs “Explosions of imagination in color. He's using colorful fabric for big flowing skirts that really move.”


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