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Dancers Over 40 ARTS Legacy

DO40 - Arts Legacy - Sasha Spielvogel and Lori Tan Chinn


Sasha Spielvogel

What inspired you to want to become a dancer?

If "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" had not been the prevailing thought in the 1920's for a young woman, my mother may have pursued her love of dance to the professional level. She often visited her New Yorker aunt and uncle in that era and was able to see the original productions of "No, No, Nanette", "Irene", "Sunny,” "Showboat" and "Shuffle Along.” She did become a self-described small town dancing teacher in our south suburb of Chicago. During the Depression, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) desperately needed a tap teacher, as over 100 children had been signed up by their parents for classes. The WPA was supposed to hire only people "on the dole.” However, they could find no unemployed dance teachers, so my mom was hired. Good to know even in hard times families were willing to pay 25 cents a lesson for their kids to have some fun. My mother was not a "stage mother,” but she did find excellent teachers for me in Chicago and talked my father into paying for two summer stints in NYC, one with Joffrey and another at Harkness. Yes, my mother Winifred, (my middle name yet!), did inspire me to travel on the pas de bouree path.

Who was most influential in your career? 

Jim Brochu, our super host for the 2018 Legacy Awards, mentioned in my introduction that we met in "Good News" directed by Bill Gile at the Goodspeed Opera House.  This reminded me what an important influence this director had on my career.  His casting me in that show and "Sunny" that summer, led to my role in "Very Good Eddie" a few years later. In those days all it took was a visit from David Merrick and "the Shuberts” (Bernard Jacobs and Gerry Schoenfeld), to say after the curtain, "We'll take this show to Broadway.” Within a month we opened at the Booth, and Bill Gile, Dan Siretta (choreographer), Charles Repole and I received Tony nominations that season.

Who was the most influential in your career?

During my high school years, I commuted to Chicago to study ballet at the Allegro School with former Sadler Wells soloists Doreen Tempest and Robert Lunnon. With their regional ballet company which had guest stars from major companies, I was a swan, a Willi, a peasant, a snowflake, a flower, and Red Riding Hood (Sleeping Beauty variation). However, the summer I graduated from high school they abruptly closed the school and returned to England. In search of another school I happened upon the Keith Allison Studio. He had just taken over the school from the renowned Edna McRae. Aside from ballet classes, Mr. Allison insisted his serious students study tap, jazz, and Spanish dance. From his days with Ballet Russe and ABT he was familiar with the Broadway dance scene. Taking these dance forms and his encouragement to attend open AEA auditions for touring Broadway shows in town and summer stock companies, led directly to my first AEA summer at the St Louis MUNY Opera.

What was the most memorable experience you can remember?

In June of '76 the New York Times introduced their new "Weekend Edition" on Fridays with a "Broadway" column on the 2nd page. This consisted of short interviews and stories of current shows. The journalist John Corry had just been assigned the column. Up to then he covered politics, business, crime, not the theatre beat.  I heard thru "the grapevine" he had recently seen "Chorus Line" and "Chicago" and was asking colleagues what show would be appropriate to take his two young daughters to? “Very Good Eddie" was recommended and subsequently he interviewed me shortly after at Sardi's for his column. Much to my surprise this also included a Hirschfeld drawing! His agent Margo Feiden sold me the original for $1000. Our show didn't have the usual large cast drawing around our opening as we learned the drawing must be commissioned and the space in the Times purchased at advertising rates by the producer. Mr. Merrick declined to do so. I never met Mr. Corry's daughters but I have them to thank for my treasured Hirschfeld.

Do you have a most frightening or funny dance experience?

In Milwaukee Melody Top's "Hello Dolly" starring Dorothy Lamour, I was Minnie Fay. In the closing number of Act 1, Dancing, Dolly is center stage and Minnie is bidding her farewell with bourees backward. In the original proscenium production she simply moves backward into the wings. However, Melody Top was an old fashioned in the round outdoor tent. One night as I boureed backward, I fell in the orchestra pit! Most fortunately, I was not seriously injured, nor any musicians. The next night the same thing happened. From then on the bourees moved sideways away from Dolly.

What experience or legacy would you like to pass on to the next generation?

Attending classes, auditioning, maybe needing a "survival" job do take up most of one's time. If possible, I recommend joining some organizations that can be helpful for networking and support from like-minded people. The Actor's Fund, Episcopal Actor's Guild (for all faiths or none), and of course Dancers Over 40. Yearly basic dues to these organizations are under $100. Once you become a union member, join the Actor's Federal Credit Union.  Most people know much more re: social media than I, so I'll leave that advice for others to offer.


Lori Tan Chinn

What inspired you to become a dancer?

As young children, my brother and sister took dance lessons, but then they both stopped. I kept asking my mother if I could take classes too. She thought I would also quit. Of course, it made me want to take lessons even more. As a high school freshman, I developed a lower back problem.  My doctor suggested to my mother that I should take some "not too strenuous" dance lessons like ballroom, in order to strengthen my back. I asked her again and she immediately signed me up.  I began taking ballroom lessons which really didn’t fascinate me.  But I noticed a lot kids taking tap classes at my local dance school and signed up. I loved watching Gene Kelly dance in films. I grew up in Wood River, Illinois, a small town near St. Louis, MO. As a kid, Gene looked like a regular guy to me. So it was the talents of Gene that inspired me originally. Less than a year later, I made my professional debut in the St. Louis MUNY’s world stage premiere production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's “State Fair.” It starred Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, directed by James Hammerstein, supervised by Richard Rodgers and choreographed by my 2nd inspiration, Tommy Tune. What a beginning!  Everyone was so nice to me.  It lead me to believe everyone in showbiz was nice! My mother and father were very supportive of me throughout my career. I am very grateful to them.

Who were the most influential in your career?

I would have to say four people.  Violette Verdy was always someone who looked after me when I entered The School Of American Ballet. When Balanchine asked me to join company class, Violette was excited for me. The invitation to join company class meant that Balanchine was interested in having you to join the NYCB.  After about of month, Violette approached me with a contract for John Neumeier's Hamburg Ballet in Germany. Hamburg paid approximately three times as much. Violette advised me to take it, saying that NYCB didn't use men very much. So I accepted the Hamburg offer.

And an amazing journey began. I choreographed my first major work "Alone" while dancing in Ham-burg.  Violette had just become the director of The Paris Opera and we spent a lot of time together in Europe. Jerry Robbins also was very interested in me while I was attending SAB. Always friendly, kind and respectful, he came to class often to watch me dance. He hired me for the second Broadway revival of “Fiddler On The Roof.” It was the final production that he directed and choreographed. An honor.  Sir Frederick Ashton hired me for my first Broadway show, “Fonteyn And Nureyev On Broadway.” It was the their farewell performance together at the Uris (Gershwin) Theater. Magical.  As many DO40 members might already know, I loved Ruth Page. Bill Como, the editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, introduced me to Ruth after a Hamburg Ballet gala performance. Ruth immediately asked me to dance with her Chicago Ballet's production of The Nutcracker as a soloist. I accepted and also returned the following year for another season. Ruth introduced me to everyone in the dance world and also encouraged me to start my own company, Dance Celebration, which I toured with worldwide for years. We remained dear friends.

What teachers had the most influence on your career?

Michael Simms was my first ballet teacher in St. Louis. When I attended my first class with Michael, I had just booked a summer stock job doing several musicals at the Jenny Wiley Music Theatre in Kentucky. It was two years after my MUNY debut.  Jenny Wiley Theatre was doing “Carousel” with the original Agnes De Mille choreography. I knew I had to learn ballet very quickly. When I returned after my stock job, Michael offered me a scholarship. I made progress incredibly fast and Michael recommended me to David Howard, who was co-director with Maria Vegh at The Harkness Ballet. They offered me a summer scholarship.  I spent over a year at Harkness learning ballet, modern, jazz and Spanish dance. Those various techniques would serve me well in musicals later on. After leaving Harkness, I spent five months at Joffrey, waiting for the summer term to begin at my first choice, SAB. 

What were your most memorable dance experiences?

So many. Stepping on the Broadway stages for the first time in “Fonteyn and Nureyev On Broadway” and “Fiddler On The Roof.” Thrilling. Also returning to The MUNY as a co-star in “Can-Can” with Judy Kaye, John Reardon, Beth Leavel and my dance partner at that time, Lorene Yarnell (TV's Shields & Yarnell). She was a terrific dancer. And in 1987, I produced the 50th Anniversary Gala of The American Guild of Musical Artists, which featured over 300 stars of ballet and opera at Lincoln's Center's New York State Theatre. Beverly Sills and Peter Martins were our hosts. Almost every important choreographer I had worked with was featured in the choreographers group, as part of our NYCB "Stars And Stripes" finale. I taught Jerry Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Robert Joffrey, Gerald Arpino and Peter Martins their choreography. Full circle.

Do you have a most frightening or funny dance experience?

Besides working with Alvin Ailey in Israel, much of the experience there was frightening. Upon arrival in Tel Aviv, the Bat Dor Dance Company manager insisted that I turned over my passport and return airline ticket. So for almost three months, I was basically held hostage. The woman who ran the company was nicknamed The Wicked Witch Of Tel Aviv for a reason. But I did like her partner and benefactress, the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild. She previously helped finance the Martha Graham Company and was very down to earth. 

What experience or legacy would you like to pass on to the next generation?

Learn your dance history. I taught master ballet classes for a dance company in NYC for several years. Mostly girls from early to late teens. I mentioned in a class some of the famous choreographers that I had worked for on Broadway and in dance companies. I wanted to expose them to some dance history. The only name they recognized was Jerry Robbins, because of the film version of West Side Story.  I was quite surprised. As a teen, I wanted to know all about dance and Broadway history as soon as I began taking dance classes. Wanted to know who came before me and what I could learn from them. That's why I think DO40 is so important in documenting our dance history. 

Background Photo DO40 Cares 2012, By Jeff Eason, Wilsonmodels, Inc