Dancers Over 40 ARTS Legacy
Cheryl Clark and Katharine Buffaloe-Harris
(With daughter, Mimi)
What inspired you to become a dancer?
With great fortune, both my parents were fantastic musicians: Dad a young Kansas City jazz player, who followed my mother to Boston (already having a piano degree from the KC Conservatory, where they had met in orchestra), they eloped as Mom was getting a 2nd degree in Oboe from the New England Conservatory. She played her graduation oboe recital in a smock, as Mom always loved to tell the story, when she was 5 months pregnant with me! She taught me at the keyboard 10 minutes a day when I turned 3 months old! Her younger sister, my Aunt Mitzi, was attending the High School of Performing Arts in NYC, and became Sandy Meisner’s prize pupil at Neighborhood Playhouse. I was influenced greatly by her talent, love and disciplined example.
They all loved Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Cyd Charisse, and the great dancers in the brilliant film, The Red Shoes! From a very early age, being introduced to such great dancers, music and drama inspired me to dance! Additionally, huge life-changing inspiration by the dancers in Jerome Robbins and Peter Gennaro’s West Side Story; Fosse’s Sweet Charity and Cabaret films; and in ballet, seeing ballerina Mimi Paul on tour with NYC ballet in Swan Lake, and Margo Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in all they performed in at the Met!
For those of us that are considered “Triple Threats,” my love of singing was supported by my love for the Original 1950’s television series, “The Little Rascals,” especially the episode where Darla was singing “I’m in the Mood for Love” on a swing! We moved back to Kansas City, MO where my Dad’s musical roots were by age seven. I recall singing with windows open, through the screen in our modest rental house, “I Love Paris,” and hoping the neighbors would hear and appreciate it! Go figure!
Who were the most influential people in your career and what teachers had the most influence in your career?
Kansas City, Missouri had fantastic teachers in every area: Tap, Jazz, Ballet and music. Musicians with the Kansas City Philharmonic, Starlight Theatre choreographer Harding Dorn, and the Kansas City Civic Ballet founder, Tatiana Dokoudovska - tap/jazz were some of the finest teachers anywhere. At age three I began tap (as my Mother was freaking out because she thought I couldn’t skip!) and the great Jimmy DeFore was at the helm! Saundra Lee Schneider, as well as Shirley Marley, who as a teen was partners with the great Ronnie Lewis were both wonderful tap and jazz teachers of mine.
My love for ballet (I ate, drank and slept it!) was later at age 11, after performing in my first Equity productions, Music Man and Fiorello at Starlight Theatre. Harding Dorn, who came in from NYC as resident choreographer, offered a two-week Ballet Workshop. Taking my very first plié, I became obsessed with ballet. Both Harding and Miss Tania were former Ballet Russe dancers; Harding remained in KC to teach one year. I was in the Corps de Ballet at Starlight by age 15, following being cast as Baby June in Gypsy and other roles under his direction. I studied with Tatiana Dokoudovska at the Conservatory joining the KC Civic Ballet performing Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides; very influential leading up to receiving my NYC ballet and academic scholarships.
Ballerina and Director of Harkness House for Ballet Arts, Patricia Wilde, awarded me my scholarship at age 15 in NYC. Grateful am I to both Miss Wilde and Rebekah Harkness for my incredible training. Also, before I accepted that scholarship, I was awarded one at SAB and loved all the teachers there and all the brilliant pianists that both Balanchine and Mrs. Harkness hired. We are inspired by the music we dance to!
By the age of 20, Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse hired me and were my greatest teachers. Baayork Lee, Bob Avian, Louise Quick, Kathryn Doby - all assistants to Michael and Bob and fantastic performers themselves, were the most influential people in my career. I started from my first audition after I left the Harkness Ballet, with Baayork staging the Bus and Truck of Promises Promises. My first Broadway audition at age 21 was Pippin. Bob Fosse hired six women out of thousands. I was the original swing, then replaced Ann Reinking. My next audition was for Fosse’s 1975 Chicago. I originated “POP”/Liz on Broadway and can be heard on the original cast album with our great Chita Rivera in “Cell Block Tango.” Both Chita and Baayork had major ballet backgrounds as well - I was very inspired by them. Donna McKechnie was a huge influence on my career - after seeing her in Company, I was encouraged with her brilliant dancing and vocal range (which I share) - changing my perspective of being solely a ballerina. Hence, I became a Broadway “Cassie” and performed over 3,000 performances on Broadway as well as internationally in Donna’s Tony Award winning role.
What were your most memorable dance experiences?
As a youth, definitely my first Nutcracker with KC Civic Ballet performing in Swan Lake which Miss Tania had her brother who had been teaching in NYC, Vladimir Dokoudovski, stage it for us. I earned my Actors Equity card at age 15 working at at the Starlight Theatre as Baby June as well as in the Dance Corps. In the Ballet World, I performed the role of Swanhilda in Coppelia (tutored by the great Anton Dolin!) and my corps de ballet work with the first company of the Harkness Ballet of NY. My Broadway work included performing in Pippin (1972) and Chicago (1975). I especially loved our opening number, “All That Jazz” with Chita Rivera and me as “POP” with my perfect “Cell Block Tango” colleagues, bringing down the house night after night!
Do you have a most frightening or funny dance experience?
Two Cassie moments in A Chorus Line immediately come to mind: I can’t say it was the most frightening, but our great ACL Vegas Co. played fantastic San Francisco for a 1981 engagement. I received a standing ovation after the Cassie dance on opening night which was rare. Days later, my left shoe flew off during the Cassie dance before the slow section. And as we were trained as children in dancing school, “Even if your pants fall off, keep dancing!” I did the remainder of the dance with one shoe on and my supporting “turning” leg functioning on slippery tights! The audience was completely with me and we all “milked it for all it’s worth” with a huge finish! The funniest experience had to be the Cassie/Zach second scene in ACL in the Sydney, Australia, premier production with my leading man, Scott Pearson. As he was berating me, “Cassie, your leg is too high…Cassie, don’t pop the head,” Scott’s volume escalating, a man in the first few rows stood up and yelled “Who the bloody ‘bleep’ does Zach think he is talking to Cassie that way!” And he stormed up the aisle out of the house! We met him after the show and explained that it was just a play!
What experience or legacy would you like to pass on to the next generation?
Whatever your passion is, practice with all your heart and soul. After working hard, practicing for years in my solitude and in class, I was able to abandon myself, technique secured, with what great choreographers and directors asked of me. The joy of teaching, passing on the knowledge, is a great privilege. Also, my prayers being answered, after years of dancing, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Mimi Page. Raising a child is equally creative and as intense as my love of theatre. To see our children, our students, excel with joy in what moves them (not to “rubber stamp” them), but promote their individuality has been my goal. Also, we can have more than one career. I received a grant from Career Transition for Dancers years ago, and became certified as a Chemical Substance Abuse Counselor. I wish to pass on the fact that if one stays clean and sober, as I tell my students in clinics, everything good in life and work is possible. Lastly, stay smart. Have a good vocabulary. Put no boundaries on continuing your academic and business education. As Michael Bennett always told us, “This is Business! Show business!”
What inspired you to want to become a dancer?
My mother started both my older sister and me in dance at a very young age, I was about three. My sister dropped out, but I was hooked and continued to study with Betty Kovach of Emmanuel Kovach School of Dance in Raleigh, all the way through high school until college. N.C. State University had a concert series of major touring dance companies, my mom also took me to see that totally enthralled me. Betty also taught future NYC Ballet’s Mel Tomlinson. Believe it or not, we did a tap routine together once for a huge local fashion show! Just to watch him dance was inspirational. My first dance partner was Randy Jones, the future Cowboy of the Village People! He was handsome, (still is!) and could sing, dance and act, so definitely an inspiring influence. I also remember, as a teenager, seeing the movie of WEST SIDE STORY. I wanted desperately to dance like that! That was some of the most electric, kinetic dancing I had ever seen! Who knew then that I would get to play Maria at the Kennedy Center, taught that same choreography by Jerome Robbins!
Who were most influential in your career?
First, a family friend, Amos Abrams, who worked with Barry Brown and Fritz Holt, arranged for my first NYC sublet! Later, when it really counted, he helped me negotiate my first production contract for ANNIE with Peter Neufeld. I was cast for Lily St. Regis by Martin Charnin, out of a chorus call of about 500 girls and had no agent representation at that time. Prior to that contract, a dear fellow actor, Stanley Bojarski, took me under his wing shortly after meeting him in NYC, and helped me get some auditions, and get a day job! A friend from college got me an audition for a summer tour of Oklahoma! A dancer had dropped out right before rehearsals started, and I had to dance around the musical director’s living room, since the choreographer was not in town to see me. He said, “Well, it looks like you can dance to me, you’ve got the job!” First day at rehearsal the choreographer goes, “Oh, my, you’re too tall! I never would’ve hired you!” It worked out all right as she did like my dancing, and switched partners around so I got the tall one! Once I got my Union card with that show I was off and running! I’d really say most influential were some awesome NYC casting directors who really supported me, and my agents for championing me all along the way too!
What teachers were most influential?
I’d have to say my childhood teachers Betty Kovach and James Leocarta. Both had been in the NYC scene and national tours, and knew their craft! Without sharing their love of dance with me, I might not have pursued the theatre. In college at UNCSA, Nelle Fisher, a former dancer with Martha Graham championed me, as well as Mollie Murray who was a Matt Mattox girl, and especially Duncan Noble, who was from Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but who had also danced in various NYC ballet companies and the Broadway world working with Robbins, de Mille, Fokine, Kidd, etc. Once I was in NYC, I mainly studied ballet with Dick Andros, at Richard Thomas’ New York School of Ballet. I took theatre dance all over the city from all the greats!
What were your most memorable dance performances?
Working with Jerome Robbins, Tommy Abbott and Ruth Mitchell on WEST SIDE STORY was a dream come true! There is nothing to compare hearing that Bernstein score and dancing Robbins original choreography! Robbins had never liked that a different girl sang “There’s a Place for Us” offstage “as if” she was Maria for the Dream Ballet, so Robbins had me pre-record it. Our marvelous conductor, Milton Rosenstock, kept the orchestra synced with the recording so that I WAS in a Dream Ballet dancing to the sound of my own voice singing. That was definitely a surreal experience, which I don’t think was ever done with any other company than ours. A complement from any of them sent me to cloud nine! Then, getting to dance “en pointe” as Christine Daae in PHANTOM on Broadway was another memorable experience! Gillian Lynne’s assistant, Denny Berry, was fantastic to work with! Christine was another triple threat role to accomplish, and I never thought I’d ever be back in pointe shoes at that point in my career! Getting to partner with Steve Barton, the original Raoul, and Cris Groenendaal as the Phantom, was wonderful!
What was the most frightening or funny story?
The most frightening story happened in rehearsal for WEST SIDE STORY at the Kennedy Center. There was a toss in the Dream Ballet, where two dancers held me up by my feet and literally tossed me, like a cannon ball, across the stage to four dancers who were supposed to catch me across my whole body, flatly laid out in their arms – well, the toss was a little off and while the back two dancers caught my thighs and feet, the two upper body catchers couldn’t reach me quickly enough, so my whole upper body slammed down onto the stage! Luckily, I had some great arm strength at that time, and caught myself from smashing my face into the floor! I was not a happy dancer at that moment, and told the two dancers that missed my upper body – “I don’t care if these guys throw me into the orchestra pit - the next time you run there and CATCH ME – even if you have to jump in first!!” Frightening lesson learned by all; I was never thrown improperly again and the guys never missed catching me again! We were all very shocked the accident had happened, and did the throw over again immediately about 5 times, to get us all over our nervousness about it. It also taught me that my instinct to train my upper body at a gym after each rehearsal, instead of going out for dinner with cast mates was the right one! My funny story, was in another WEST SIDE STORY production when, in the ensemble, I danced with Wilfredo Suarez, my Shark partner. Not really an “incident”, but Wilfredo was a really terrific dancer and NOT afraid to get close to a gal partner, while some guys were a little shy about the close in stuff. I used to tell him, “Willy, you are holding me so tight, you’re absolutely dancing BEHIND me!” I have to admit, we did move “as one” onstage and probably pulled focus because we were terrific together!
What experience or legacy would you like to pass on to the next generation?
First, find a terrific ballet teacher and stay in class consistently. Basic technique is most important. Then, “buffet” your other classes! Study with as many different teachers and styles as you can! Don’t forget ab work and upper arm strength at the gym – dance class doesn’t get all of your body parts in tip top shape. Then, find some dance buddies and have FUN! Sometimes just nailing a combination in a dance class is great! Compete for the best within yourself, never against others. Don’t join in backstage gossip or negativity. Casting is always fickle and almost always you never know “why” you didn’t a get part! Celebrate the success of your friends, and hey, when they are working and you’re not, they can treat for lunch!
Katharine Buffaloe-Harris with Rex Smith