Few people can cast a spell simply by entering a room. Tandy Beal can.
With the carriage of a queen and the grace of a Botticelli sylph, the dancer-turned-impresario personifies joie de vivre. Energizing a stage or critiquing a new work-in-progress, Beal is as fully alive, active, and engaged as it is possible to be. Or at least that’s what it looks like to her many students, audiences, and fellow dancers. And it has for more decades than seems possible.
Beal of the dark eyes, long limbs, and infamous mane of Pre-Raphaelite hair just can’t quit dreaming up ways to win new audiences and re-enchant those already converted. She’s been everywhere, collaborated with everyone from Frank Zappa to Bobby McFerrin, and directed both the Moscow Circus and Pickle Family Circus. Her company, Tandy Beal & Company, has been provoking wonder and joy for 43 years. And once you’ve done all that, it’s hard to stop.
And what doesn’t stop is Beal’s faith in the magic of live performance. “We’re all in the present moment,” she insists, her eyes shining. “We are together. And anything can happen. This moment in real time, with all its joys and possibilities, your whole body shares the experience.”
In her life of performative immediacy, Beal and her repertory company of dancers, singers, acrobats and clowns invite audiences “to be part of something larger than themselves.”
The Reflective Voice
How did Joy come about, I ask the woman I’ve known for 35 years. “Since my beginning work, it’s always been two strands,” she says. “One is celebratory, the other is reflective.” We reminisce about past works such as Crazy Jane and From Blake’s Window. “Most always the questions are around the ‘Wow, we’re on this mysterious planet’ realization. I’m overwhelmed by the mysterious part.”
She shakes her head as if still puzzled by the mystery of it all. “I’m always looking to find the reflective voice, then I explore how to create something that finds that strand.”
The humor that inflects Beal’s best work is a central part of her personality, professionally as well as privately. “Early on, I was doing humor, which at that point just wasn’t done in dance—it was considered outré. It wasn’t considered serious art.” She raises a skeptical eyebrow. “Making humor takes as much discipline, care and practice as making serious work. Humor is serious.” And she lets out a full-bodied laugh of pleasure.
In many ways, the graceful woman I’ve watched dance in so many productions is an inquisitive girl at heart, moving through the world with huge gestures, lots of eye contact, and easy smiles. Always beautiful.
“I came from two Broadway actors. I didn’t have to be taught that communication was the basic issue of life. And I live with a man [composer Jon Scoville] who is witty and humorous,” she says. “And I’m a businesswoman, which is important as we’re in the advanced capitalist era.”
In the business of art, the margins of error are slim these days. “When I step onto a stage I instinctively do two things: I count the house, and then I think ‘can I meet the payroll?’” she says. “Teaching is my day job. It pays the bills.”
Having spent the summer dancing in New York “doing solo work again,” she discovered that she still had all her own dancerly wits about her. Which means that she’ll be among those performing in the upcoming Holiday Show. Joy will include much new material plus a few choice nuggets from Mixed Nutz, Beal’s updated Nutcracker Suite tour de force. “I’ve lived in the world of circus—and, for many years, of music. Joy is a braid of those languages—circus, music, and dance. A multilingual production,” she says, with a laugh.
“We need this—we need joy,” says Beal. “We did a version of it last year, but this time we’ll be at UCSC. The Performing Arts Theater is the perfect space.”
And the experience, she believes, will be quite distinct for both performers and audiences. “That wrap-around stage—it will be so intimate.”
The show’s title evolved after lots of brainstorming. Nothing seemed quite right. “So I stopped and asked myself—what am I doing? And the answer was that I want to bring some joy to people. So … Joy!”
The newest production for the lifelong dancer/choreographer will be packed with quintessential Beal favorites. “Highlights from the Nut, like the Russian hip-hop dance—very fun. My two dear pals from the Pickle Family Circus, great physical comedic actors who went on to Cirque du Soleil, Jeff Raz and Diane Wasnak. These two clowns together have a chemistry like Laurel and Hardy,” Beal exclaims. “She’s four-foot-ten and he’s six-two. Well, I called them up and said, ‘Let’s get back together!’”
Beal immediately realized that the scope needed to grow from there. “The stage will be alive with colorful movement. Acrobatics from China, bicycle juggling, Sovoso—an award-winning a capella group. And circus. Funny, weird, magical,” Beal promises.
Once she had the agreement of her players—many coming to perform from all over the country—the company met at Beal’s house in the redwoods. “We had a costume fitting, and then we all had dinner!” During two weeks of rehearsals on both sides of the hill, the production took shape. Beal knows the music they like to work with, and made some new suggestions. “They said, ‘Not quite, but maybe this.’” And after plenty of healthy back and forth, they landed on what works.
Beal likes to make little storyboards of the various scenes, drawing rectangles to block out the basic overall structure. “Intro and extro—those are crucial,” she says.
She admits to being obsessive. “And then I bring in the lighting designer, and the sound designer. I’ve directed some opera, and I thought that was the most complicated thing. But circus! That was complex, and it’s because there are so many more elements. Rigging, harnesses, extra equipment.” She rolls her eyes.
Beal thinks she might be good at orchestrating all these elements because she’s flexible. “As a child, I loved puzzles,” she says. “I like to ask, ‘How are we going to do this, artfully and technically?’ It amounts to a puzzle, and you have to solve it. Things can and will go wrong, but you have to figure out how to solve it, often right there on stage.”
Tangle of Motion
“Does that work?” Beal asks the company of eight performers rehearsing together at Motion Pacific. “You can evolve this,” she encourages.
I’ve been invited into the sacred space for a few hours. “Weave a bit,” she instructs. They regroup and begin again. Jungle sounds fill the cavernous hall and one forest creature in the form of an exceptionally nimble dancer begins to stretch and explore the space, as more creatures twist and rustle farther upstage. Bird songs, macaws, cicadas. Enter a male “panther,” who entwines the original dancer. They repeat a sinuous spiral, and before you know it, they are part of a large, graceful tangle of forms.
Beal follows the performers as they move, and calls a few position changes, urging them to move farther down stage. “In your mind’s eye, you can have your own moment before you join the group,” she says. Looking to Associate Director Rebecca Blair for agreement, Beal says, “I think she should be a bit earlier,” and then acts out what she wants. Wearing a loose men’s shirt and stretchy pants, her long hair tied back in a knot, Beal improvises the desired gestures. It is a mini-demo of her kinetic style and strength.
Seated between the mirrored walls and the company of eight dancers dressed in shorts, tights, and tank tops, I’m treated to a rare inside view that is part process and part performance. It’s as focused, precise and engaging as any Broadway show I’ve seen—an acceleration of horseplay, bodily adjustments, and run-throughs of tricky bits as the players practice lifts, somersaults, and impossible postures. Tandy moves into the group from time to time to negotiate with one couple, organizing a transition from floor to overhead contortions. In between the segments, the dancers check their arm positions and their facial expressions in the wall-to-wall mirror.
“Let’s do the whole thing,” she suggests, while Blair reminds them where the stage lines will be in the UCSC Performing Arts stage in the round. “Adrienne, we need more human body language,” Beal teases a dancer who is performing a long-limbed insect. They rehearse the same part again, sculpting precise hand and foot gestures—signature Tandy Beal gestures, but also gestures that guarantee that the arc of movement never breaks up, continuing far into the space beyond the body.
Grace and strength—that’s what I’m watching. That’s what it takes to make these dance stories. The dancer/animals begin to crawl into the main scene.
“Take your time,” Beal advises. “Close in toward each other. Travel a little faster. Claire, keep your body in creature world.” Beal illustrates “insect steps,” as she and creative associate Ron Taylor give feedback notes on what was just performed. Taylor, who has been with Beal since her very first shows in Santa Cruz, is “a dancer nonpareil and now acts as graphics designer and a creative problem-solver on every level,” Beal tells me. She then turns her attention back to the action. “Kevin, the leap out was great!”
Next, they work on a piece called “Ribbon,” in which long ribbons on the end of wands amplify each hand and arm movement. The dancers practice ways of using the ribbons to carve great circles and spirals in the space above their bodies.
“Is that a good idea?” Beal asks of one dancer’s innovation. She may be in charge, but she’s nobody’s idea of a dictator. Presence and chutzpah go into this swirl of circling ribbons, and suddenly six dancers are in total sync. They cross the stage diagonally, forming the central tornado of ribbon circles.
“Hold those up over your head,” Beal’s protege and longtime collaborator Saki tells them. She’s in the center of the tornado and needs space to wield her pulsating ribbon wand.
The performers need to know exactly where they have to end up, and how to sense the bodies around them, in order to get there. It takes intuition and plenty of counting. They each try some variations—a higher leap, or slightly longer ripple—to keep things new and fresh. “You can’t be dumb and be a dancer,” Beal whispers to me.
Next comes a short but mesmerizing piece that pays homage to early 20th-century expressionist dancer Loie Fuller. Now costumed in full-length circles of diaphanous fabric, and holding unseen sticks to extend the reach of their arms, the dancers appear to have translucent wings of pastel fabric. As they twirl and swirl the patterns of curves and ovals, waves and cones becomes hypnotic, requiring a kinetic sixth sense. A butterfly with 12 wings suddenly forms in the center of this swirling dance. “Toe heel walk please, Claire,” Beal urges, prowling through the dancers like a leopard.
Even in rehearsal, the music and movement cast a spell. Beal, with her charismatic posture models how each dancer should enter the stage. “This whole thing is sternum,” she reminds them, flinging her arms wide. “It’s about opening the heart and feeling the magnificence.” They practice extending their sticks in lovely unison over and over—without fidgeting, arguing or devolving into separate conversations. Yet they all obviously enjoy each other and what they’re doing. “Just catch enough air in your billows to create a cone,” Beal tells them. There’s a pause for interpretation, refinement of gestures. They clarify and strengthen their movements. “Practice the butterfly at the center of the Loie. Don’t get frantic with those rolls! Heart, space, light!” says Beal.
“And a side of fries,” adds Taylor. Laughter fills the vast rehearsal space.
Before I leave, the company runs through a caper of physical comedy mixed with split-second movement. This clever piece involves highly expressive clowning plus dance and acrobatics, with a side of Michael Jackson. They each somersault into their hats before juggling them one by one—then another, then another, until finally all six players are transferring all six hats from each other’s heads. It’s amazing to watch.
One hat topples to the floor as they exit the run-through. “If that happens during performance,” Beal reminds them, “one of you come back to pick it up before the next act!”
Beal will join her dancers and many other exciting acts when the show hits the stage. Switching from the role of director to performer comes naturally for her.
“I know how to be there,” she says. “The stage is home.”
‘Joy—Tandy Beal & Company’s Holiday Show with Circus, Dance, and Live Music’ will be performed Friday, Nov. 23, through Sunday, Dec. 2 at UCSC Mainstage Theater, 453 Kerr Road, Santa Cruz on the UCSC campus. It will then move to the Hammer Theatre Center, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, for performances Dec. 7-9. To purchase tickets, go to tandybeal.com/joy.