Well, the weather outside was frightful,
But the show was so delightful…
Let ‘em dance, let ‘em dance, let ‘em dance!
From the moment The New York Times announced that David Hallberg would appear on The Colbert Report, I was determined, somehow, to see the taping. Fortunately, after weeks of monitoring Twitter, missing tickets by minutes, and nearly falling into despair, just a day before the show was set to go, I finally snared my ticket.
To give some background on me and why it meant so much: the very first live performance I saw was the Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet when I was just eight years old. My sister took me, and even though I was in the cheap seats of the huge opera house—up in heaven as we like to say—I was completely enchanted. From that point on, I was a fan and more: I parlayed that interest into an internship backstage with the Joffrey Ballet during high school and later into the subject of my dissertation in NYU’s Cinema Studies department. Dance of all kinds is a passion. So to have one of the finest dancers of our time meet the greatest comedian of the age was pretty unbelievable. Basically, it drew me with the magnetic power of a black star. And the fact that Hallberg had hinted that Colbert would somehow partner him in a dance was just—well, more than the proverbial icing on the cake, because I adore physical comedy, too. (Buster Keaton’s another of my heroes.) As most of you know, when No Fact Zone shut down, and we completists had to choose a favorite Stephen moment, I picked his dance-off with Rain.
Happily, the taping was everything I expected and more—and by the way, the clip is being tweeted by dance professionals of all stripes, who seem to have enjoyed it as much as I did. But now: to the details of the taping.
I arrived in some of the worst weather New York has suffered in a while: rainy, cold, and miserable, so even though it wasn’t that early, I somehow ended up first in line. Let’s just say the wait was not pleasant: puddles of water streamed down that little alleyway and seeped through my boots till my feet were frozen. The folks at the Report took pity on us, though, and let us in early. Thank you, Colbert Report Security people for your kindness! (As always, the staff was great.) After watching an extra-long session of clips, I finally filed in and was shown to a second-row seat on the very far left—as far away from where Hallberg would dance as you could get. It turned out to have some advantages though, as you will hear. As I walked to my place, I noticed that yellow police tape surrounded the usual guest area, most likely to keep people from walking on the special floor laid down for Hallberg. A wise move, with everyone’s feet so wet from the rain. And-oh, by the way: the CBS Sunday News reporters, who are doing a profile on Hallberg, were there with a camera, so they might show a clip.
Everyone here has heard about the pre-taping routine already, from Pete Dominick warming up the audience to the question-and-answer period with Stephen that precedes his transformation into character. So I won’t spend much time on that, except to note that there was a very obnoxious person in the audience who got me a bit worried. He raised his hand during the warm-up to bellow a question about why all the foreigners got the front seats. (Dominick always asks who’s from out of town, and had had already traded jests with some Australians and Canadians.) As it happened, one of those foreigners, an Aussie seated in front of me, was in a wheelchair. Dominick pointed this out to Obnoxious Guy, but it didn’t stop OG from asking Stephen a stupid question later and even mentioning his faux pas. Not humbled at all.
When the time finally arrived for Stephen’s entrance, he rushed in to the usual cheers, high-fiving the front-row (I tried, but no one in the second got lucky)—and then went center stage and did a single pirouette! It was my first delicious taste of things to come. He also made a comment about tights under his suit, so I was actually waiting for him to rip the pants off before dancing, which did not happen. That evening, Stephen answered an unusually large number of questions. I’ll do my best to repeat them, but I did miss some. These are not necessarily in the order they were asked, but in the order I remembered them as I jotted down notes later. Someone wondered if he had any pre-show rituals, and Stephen replied that he showered, shaved (but only below the neck!) and sung all of “I Want You to Want Me”—which always plays when he enters the studio—in front of the mirror. Another person queried him about a coat that Stephen had either bought or that a designer had sent him—I didn’t quite catch it, but the questioner worked with the designer. Stephen said he wears it all the time—with nothing else on, in order to scare the staff. There was the inevitable Lord of the Rings question: Star Wars or Lord of the Rings? All together now: LOTR! You knew that, didn’t you? Stephen pointed out that because of the books, the films had a stronger foundation. Then he asked the questioner which he preferred. The man agreed with Stephen, so Stephen told him “Good. You can stay.” In another probably standard question, someone asked whether he and Jon hung out. “We party all the time.” he responded. “Jon gets a lot of tail.”
Most interestingly—and this might actually have been the first question—he was asked if doing the show had affected his political views. He asserted that it had changed his view of politics, which is not the same thing at all. Doing the SuperPac, in particular, had altered his perception of how the system works. He called it a “horror show you can’t get out of your head.” Clearly, his recent experiences getting close to the sources of power have made him, if not jaded, a little too aware of the uglier aspects of political wheeling and dealing. He returned to that topic during the evening in a way I consider astonishing….but more on that later.
And the questions continue: he was asked if he ever brought the character home, and he told the story we heard last week during his talk in Montclair—but slightly differently. As he put it: it happened once, and when he walked in Evie realized it immediately and told him to “get the f&!k out of the house and come back as her husband.” (Yes, that’s how he said it.) Can I tell you how much I love that story? One reason I take such pleasure in Mr. Colbert is that I know there is a Grand Canyon-sized chasm separating the man and the role he plays four nights a week. I’m happy that his wife is nipping any “character creep” right in the bud. The kind of adulation he gets nearly daily could sweep a weaker man off his feet –and I don’t want any Face in the Crowd transformations. (For those who don’t get the reference, it’s an incredible classic Hollywood movie you should see and that I’d kill to see Stephen remake.)
Another question concerned whether he would ever wear a beard on the show. He said no, and went on to note that his beard now is all white. It used to be red, but all the hair that was red has gone white…ALL the hair.
Then the taping began, and I finally saw the good aspect of my seat: I had a great view of Stephen, especially when he looked to his right. Sometimes, I almost felt he was looking directly at me, because I was in his line of vision. (Another advantage: being within a foot of Paul Dinello as he exited after conferring with Stephen during the breaks. I am just going to say that the man is beyond any usual definition of gorgeous, a Renaissance painting come to life, and leave it at that.) Everything went very smoothly, with only the smallest glitches that didn’t even give Stephen pause or require a retake…until after the interview with Dick Harpootlian, the head of the South Carolina Democratic Party, had ended. Then something remarkable happened: a character break you didn’t see on the show, followed by Stephen talking to the audience for a few minutes. The interview had finished, the makeup people had fussed, the commercial was over, and the cameraman was about to start recording again—when suddenly Stephen just started laughing. Just broke up, unexpectedly. He then began to speak to us frankly about what had really happened with the South Carolina referendum and with the Republicans. Once again, the words “horror show” were used in relation to politicking. I don’t know how many of you have read the Huffington Post article the Hub tweeted about recently, but that subject is exactly what Stephen was addressing: his attempts to sponsor a Republican primary in South Carolina. As he put it, he offered them massive amounts of money to hold a Republican primary if they would name it for him the way baseball stadiums are named for their donors—and from what I can gather, though I am presuming a bit here, they did not immediately refuse. He laughed (somewhere between bitterly and gleefully, I’d say) and stated that he had plenty of e-mails to back up what had happened in the negotiations. I shudder to think about what went on. I’m sure some people will think Stephen was wrong to try and do what he did—essentially take over a government function because he has the cash to influence it. They’d say he was undermining the integrity of the political process. To which I respond: WHAT integrity? I think Stephen’s plan was breathtaking political theater. If everything is bought and sold in politics, why not make it clear to the world at large by individually sponsoring a primary? The Republicans believe in total privatization anyway, so why not go all the way? Why not shine a light at the outrageousness by taking it to the limit and see if the people become angry enough to do something? It all fits in with the piece on Huntsman’s “sugar daddy” buying his ads. Wealth buys opportunity, and the SuperPac means wealth. But he’s going to use it to illuminate. Genius, thy name is Stephen Colbert.
After this surprising diversion, the show resumed normally. On the break just before Hallberg’s appearance, he slipped in to sit at the guest’s chair and applause broke out from the people on that side who noticed him first. He smiled and waved, and he and Stephen made some playful, friendly gestures towards each other. I could tell, even in advance of the interview, that the feeling between them was very warm. I could also tell that I would barely be able to see most of the interview because the cameras were blocking me, which was a little disappointing. Fortunately, however, they shifted at some point before the comic pas de trois, opening up a clear space.
My perspective on the interview: I loved it, and once again, I think Stephen was doing some brilliant satire. The “cold war” stuff with which he confronted Hallberg sounds amusing and ridiculous, yet almost every newspaper has used the word “defect” not only to describe Hallberg’s move, but also the departure of former Bolshoi stars Osipova and Vasiliev to a new company. The lingo lingers on though the iron curtain has been opened and the wall pulled down. In the years—nearly 50!—since Rudolf Nureyev made his leap to the west at Le Bourget airport in France, dance has become increasingly international in nature. So perhaps the time has come for an American to return the favor and go to Russia. Certainly, Hallberg does have “American secrets” to teach the Bolshoi: dancers here are frequently speedier and more skilled in a variety of styles than the Russians, who have not always had access to truly contemporary choreography. And the Russians, in turn, have a long and illustrious classical tradition that has given the world many of its ballet standards, including Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. They have stylistic and technical insight to give back to Hallberg.
I also felt Hallberg held his own very well responding to Stephen’s questions. He stayed relaxed and amused, and did exactly what Stephen has always said he asks his guests to do: assume his character is an idiot who needs to be disabused of his idiocy. The Black Swan question was therefore welcome. Although I did enjoy the film, and know from my own experience that there is a certain crazy dedication among dancers, the movie’s not real and there are more than a few people who need to hear it. (In London, people were apparently phoning the Royal Opera House asking when Natalie Portman would be appearing in Swan Lake.) And, besides all that, Hallberg’s last response to Stephen’s sex question was pretty hilarious and direct.
After the verbal half of Hallberg’s appearance, he began to warm up, and in order to give him ample time, Stephen took another question: had any of his guests contacted him after the show, upset about how their interviews had gone? Stephen said only two people had, because most of the guests understand that he’s in character. But one man who stayed antagonized was the congressman who believed that the Ten Commandments should be posted in all government buildings and schools—and then could only name three commandments when Stephen asked him what they were. (If the congressman had been smart and cool, he’d have said: “See? That’s what happens when you can’t post the Commandments anywhere!)
Just before the dance began, the staff handed out roses to everyone and Stephen told the audience that it was a Bolshoi tradition to toss roses at the dancers, and would be willing? Of course we were. (By the way, it’s also become an American tradition, especially when a dancer is making a big debut, has been promoted, or is retiring. I helped create showers of flowers several times in my life.)
Watching the dance was both fascinating and frustrating, because of the cameras. I actually could see way more than during the interview, but did not have a clear view of everything that went on. The more forward they moved, the better for me; the further into the depths the receded, the more difficult. In that restricted space, Hallberg obviously had to adjust the choreography, so we didn’t really get to see any of the huge, catlike, and space-eating grand jetés he does so incredibly and with seeming effortlessness. The piece he performed, the coda of climactic pas de deux of The Nutcracker, normally gives the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier a chance pull out all the stops. Here, Hallberg switched to more intricate footwork (he has such gorgeous feet) and tours en l’air (when he leapt straight up, feet together, and spun in the air, landing in place) that comfortably worked in the small area. I might add that such steps were easier for Stephen to play around with, too. And I’m proud of Mr. Colbert for his all-out effort, not to mention the inspired humor of a suit jacket over tights. It was pretty funny when he ran on; I’d been waiting for his appearance, and yet he managed to make it surprising even so. While of course the harder steps were beyond him, he really jumped into it totally. And Hallberg’s advice to him (see the link to the Times article below) really paid off in terms of the way Colbert held himself, his port de bras (arm movements), and even how he ran across the tiny stage. Applause to Hee Seo, too, for trusting Stephen with that final fish dive. We know that he has successfully lifted both Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello in their “acrobatic act,” but this was a little different. (And a bit rougher, I’m afraid, but I’m sure she’s no worse for wear!)
Of course, you’ll want to watch it again…and I wish I could be there again and see it all over one more time!
And if you’d like to read Hallberg’s description of his experience, here’s what he had to say about it in The New York Times. And please guys—don’t get upset about what he says about Stephen’s initial attempts to enter the stage dancing. Let me tell you: I have heard ballet masters be much tougher on professionals. It’s surprisingly hard to get on and off stage elegantly and it’s as learned as anything else. Trust me. (On the other hand, saying that Stephen did not quite “hold his own” in the performance is ridiculous. They were expecting he could turn into Baryshnikov in a lesson? He did indeed hold his own in creating highly successful comedy. Plus, I think he treated the art with absolute respect. So there. )