Land of the Sweets & throwing out all the rules: an interview with Mr. Bruce Wells.
Last week the curtain lifted on the eighth year of Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker. Costumes were unpacked, last year’s snowflakes were dusted from each set, and the dancers officially set up camp for an incredible 31 shows in their annual holiday home away from home, the illustrious Triple Door theater. When Land of The Sweets takes up residence in this chilly corner of downtown Seattle it feels like the holidays have finally arrived.
When I last interviewed producers Jasper McCann and Lily Verlaine, it was summertime; Burlesco DiVino rehearsals were taking place. Lily shared a story about taking a class at Pacific Northwest Ballet School for the first time after an injury – how an instructor she greatly admired approached her after barre, confessing that he had been hoping she would show up in class, as he was a huge fan of Land of the Sweets and had been attending for several years. He had noticed specifically the changes incorporated in the finale, and Lily recalled being humbled by his appreciation and attention to detail. To have a person from the world of classical dance talk about Land of the Sweets in terms of contemporary ballet was an honor – one that Lily recalled fondly when speaking about how the production has evolved since its inception.
Land of the Sweets, like all of the shows we’ve come to expect from Lily and Jasper, is the intersection of theatrical burlesque and contemporary ballet underlined with a clever eroticism (and just a pinch of sugarplum fairy dust on top). This week, we’ve tracked down the instructor that made Lily blush: Mr. Bruce Wells, who was kind enough to share his reflections on the holidays, dance, and his friendship with Lily…
Burlesque Seattle Press: Can you tell me how you first made Lily’s acquaintance?
Mr. Bruce Wells: I had seen Lily in three different productions and had heard she studied at The Pacific Northwest Ballet School where I am on the faculty. One day last summer she walked into my studio to take class. I thought to myself … OMG that’s Miss Verlaine…!!! I went right up and told her I was a big fan. We chatted a bit about her choreography and performances. I already had a reservation to see the new show, Burlesco DiVino: Wine in Rome.
BSP: Have you seen many of her productions in the past, and what were some of your initial thoughts about them? What do you think of the work she is doing with her production partner, Jasper McCann?
Mr. Wells: I have seen all three productions at The Triple Door…Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker (Twice!) Alice in Wonderland, & Burleso DiVino. I was impressed that Lily adds new choreography each season to keep the performances fresh. Lily has a very modern aesthetic about the stage. While there’s always the wink & nod to the traditions of burlesque… she also stages her dancers in very contemporary vignettes. In Jasper McCann she has the perfect partner. Where she is sweet and flirtatious… he is the charming Master of Ceremonies, full of double entendre with a stylish crooner’s singing voice. They clearly enjoy each other and that relationship allows the audience members in on the fun.
BSP: What do you think of the intermingling of all these amazing trained dancers with burlesque performers- do you think they can be positive influences on each other in some ways?
Mr. Wells: In each of the performances I’ve seen I thought Lily blended with ease… the dancers with the burlesque performers. There is always a well thought out reason why the burlesque performer appears in the precise moment that they do. It always highlights the emotional impact of the scene the way a song does on a Broadway musical. Dancers have such a strong work ethic … I’m sure the discipline it takes on both sides is shared and supported (especially on those two show evenings…)
BSP: I hear you’re a huge fan of The Nutcracker. Was it one of the first ballets that you saw? What do you recall your impressions were when you first saw it?
Mr. Wells: Being in the ballet world for well over 50 years The Nutcracker has been in my life a very long time. My first production was George Balanchine’s production for The New York City Ballet. I remember loving the idea that it was a Christmas card come to life…I would go on to dance in this production in a variety of roles for ten years. I followed this by creating my own version for The Boston Ballet. Of course I’ve seen many other versions … I like the fact that Lily begins with the Snow Scene then heads straight into the Land of Sweets. These are the scenes where both Lily and her talented company can truly shine.
BSP: In your experience, have you seen many interesting “mixed media” casts in the past as we seem to benefit from today?
Mr. Wells: I enjoy all forms of theater that throw out all the “rules”, whether it be mixed race or gender … it always brings a fresh new look to any production. I applaud Lily for her honest and open policy of casting with a wide respect for all who cross her bugle-beaded, boa-feathered path.
BSP: You’ve been a dancer and teacher for many years and have had quite an amazing career. What are you currently spending most of your time with? Does Pacific Northwest Ballet School take up all of your time, or are you working on other projects as well?
Mr. Wells: Working as a faculty member for The Pacific Northwest Ballet School is a full time job. However I have also created a “Special Family Matinee Series” for PNB. Three one hour long children’s ballet
that I also narrate. I’ve done Snow White, Hansel & Gretel, & Pinocchio so far. Many of these have also been performed by other ballet companies… Atlanta Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theater, & North Carolina Ballet to name a few. These are obviously at the extreme opposite spectrum from what Lily Verlaine creates…. My work is designed to introduce a young audience to a life-long love of ballet. When they become more mature they may come to understand the fun and sophistication of burlesque.
BSP: Who are some of your favorite choreographers and dancers today, and some of your most beloved icons from the past?
Mr. Wells: I’m a big fan of Christopher Wheeldon and look forward to seeing his work as often as possible. I also like Matthew Bourne’s work…. his all male Swan Lake and theatrical productions are terrific. I grew up in the New York City Ballet while George Balanchine was alive and worked closely with Jerome Robbins. I was a lucky young dancer to work with this level of genius.
BSP: How are you spending the holidays this year?
Mr. Wells: I have a number of terrific holiday traditions here in Seattle. I spend as much time with good friends as I can. Christmas Eve is always spent with my first dancing partner from childhood, with Christmas Day spent with my 95 year old Father. All that with Lily Verlaine’s Land of Sweets makes this truly the most wonderful time of the year. Merry Christmas!
**For tickets and more information, visit www.landofthesweets.com.**
Bruce Wells was born in Tacoma and trained on scholarship at the School of American Ballet. He joined New York City Ballet in 1967 and was promoted to soloist in 1969. He was resident choreographer and principal dancer with both Connecticut Ballet and Boston Ballet, and served as interim and associate artistic director for the Boston Ballet from 1984-89. He went to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as resident choreographer in 1989 and joined the PNBS faculty in 1997.