Marilyn Klaus choreographs ballets with a boozy twist

By
Photography Mark Aghatise

Published April 26, 2018

Sitting at a window-adjacent table of TriBeca’s storied bistro the Odeon, her favorite New York City restaurant located just a couple of blocks away from her dance studio, choreographer Marilyn Klaus radiates a theatrical aura.

Looking like Diana Vreeland with bold red lips, rouged cheeks, and leopard headwrap perfectly knotted, Klaus orders a virgin Bloody Mary for herself (she needs a clear head during rehearsals later), and her favorite margarita (Don Julio Reposado straight up, no salt, not very sweet) for me.

It’s part of her M.O., drinking. Not in the way of a boozing creative but because her dance company, Ballets With a Twist, literally combines cocktails and classical ballet. Each dance is choreographed in honor of a specific libation.

“It’s unbelievable, these [dance performances],” Klaus says. “I don’t even have to do any research, they’re just there. All of the cocktail concepts, they’re part of a concept of popular culture, and they wrap in regular culture.”

There’s no built-in narrative for a show based on a cocktail the way there would be for a full-length classic like Swan Lake, so Klaus has an empty glass to fill with natural wit, plus a bottomless well of inspiration, for as long as there can be new drinks, there can also be new dances. She imagines whole stories, sometimes from just a name. The White Russian, for instance, becomes a wedding between members of the Romanov dynasty featuring live inclement weather.

The mix of drinks and ballet makes perfect sense for Klaus. As a child, her father converted the family home’s patio into a dance studio, laying wood over the brick floor and creating a trap wall which obscured both bar and barre: one piled with booze and one for practicing battements. This nurtured interest in the movement carried her to a boarding school where she studied the repertoire of Isadora Duncan—known as the mother of modern dance—and then to NYU’s brand new School of the Arts in 1970. She acquired her TriBeca studio in 1979, the same petite space where Ballets With a Twist now rehearses and where she lives.

Her choreographic impulses were not easily satiated, however, and with the help of her husband, the company’s composer/co-founder Stephen Gaboury, and her long-time costume designer Catherine Zehr, the individual pieces she’d been developing for over a decade premiered as a full set in 2009 billed Cocktail Hour: The Show.

“I put the company together to create,” she says, pushing aside her celery garnish to take a sip. “So they know that rehearsal—for me—is almost more important than the performance.”

But performances are the lifeblood in a competitive scene not tailored to the success of small, novelty troupes. So with no official venue to call their own, Ballets With a Twist is constantly touring, picking up diverse gigs at universities, nightclubs, local theaters, SAKS Fifth Avenue, and even as an opening act for Cyndi Lauper. The cosmic goal is to set up shop in clubs, an edgy endeavor for a choreographer who admittedly loves the “neutral palette” of classical ballet technique.

“It was just terribly inspiring to me,” she says of the unlikely combo. “So I would say I was never the technician any of the dancers in my group are. But my passion for the form and the training is sort of unsurpassed as far as I can tell.”

For all the dynamic staging and dramatic concepting, Klaus is surprisingly soft spoken, but it’s clear she absorbs everything. Her knowledge of alcohol culture alone is robust: “You know that [the agave plant from which tequila is made] is pollinated by bats,” she asks. (No, I did not.) It makes her output prolific and her process unconventional, because she actually choreographs in silence, without specific dancers in mind. Gaboury watches and creates the musical composition he thinks would work best.

“I’m just totally movement-oriented, and I like it that way, and I really want to keep it that way,” Klaus says. “It’s all I have, my feeling for the movement.”

As she takes the last swig of her Bloody Mary, Klaus notes her placebo-effect woozy-ness. She’s off to lead a rehearsal for her newest dance, Hot Toddy, but not before saying a quick hello to all of her favorite Odeon staffers—one of the hostesses is a dancer too. Like Ballets With a Twist, it’s a perfect, heady mix of dance and drinks.