A Q&A with Kellis McSparrin Oldenburg

The Q&A with Kellis McSparrin Oldenburg
Choreographer, Follies of 1915

Currently in her fourth season dancing with the Marigny Opera Ballet, McSparrin Oldenburg serves as a dancer, choreographer and rehearsal director. She has choreographed two works for the company in past seasons — “Ain’t She Sweet?” (March 2016) and “Tells” (January 2018). As a choreographer, she imagines herself as a storyteller, whose work is infused with theatrical elements and an amalgam of the diverse dance styles, techniques from her career.

The Clinton, MS native received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Dance from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2010. Following her undergraduate studies, she moved to New York City to pursue her master’s degree in dance at New York University, graduating from Tisch School of the Arts with a Master of Fine Arts in 2012.

At what point in the “Follies” development process did you become involved? Did you interface with Dave Hurlbert on music selection or scenario? How involved are you in costume and set design?

Pretty early on. Dave approached me about a year ago asking if I’d be interested in choreographing the first program for Marigny Opera Ballet’s fifth season. I have choreographed twice before for the company: one 7-minute piece and one 20-minute piece. When he told me it would be a full-length story ballet, I was definitely intrigued. When he told me it would be loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” I was all in.

The music and scenario were outlined prior to starting my choreography but has since become a collaborative project. Though the outline had been set, my choreography begins as an interpretation of Dave’s vision, and is continually evolving as we bring the story to life. It’s been exciting and gratifying to see all the pieces of the puzzle (costumes, story, set design, music, and choreography) come together.

Were you familiar with New Leviathan before Follies?

I had definitely heard of them, but I’d never had the pleasure of hearing them perform live. The first time I heard the music for Follies, I knew I was going to thoroughly enjoy choreographing to it.

What are some of the dance styles in Follies and how do you research them?

Follies is set in the year 1915, which was a time when the social dance craze swept American. Dances like the foxtrot, the tango, the two-step, the hesitation waltz and the Castle walk were all the rage thanks to Vernon and Irene Castle, as well as other dancing masters of the time. Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of footage from that time period, so I relied heavily on written dance history.

The beautiful thing about those dance styles is that, while they have evolved over time, their basic steps are pretty much the same today as they were 100 years ago. So, I explored a lot of current ballroom dance forms as physical contextual research and then combined that information with what I had read and gathered about social dance in 1915. There are also some balletic, contemporary, jazz and musical theatre elements within the choreography that I think will appeal to a present-day audience while honoring the history and period of Follies of 1915.

From what I remember of Twelfth Night, the story line is involved and complicated. What’s your approach to the story? Are you channeling Balanchine and de-emphasizing plot and letting dance be the star of the show?

As much as I admire Balanchine as a choreographer, with a story like “Twelfth Night,” there isn’t really a way of de-emphasizing the plot. The plot IS the backbone of the ballet. I told my dancers this on the first day of rehearsal: the main question I will be asking myself throughout the choreographic process is “Am I telling the story?”. Whether the movement is more full-bodied during big dancing moments or more gestural during the dramatic, plot-carrying moments, I always strive to tell the story.

What are five things the audience should look for in Follies of 1915?

1. Some incredible dancing. This ballet would not be what it is without the amazing talent I get to work with every day. I’m so thankful for each and every dancer in the Marigny Opera Ballet.
2. Pay close attention to the smaller, gestural movements; the big movements are awe-inspiring, but the gestures help tell the story.
3. This is less of a “look” and more of a “listen.” I find the music to movement relationship to be vital to the success of a choreographic work, so I have worked very hard to make sure that the two are melded in Follies. Therefore, I encourage the audience to “see” the music and “hear” the dancing.
4. Unlike some ballets that have a single main character, I feel like every character in Follies has a unique quality, personality and vitality to the story and movement.
5. Follies is a comedy (the first comedy in Marigny Opera Ballet’s full-length repertoire). I encourage the audience to laugh out loud, chuckle and enjoy themselves!