.Leaps of Faith

1501 COVERWith a new show, Tandy Beal kicks off a year of celebrating the 40th year of her dance company in Santa Cruz, looking back on an incredible career, and the relationship with partner and collaborator Jon Scoville at its center

The story of Tandy Beal’s life as an artist in Santa Cruz is really a love story.

First and foremost, it’s the story of Beal and her partner Jon Scoville, who she met on a blind date in 1963, and came to Santa Cruz with in 1966. A musician and composer, he has been her constant collaborator ever since, and has scored her dance work in Santa Cruz right from her very first solo show, in 1972. In 1974, they founded Tandy Beal & Company here, and this year they’ll celebrate the organization’s 40th anniversary, beginning with the show “40 Odd Moves,” Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at the Cabrillo Crocker Theater.

TB 1But that’s only the beginning; Beal has a lot planned for this anniversary year, including directing one of the “8 Tens @ Eight” plays that opens this week. She and Scoville are also starting a First Saturday Family Concert Series that will run February through May, every first Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Santa Cruz Veterans Memorial Building. The first show, on Feb. 7, features Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir.

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Locally, along with her company’s long run of intriguing productions, Beal is probably best known for being the first artist to remake the Nutcracker in a modern style with “Mixed Nutz,” which debuted in 1982, and for running the Pickle Family Circus. Beal and Scoville also ran Café Zinio, the Santa Cruz coffee shop immortalized in Cracker’s song “Big Dipper.”

Outside of Santa Cruz, Beal and company tour nationally and internationally, including a state-sponsored tour of Eastern Europe in 1989, just months before the Berlin Wall came down. Among other career highlights, Beal directed the Moscow Circus in Japan, choreographed life-sized puppets for the American premiere of Frank Zappa’s orchestral works, has collaborated for decades with Bobby McFerrin, and created the movements on which the now-iconic characters of Jack Skellington, Sally, Oogie Boogie and all the others were based for the Tim Burton-produced animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas.

After a rehearsal for her retrospective show, Beal spoke to GT about what it’s like to reflect on her career and relationship after four decades.

How does it feel to look back on four decades of work?

TB 2-JohnBealandLittleTandy001TANDY BEAL: It’s pretty hard to encompass it all. There’s a ton of feelings. First of all, it’s shock. Really? I feel like I’ve backed into all of the major things in my life, including having an ongoing nonprofit. Learning one of my old solos [from video, for the upcoming show], it was from 20 years ago, and I’m talking to the audience at the 20th anniversary celebration, and go, laughingly, “Well, I’ll see you in another 20.” And I just went, “Well, my god, Beal, you did it.” It’s amazing that we’re in the black, and we’re not in a metropolis. It’s very tricky to run an arts organization that keeps making things through the years. I feel huge joy in how much collaboration we’ve done. How many artists who were already at the top of their game, or who were young ones who we’ve helped get to the next step. It’s deep. It’s really deep.

How did you approach the idea of a career retrospective for ‘40 Odd Moves?’

Originally, I was going to do a huge thing of bringing in lots of large company works and doing them. And then I started thinking, “No, go back to original intention. Go back to space, time, a single figure, and music.” Which is where I started. And my father always wanted me just to do that—he felt that as a performer I should just push that envelope. He was a professional actor; his first show was with Helen Hayes, his last show was The Firm with Tom Cruise, so he had a huge arc. I think he wanted me to go into theater, probably, but he never pushed. In fact, he bent over backwards to not push. But I did an off-Broadway show once, and I tell you, friends of mine said they saw my parents in the audience that night and they were incoherent, they were so nervous. And I went, “Nervous? I’ve danced on Broadway. What’s the deal?” But I was on their turf. It was theater. It was like suddenly I came back into really being a performer, if I was doing theater. [Laughs.] Kind of charming.

How is this show different from what fans who don’t know your early work might expect?

TB3The last 20 years, I’ve been doing huge shows, with either 40 people onstage, or “Here After Here” had a three-level set. Highly complex shows that go from beginning to end without a stop. And this one goes back to, like, beautiful miniature paintings. They’re five-minute solos. You don’t like one, another one’s coming down the pike. And they’re all different, totally different. Some are zany, totally out there. I did a rehearsal this morning, and someone who was watching said, “Oh my god, I had no idea you could be that dopey.”

You’ve made Santa Cruz your home, which can be notoriously difficult for artists. Did you know right away that this is where you wanted to make art for the next four decades?

No. We came out here because Jon’s scholarship job at Yale was to type the papers for a man named Harry Berger, who came out here and started the English program at UCSC. We were coming out for the summer, and at the end of that time in ’66, Jon said, “I can’t go back to New York. And I went “I have to go back to New York. You have to go back to New York.” He said, “I can’t. I love it here.” For about six years, we did bicoastal—four months together in New York, four months apart, four months together out here. And we never knew if it was going to last between us. We didn’t know.

Obviously your life with him is a huge part of your creative life, as well.

His music is totally central. His belief, his zaniness. Oh my god, it’s an amazing collaboration, not only of work, but to have been together all these years. He is totally instrumental.

You said he had the original idea for you to remake the Nutcracker.

TB4We were touring everywhere, exhausted and cranky. On a long drive, Jon put on this tape that he called Mit Schlag to cheer us all up, and they were all charming, wonderful pieces of music, and one was Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It did the trick, we all got out of our bad moods, and Jon looked at me—this is in the late ’70s—and he said, “You know what you should do, you should make a new Nutcracker.” And I went, “Oh yeah, pfft.” And about two years later, I went “You know, that was a good idea.” And then two years after that, I raised the money to do it. He was also the one who said, “Why don’t you do a work on William Blake?” “Why, Jon?” “Well, I think it’d be interesting.” [The idea would become the show “Outside Blake’s Window.”] He kind of drops these things. So I say, “They would never happen without you,” and he says, “Well, you’re the one who does it.”

So the relationship started out bicoastal in the ’60s, and ended up here. When did you know for sure you were staying in Santa Cruz?

Probably about five years ago. No, I’m kidding! Once you put your roots down in Santa Cruz, you realize the specialness here—how difficult it would be to be someplace else, where people’s mentality is so different. This is home. Totally home.

A lot of times the reason artists leave Santa Cruz is they feel they need a bigger city to do their best work. But you’ve managed to stay here and do big things around the world.

I’ve been really lucky. And I don’t get it. I feel great luck. [People have] asked me, ‘How’d you get the gig with Frank Zappa?’ or ‘How’d you get the gig with Tim Burton?’ I don’t know. I mean, I look back on those, and it just feels like a lot of grace. I’m not saying I don’t work hard. I work stupidly hard. It doesn’t stop. But I think there’s been grace … Recently, a lot of the trips I’ve been doing with Bobby McFerrin have to do with working with other artists, and shaping their work. But often they don’t speak English, and we don’t have a translator. In a way, all of art for me is about communicating. This process of working with different artists demands all your skills in communication. And I love it. I love being in places where I can’t take anything for granted, I don’t know the rules. I like that.

You’ve certainly had a lot of career highlights, but specifically, what’s your favorite work you’ve done in Santa Cruz?

TB5-Pink-Lady-Credit-Mark-WagnerMy annual Thanksgiving dinner. No, I love things for different reasons. I love that we did the original alternative Nutcracker when we did it, because it was totally out there—me kind of discovering how to do circus without any training in it. How do you take classical music and re-shape it? How do you make another storyline? I loved doing that. Then I loved remaking it with the singers I’d met with Bobby McFerrin, and they sing the Tchaikovsky live, a capella. Those were wonderful leaps of faith. “You think we can do it?” We did something out on the beach, which I might do again next year, called “Merpeople.” And people just discovered it. Everybody was buried in the sand, and people just suddenly saw these people emerging from the sand. It was shocking. It was gorgeous. I loved that. We did an experimental concert that started at 8:09 … sharp. Adults were $5, students were $10, children were $15, dogs were $40 and babies were $50.

You talked about how it’s hard work. But the results always seem to have a certain whimsy—I think that’s a quality that’s run through your work.

Whimsy’s a great word. My relationship with Jon keeps me lighthearted. He’s a very funny man. I said to him once, “You know what I love about you? You let me be six years old.” And he went, immediately, “I’ve always wanted to go out with an older woman!” He has a constant lightness that has allowed my own. I do have a good sense of humor. But in the contemporary dance world, when I was first starting, to do something funny—everybody was kind of nonplussed by it. “You shouldn’t be doing that! You should be doing serious art!” And yet I had a zany streak, which is probably why I got involved with the circus.

You take your art very seriously, even when you aren’t being serious.

TB6-Program001I think my works kind of fall into two categories: one is celebrational, and the other is poetic or introspection. I think in a way they’re both about the grand mystery that we’re here on the planet. One is doing it with total joy—gobsmacked with fun, delight, whimsy. “Mixed Nutz” is like that, all the stuff with the Circus, the stuff with Bobby that I’ve done, a number of these solos. The mystery part, again, quite a few of the solos have that. “Here After Here,” that was all about the big mystery. “Outside Blake’s Window” was about that. “Nightlife” was a solo show all about insomnia, and the thoughts you have in the middle of the night that you can’t think in the daytime. And there was another full-length solo show I did called “Wing and a Prayer,” that was about my father’s ending time. The whole first part of it was very strong, and then the second part was completely zany. It was this woman in a fanciful kitchen, where all the appliances had a life of their own … I kept talking about how there’s a party that’s going to happen, and how I have to get this place cleaned up, what a mess it is. And finally I went “I really need help, this place is a wreck.” And I used my circus skills to bring everybody up on stage … and I catered the whole damn thing. It was so amazing. My wonderful tech crew, they all came to me privately going “You’re not going to take a bow? This is weird.” They all came worried that I was smashing the convention. I said, “You know what? I’ve been doing shows for a million years, and this is in honor of my dad, and I’m going to do it how I want, I don’t care.” It was fabulous to stand in the audience, and see the audience up on the stage eating and drinking and having a great time.

Are there ideas you have where you think “Well, that’s too zany” or “That’s too dark”?

No, I think that’s where it becomes engaging. Now, renting a theater is so damn expensive, but we used to do these things where we’d do two weekends at Cabrillo, and in there we’d always do one experimental concert. And we would go crazy. We’d bring in 400 pairs of shoes, and dump them and improvise and do something crazy with them. One time we took the money we got at the box office that day—or maybe we didn’t do it exactly that way, we got $300 in clean bills. We’d put them into a clear plastic bag, and at a certain point in the concert we handed it out to the audience and said, “If you liked the show, put more money in. If you didn’t, take it out.” I mean, it’s like the American icon, a big bag of money. People did not want to let go of it.

Did more people take money out, or put money in?

TB7-StateDeptTourMore people put in. We ended up with more money. And we saw people taking money out! It was completely soup-to-nuts, and I love that spirit.

On the business side, it’s remarkable how you’ve maintained long working relationships with dancers and staff over the decades.

I feel very grateful that I have deep relationships that last and last. I have a number of new staff, and I asked all of them, as I try to get everybody to know each other fast, I said “I’d like everybody to give three things that are important to you.” I made myself do it, too. Loyalty is one for me.

What were the other two?

I can’t remember. [Laughs.] I bet it was about kindness, and something about attention to detail—even though, on a certain level, I’m probably completely chaotic. But on another level, no art gets made without super attention to detail.

That’s so interesting that loyalty was that far above the other two that it’s the only one that sticks in your mind.

Well, I definitely have received it from people. The woman who was watching my rehearsal this morning, Song Nelson, started off as a student 25 years ago. She just did a show of her own at 418 Project. When I saw her show, I was stunned that she understood metaphor so deeply. And I just said, I want her to look at my work, you know? It was great to have her come up. I don’t have children, and I think that if you have children, you are really struck by the spiraling of time. But I have that in another way—people who have been students and moved on, or started their career with us.

I would imagine some of the loyalty you’ve experienced comes from the fact that you’re a gifted collaborator and mentor, and, even among creative people, that can be rare. You’re able to recognize talent and help people bring it out.

I see it differently. I see it as: if we enjoy working together, if we have fun working together, this is somebody I want to keep working with. Because there are a lot of talented people who are very difficult to work with. And, yeah, I still will work with them sometimes, but my choice is not to. My choice is to enjoy this life. This work is not easy, and so you make it easier by having a good time with the people you’re with. Enjoy it.

What was most artistically interesting about modeling the choreography for ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’?

TB8 TBJS-bicycle-SchraubDanny Elfman’s music was great, and I loved working with the animators. Those guys are wacko. They’re really creatures who live in their imagination totally. They were paying me what, to me, was scads of money, so I would come in with the work done three different ways, so they could choose. “Here’s this song, I did it this way, this way, this way.” “Oh, good.” Then once they said “Could you be a little zanier?” And I went, “OK, great.” And then I just went completely nuts. There was one guy, Walter, who I just loved, who was so calm, but I knew I’d aced it. I just improvised it for him, right there. That was great. And actually there’s one piece in there that I made for Jack Skellington, but then I flipped it and I turned it into a very serious solo for myself, to a Bach Goldberg [Variation]. And I’m going to do it in this show. It’s from “Nightlife.”

There’s been an educational component to your work here since the beginning, right?

My first outreach, my first non-concert event here, was in the schools in Watsonville, and that was in 1972 or 1973. And I have done something in Watsonville almost every year since. This last year, we did a pilot project called ArtSmart, and we got wonderful artists to 10,000 children, teachers and family. It kind of surprised me. There are moments where the dreamer and the practical person are going “What? Are you crazy? You’re out of your mind!” About a year before, I started saying, “We’re going to do this,” and then I’m going “How?” But we did it. And this year, we’re going to double it, and go into Monterey County and get down to Salinas, King City, Monterey, as well as Watsonville and Santa Cruz.

After four decades, has the nature of your collaborations changed?

Sometimes with Jon now, we barely talk about stuff. We can do it simultaneously, and nail it. With Evan [Parker], my lighting designer for many, many years, one dancer who was a smart cookie—went on to chair a lot of dance departments—said “God, you and Evan don’t talk to each other. You grunt! Evan puts up a light and you go ‘Mmm.’ And he goes ‘Mmm.’ And you go ‘Mmm.’ And everything changes!”

Bringing it all back around full circle, you’re going to do the first solo work you ever did in Santa Cruz for ‘40 Odd Moves.’

I made it when Jon and I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and so I gave it to him as a Christmas present. And he turned around and made the music for it. That was 1972.


Tandy Beal and Company will present ‘40 Odd Moves: Solos and Other Entertainments with Tandy Beal and Jon Scoville’ at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 30 and Jan. 31, and at 2 p.m. on Feb. 1, at the Cabrillo Crocker Theater. Tickets are available at cabrillovapa.com, or by calling 479-6154.

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