Tommy Lewey: Telling a story through dance


I first made Tommy Lewey's acquaintance when he was a freshman dance major at Butler University. Pretty much the moment after his dad dropped him off at his first dorm, he fell in with a bad crowd.

Two friends from Lewey's hometown of Barrington, Ill., called him as he unpacked dance posters and freshly bought sheets. "Be ready in five minutes," they said. "We are going to get you drunk at a theater party."

"The theater people were the first people I met at Butler," recalls Lewey. "I just kind of fell in with them. And I sort of fell in love with some of the people in that department. Some more than others — and in different ways."

Now a dance faculty member at Broad Ripple Magnet High School, the associate director of development for NoExit Performance and an in-demand Indianapolis choreographer, Lewey has found a niche in what he terms "dance-theater." Lewey is putting that concept to the test in NoExit's new production of Swan Lake, opening this weekend at Wheeler Arts Center.

"There is this trend in the popular dance world. It's all extreme bodies; I can get my leg here, and I can jump this high," explains Lewey. "While that is beautiful to watch, I'm disenchanted by it. I don't care. I want to sit down at a performance and be engaged. I want you to tell me a story. Take me on a journey. Take me on a trip. I feel that I can do that with dance and that dance needs that."

Lewey graduated from Butler with a degree in dance pedagogy, but it was his work with the theater crowd that truly came to inform his art.

"I spent my days as a dance major and my evenings with all the theater kids," he recalls. "I listened to them talk about what they were learning about. I felt like, not to trivialize it, but a puppet [in the classical dance world]. I felt that this isn't enough. I want to get deeper, get grittier. I started to think; I can choreograph. I can create the works that I want to be performing. I don't want it to be something you let happen to you. I want it to be a tumultuous romantic relationship that takes you on a roller coaster."

Lewey credits Butler Theater for giving him an informal education. A self-described "unofficial stepchild of the department," Lewey gleaned his theatrical conventions from conversations and book lists. Because of his background, his process is different from most choreographers.'

"I never come in with any preconceived steps or ideas," says Lewey. "It's never piqué, pas de bourrée, arabesque, double pirouette. My rehearsal process is like an interview. I ask questions and get a response from the dancers through their bodies. I spend a lot of time recording things that they do in rehearsal and connecting those ideas. If you work with me, you are a performer-creator yourself. I am giving you your objective, but you are giving me the material with which you accomplish that goal."

This different approach leads to different results on stage. His work is difficult to describe: a blend of dance and theater, emotional expression through movement — and movement become story.

"I was thinking about why these classical ballets withstand the test of time," says Lewey. "It's the same with Greek tragedy. Why do these stories continually interest people?"

A quick refresher: Swan Lake tells the story of a prince who falls in love with a magical swan turned beautiful lady/princess turned swan again. By the end, the prince and the swan agree to a suicide pact in order to thwart the storybook villains.

"I couldn't wrap my head around it," says Lewey. "It's a bird, and he has no societal repercussions for falling in love with a bird. If Prince William married a bird instead of Kate Middleton people would be pissed. Then I had this moment of realizing; it's an allegorical representation. The bird stands for falling in love outside of societal norms, whether you are in a homosexual relationship, an interracial relationship or even an interfaith relationship."

Lewey is focusing on society's reactions to such relationships, "I want to take some of the fantasy out of it. I want to take the magic out, make it more realistic. Is there a way you can build a bond between animal and human? And is it society that makes it inappropriate? Do they put their own perspective on what is actually happening?"

Lewey's swan happens to be played by a male dancer, and with the addition of an original text and a mix of actors and dancers on stage, his Swan Lake will look nothing like the Bolshoi's.

"It's my job to take you on a journey — to choose what to show and what to hide," he says. "My hope is to get audiences to look at their own lives, their own relationships, their own choices. If they ever had a moment when they were going against society or even if they felt ostracized."