The historic present: Runyonland at UNCSA

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story by Brian Clarey, photos by Christine Rucker

So there he is, TJ Nelson, also known in this moment as Joey Biltmore, a big, strapping, slab of a man who at any other school you might take for the star quarterback or otherwise BMOC, but here at the UNC School of the Arts he’s just a featured player in the cast of Guys & Dolls, with a couple of lines as the owner of Biltmore’s Garage and the rest of his time on stage as a member of the sharpie ensemble.

Trouble is, he’s from the School of Drama, under which the production is being staged, but during the big song-and-dance number for the Crapshooters Ball, he can’t keep up with the ringers from the School of Dance who seem near weightless as they go through the motions of the scene.

His feet won’t slide on the floor of the rehearsal space — “Don’t you have jazz shoes?” choreographer Edie Cowan asks. “I’ll have them,” he says — and he’s losing his center of gravity when he spins. And the cartwheel is giving him a lot of trouble.

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For this part of the number, which when it reaches the Stevens Center stage will be set with a tall ladder coming down at the rear and slides to either side, Cowan’s scripting an elaborate tumbling pass that will take up perhaps 10 seconds of stage time. They’ve been rehearsing it for 30 minutes already.

She’s got Nelson rolling a couple cartwheels along the back side from stage right to left while dance student Joshua Pagan runs across and hits a standing flip. But Nelson can only cartwheel to his left, which would put his back to the audience. This is unacceptable.

“Are you a lefty?” Cowan asks him.

“No,” he says. “I’ll just face this way for now and I’ll keep practicing.”

Just for the hell of it he tries another cartwheel to his right; it looks more like a tumble down a flight of stairs. He stomps off, berating himself like card player who bet big on an inside straight and missed the draw. He’s got three weeks to get it right, though that clock is running down. Like everything else in life, his odds of hitting it by opening night are 6 to 5, against.

Now dance captain Lindsay Carter, a blonde who looks limber enough to leap over a horse and strong enough to lift one, brings the boys through the rest of the number as director Gus Kaikkonen shouts notes.

“Lindsay? Do we have our toes flexed or pointed?”

“They’re pointed,” she says, still spinning.

“Yes,” he says. “They’re pointed.”

You don’t have to tell her twice. Carter, who attended UNCSA for both high school and college, has a rep as a real up-and-comer.

“She’s in the Cirque du Soleil database,” whispers assistant director Rory Gilbert.

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  • Anon

    So there he is, Brian Clarey, also known as the Editor-in-chief of the Triad City Beat, a skinny, balding, stick of a man who at any place you would take for the douche hipster or otherwise “who is that guy?”, but in the world of journalism he is just a dick.

    They are called rehearsals “a practice or trial performance of a play or other work for later public performance” for a reason. The performers in this play are students and thus they are still learning their trade. I understand that this type of scrutiny is common place for their profession but to single out an individual who not to belittle his role in any way is not a main character is pretty small of you sir.

    • Brian Clarey

      Zing! Pretty good Runyon.
      It was absolutely not my intent to belittle any of the students in the production — it was amazing, and if I didn’t get that across the fault is mine.
      What I was trying to show with that particular narrative, which I tried to tell in the Runyon voice, was how hard these kids work, how different this school is, and the progress the group made in a few short weeks.
      Apologies if I gave that impression. It’s not the first time I’ve been called a dick. Not even the first time today.

  • A Fan

    TJ Nelson is a rising star. I am not at all surprised that he caught your attention and imagination. This will be a very charming article to look back on, as the world gets to know this kid.
    Good job.

    • Brian Clarey

      I loved how hard he was on himself. All the best ones do that.