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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