Pro show or simple recital? The difference is in the details.
By Nancy Wozny
When Darlene and John Ceglia returned to their hometown of Buffalo, NY, after an 11-year stay in Manhattan, they took a bit of Broadway with them. “We wanted to bring a taste of the New York theater world to Buffalo,” says Darlene. “Creating a memorable concert was part of the plan from the get-go in starting up our studio.” It’s not that the owners of Darlene Ceglia’s Dance Project expected their 4-year-olds to belt out show tunes; instead, what they envisioned was the professional nature of their end-of-year show, which they lovingly refer to as a concert.
Judging from the ads in the back of dance publications, recitals are on a roll toward bigger and better. So many studio owners are now calling their shows concerts instead of recitals that it seems like a trend. In keeping with a concert presentation, many people are employing themes, using high-tech lighting and sound, and booking their shows into upscale venues. For the Ceglias, it’s about quality; just because their students are not professionals doesn’t mean they can’t put on as polished a production as possible. And that polish is everywhere—in the lighting, expert sound editing, authentic costumes, eye-catching backdrops, and choreography that shows their students in their best light. The Ceglias’ end-of-year performance has built a loyal following even with former parents.
The couple runs two locations, each housing two studios, with an approximate total enrollment of 500. With a faculty of 18, they offer ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, and modern dance. They try to get their competition team of 88 dancers to nationals every few years, which often results in a slightly scaled-down concert, “just in some respects,” says Darlene. “The quality will still be there, but maybe not the 30-person choir.” Plus they enjoy showing off their competition pieces in the concert those years.
Darlene credits her career in musical theater with forming her strong visual and theatrical sensibilities. She trained with Sam Fiorello in Buffalo before heading to New York in 1980, where she and John lived for 11 years. It was there that they caught the Broadway bug and there that the groundwork for their values as directors was laid. From 1983 to 1985 Darlene danced with Maurice Hines’ and Mercedes Ellington’s company, Balletap USA, performing works by Judith Jamison, Carmen de Lavallade, and Gregory and Maurice Hines. Working with Jamison was a dream come true. “I had followed her career since I was in high school,” says Darlene. John, who was a DJ at Studio 54 at the time, got his start in editing dance music with Jamison’s first work for the company.
Darlene has remained friends with Hines, who recently stopped by the studio to visit with her students. Besides working with him in Balletap, Darlene was a dance captain and a featured dancer in Maurice Hines Nightclub Revue in the United States and Europe, and she danced with Hines in a national tour of Kiss Me Kate. She also worked with Broadway legend Lee Theodore of The American Dance Machine. “Lee was like a strict mother,” says Darlene about her legendary but temperamental teacher. “She was tough all right; she made you consider how much you really wanted to dance. She also made me think about what I wanted to do when I became a teacher.”
The Ceglias’ central idea is to create a production that parents will look forward to attending and students to dancing. “You know how people roll their eyes when you mention having to attend a recital?” asks John. “We didn’t want it to be that way. We want parents, friends, and family members to want to come to our shows.” With a family-friendly goal in mind, the Ceglias keep their performances under two hours, which means double casting and very few solos. “To get a solo is a big honor at our studio,” says Darlene. “It’s a way of acknowledging select students who have worked exceptionally hard.” Large group pieces are the norm. The outstanding theatricality of their productions is the single greatest tool for attracting new students. “They see what we are all about,” says Darlene with pride about the school’s reputation.
‘You know how people roll their eyes when you mention having to attend a recital? We want parents, friends, and family members to want to come to our shows.’ —John Ceglia
The annual show takes form, from conception to performance, as an ongoing conversation between Darlene and John, who do some things separately and some together. Darlene does most of the choreography, assists her faculty in their contributions, selects music, and has specific ideas on lighting and costumes. Selecting the theme drives everything that follows. The school owners prefer open-ended themes that lend a good deal of freedom and possibility; past ones have included “Hollywood n’ Vine” (a tribute to music and dance in the movies), “Return of the Century” (a retrospective look at the 20th century), and “A Soulful Celebration” (all gospel, with singers, choir, and musicians). John writes the scripts, which fill in between pieces and add historical anecdotes about dance and music. There’s no dead space in their shows. “Once it starts, it runs like a charm,” says John.
Creating a seamless sound experience falls to John, whose day job is senior engineer at Crosswater Digital Media. “In music editing and sound design, your role as engineer is to be transparent, keeping the focus on the stage,” he says. “Audio issues, as with any technical difficulties, tend to compromise the level of professionalism of the work presented.”
John has created on-air promotions for HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, and The Discovery Channel and has taped Martin Sheen, James Earl Jones, and Bernadette Peters. His role at the studio utilizes the full spectrum of his talents. He helps select and edits all the music, chooses the voice-over talent, designs the lights, and heads up the production end. John’s impressive music library from his deejaying years comes in handy in selecting music for each show. “The fact that he actually studied tap and jazz also gives him an edge,” says Darlene.
Husband and wife are equally involved in the artistic end of the final product. Ideas can come from anywhere, so the school owners keep their imaginations working year-round on potential themes and music ideas. They regularly attend concerts, theater productions, and museums. “We take advantage of everything that comes through Buffalo and get to Toronto and New York when we can,” says Darlene. On occasion they have conflicting opinions. “We don’t always agree, but we try to hear the other person out.” Darlene appears to be the “big idea” person and John plays “reality check” position. After 16 years of togetherness as school owners and 29 as a couple, they have it down to a streamlined process.
With John’s background, the emphasis the couple places on music comes as no surprise. Their shows frequently feature live music, including, over the years, saxophone legend Bobby Militello, Da Capo Saxophone Quartet, New Beginnings Choral Ensemble, and the now defunct Prayer Tower Gospel Choir. “Whenever we have musical guests we always let the children sit in the theater and listen to the music that they will be dancing to,” says Darlene. “It’s so exciting for them to share the stage with artists of this caliber. Live musicians bring so much energy to the stage.” Lea Michele, now on Broadway in the Tony Award–winning musical Spring Awakening, performed with them at the start of her career, singing a song from Les Misérables, which she performed in on Broadway.
When it comes to recorded music, the Ceglias’ taste is not limited to popular songs. Darlene has choreographed to music by India Arie, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Diana Krall, and scores from popular musicals. “John has a great ear for what works with my choreography,” she says. “He will find something and play it for me with very specific ideas about how it might work with our theme.” The process of selecting the music takes several months. “The music has to move me,” Darlene adds.
With costumes, Darlene takes a hands-on approach. She thinks that professional-looking costumes put a finishing touch on a show. Sometimes she lucks out and finds exactly what she needs in catalogs. When she doesn’t, she hits the discount shops and vintage-clothing boutiques. She prefers an authentic look, especially for period dances. “If I find a dress at one store, I’ve been known to comb every location in the city to find 11 more,” she says. “My two seamstresses can do wonders altering a dress so it will work.” She considers how the fabric will move with the specific choreography, how it might look under lights, and the overall visual design of the show. Between scouring online auctions, shopping at local outlets and vintage shops, and purchasing some costumes in stores, she arrives at the look she wants. It takes work, imagination, and a willingness to try new ways of using store-bought materials to make it happen.
Darlene is known for creating choreography that shows off what her dancers can do and not what they can’t. For her, it’s not just about steps but about making a compelling piece, with a clever use of group formations in a range of dynamics. “I like to add texture by using different layers and levels,” she says. Rarely does she rely on the usual tricks; you won’t see kids showing off their turning chops if it doesn’t fit into the piece. She likes to use sets, props, and carefully chosen visuals like backdrops or projections. She prefers to stage her dances in lively environments created by unusual settings and strong lighting concepts and keeps that in mind during the choreographic process. Her choreography includes the movement of light, sound, costumes, and props. Her finesse with props never fails to astound John. “Darlene likes to make them move, change shape, and disappear,” he says. “She can make a table dance.”
Early in the planning process the Ceglias bring in set designer David Butler, a well-known Buffalo actor who also designs for the Irish Classical Theatre Company, to get his ideas. Butler attends rehearsals to determine what kind of visuals will complement the dance. When what they need can’t be found in a catalog, Butler designs and makes his own backdrops.
Shows are presented at the Mainstage Theater in the Center for the Arts at the University at Buffalo. It’s a state-of-the art theater with a knowledgeable staff. Setting a professional tone at the performance is key. You won’t find the audience screaming the dancers’ names at this concert. “We expect proper theater etiquette from the beginning,” says Darlene. “We want the children to have as authentic a theatrical experience as possible.” The students learn early on that behavior that may have been tolerated at other studios may not meet the Ceglias’ standards of professionalism.
There’s always a buzz after the June show; each year audiences leave wondering how the Ceglias will ever top that year’s production. “That’s the question we want them to have,” says John.
But by the time that final curtain drops, Darlene and John have already begun thinking about the next year. “It’s a process,” says Darlene. “And it has different stages.” During the school’s summer intensive Darlene experiments with music she might want to work with for the show. With this extensive planning period, the production follows its own rhythm, from the “wild idea” stage to the “How can we make this happen?” stage. Darlene confesses to coming up with some rather complicated ideas that John deciphers into what’s probable and what’s possible. As always, it’s a process of give-and-take.
For the Ceglias, the difference is in the details. You don’t have to be a professional dancer to be part of a professional show, so why not start out that way? Darlene sums up their collective mission: “When I was young I remember going to the theater and feeling that magic. I want my audience to feel that same magic.”