Daniel Ezralow remembers the time he had David Bowie put on a straightjacket. The internationally celebrated choreographer has just landed in Philly for the East Coast debut of his new show, Open, but right now he’s stuck in 1987 with Bowie. Toni Basil (who you may know from “Mickey”) was choreographing Bowie’s Glass Spider tour, and brought Ezralow in to collaborate. With Soul Train alum James “Skeeter Rabbit” Higgins, they brainstormed movements that melded hip hop, rock and ballet.
“We created different pieces, different sections. There was a piece called ‘Never Let Me Down,’” he remembers “And I said, ‘Well David, what if you were on your knees in a straightjacket? All you did was crawl on your knees, Every once in a while, a woman on pointe bourree-ing around you would put an oxygen mask on your face from an oxygen tank on her back to give you the strength to continue.’” Bowie would ultimately ditch the straightjacket, but the ballerina with the oxygen stayed. “It’s just an idea, but it becomes a dance.”
Between Bowie and Philly
That was 28 years ago. Since then, Ezralow, 59, has worked on Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark for Broadway and earned an Emmy nom for Israel’s 50th Anniversary special. He famously choreographed the opening ceremony for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, a production that saw him guide 800 dancers. His latest project, Open, a no-intermission contemporary ballet piece of “15 to 18” continuous vignettes, begins a week-long stay at the Prince theater tonight. The work first showed in Italy, but has only been performed once stateside, in Temecula Calif., which Ezralow calls a “warm-up.” He considers this Philly showing Open’s North American premiere.
A dance show that doesn’t try to teach you anything
It’s tough to follow a straight line while watching the show’s trailers. In one scene, a bride and groom are playing Rock Paper Scissors; in the next, a boxing ring. The piece travels through contrasts, Ezralow says. If one vignette is in black and white, the next setting can reply with color. When dancers plant a tree into four cubic feet of dirt (for real), the nature narrative unhooks a window, and Ezralow moves to street scenes to ponder what’s urban. It’s a 75-minute trip through Ezralow’s artistic perspective, beginning, he says, from what openness really means.
“A lot of dance gets, and rightfully so, sometimes political and sometimes heavy. I didn’t want to do that,” he says. “I was kind of tired of being taught a lesson when I go to a dance show. I wanted to just be inspired, just have the audience have fun and feel like they go their money’s worth.”
He’s done shows in Philly as a dancer and choreographer for roughly 30 years. In 2000, Philadanco invited him to choreograph the X-Mas Philes, a holiday show the they’ve since reprised.
“I came and kind of fell in love with [company founder] Joan Brown and Philadanco in a way, which furthered my love of Philly,” he says. “It’s not overpowering like New York, but it’s still very international like New York. It’s not intense, like New York can drive you crazy, but there’s everything you need in Philly. I don’t know. There’s this wonderful sense of almost hometown because everybody knows each other.”
What comes next
“I think half the battle of the creator is get out of the way, get out of their own way,” says Ezralow. Getting out of one’s ego is key step, he adds. “As soon as I get the idea that I know what’s supposed to happen, it’s exactly the moment that I don’t know anything. It’s the ability to continue to be ready to accept that you’ve got to follow your instincts and sometimes you’re instincts won’t show it to you unless you’re open.” There’s that word again.
Ezralow and his company will leave Sunday. If he had it his way, he’d be back in Philly soon, though. He’s been bending Brown’s ear recently about a television special he’d love to do: Live performances set to soul and jazz music with historic Philly as the backdrops. “Right on the stairs of the library in two feet of snow. The next one is… where Benjamin Franklin decided to fly his kite. Everyone would recognize these things,” he says. “If someone wanted to do it, I’d fully circle back and find absolutely the perfect dancers.”