Dance: Role Playing at Work

Cincinnati Ballet's Devon Carney tackles new roles on and off stage

Feb 15, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

Cincinnati Ballet dancers prepare their sword fight scenes for Romeo & Juliet.

"Woo hoo!" was Devon Carney's first response to a couple of interview questions. He has much to be excited about: a brand-new title and a dynamic character role in Cincinnati Ballet's Romeo and Juliet.

The former ballet master-in-chief has just been promoted to associate artistic director, but he says the position offers a more formalized extension of many duties he's already been performing, such as hiring new dancers, finding new choreographers, selecting and casting repertory and continuing to choreograph.

"I didn't feel comfortable walking into an organization saying, ¨I need a title that has something to do with artistic director,' " he says of his original position when he came to Cincinnati Ballet in 2003. "I thought it was better just to let (Artistic Director) Victoria (Morgan) come to that choice on her own, at the time she felt comfortable with it."

Time marches on. Although he's been largely retired from dancing roles for years, he enjoys the acting involved in character parts, such as his turn as Drosselmeyer in Nutcracker and his current Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet.

Carney spent 21 years performing leading roles with diverse companies, including Boston Ballet where as a corps de ballet dancer he was handpicked to play Romeo.

Surely Romeo and Juliet must hold special meaning for him?

"I can't tell you how thrilling it is to do this, to be able to be in some of the scenes that musically I just really enjoy listening to that I've never been able to be a part of as Romeo," Carney says.

"I've done Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio and Tybolt. It kind of completes the experience of Romeo and Juliet by being able to be a part of those scenes now and to appreciate the ballet as a whole."

We talk about the ballet's coming full circle for him. Then he wants to explain an idea using parabolas. "I loved math in school, so bear with me." He draws curves in the air to illustrate. When dancers are at their peak physically, they are just starting to more fully grasp the acting aspects of performance that continue to rise as long as they perform — even as their physicality begins to decline.

He adds, "The power of that (dancing) is very difficult to let go of when physically your knees just can't deal with the six hours (of rehearsal) plus class daily — the grind, you know?"

Speaking about the different challenges of playing a character role, Carney says, "You can't count on your pirouettes to wow the audience. You don't have big tricks to grab the audience that says, 'Wow, look at that! That was impressive!' ... When you don't have those tools at your disposal, you have to figure out different types of tools."

Now as Lord Capulet he gets to swordfight, much to his delight.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Carney has always had an interest in acting and says he enjoyed seeing swashbuckling Errol Flynn films at an historic, local repertory theater. He was a daredevil who — before discovering ballet — aspired to be a stuntman or a professional downhill skier.

"Any opportunity to use a prop and create an image of danger — I love it!" he says. "The guys get scared with me around. ... I like to try out new tricks with the swords — within reason, of course.

"You have no idea how much more I appreciate and relish the opportunity to get out onstage, now more that ever. Because you know, it's a fleeting career," he says. "You blink your eyes and it's over."

ROMEO AND JULIET, presented by Cincinnati Ballet, is presented by Cincinnati Ballet at the Aronoff Center Friday-Sunday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.