By Pamela Diamond | NB Indy
She may play “formidable” onstage, but in person Leslie Caron exudes a down-to-earth charm and gracious warmth.
Candid and clear on subjects ranging from early ballet dreams and partners to the steely backbone necessary to achieve longevity, the silver screen star remains indelibly limned with a dancer’s inner strength.
She’ll draw on that heritage of verve and vigor for her first theatrical appearance in Southern California in over 25 years in Richard Alfieri’s “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” which opens this weekend at the Laguna Playhouse.
Directed by Michael Arabian with choreography by Donna McKechnie, Alfieri’s insightful comedy explores the burgeoning friendship between retired Floridian condo-owner Lily Harrison (played by Caron) and Michael Minetti, a tart-tongued dance instructor played by Ovation Award-winning actor David Engel.
A la “Dancing with the Stars,” the two tango, foxtrot, and waltz their way into a closer connection where, during six weeks of private lessons, differences dissolve and secrets begin to be revealed.
“What I like is she’s feisty,” says Caron of Lily during a recent rehearsal break, relaxing with enviable perfect posture in the Playhouse lobby. “She won’t give up; she won’t be an old lady. She wants to have life happen to her before the end, so she hires this dance instructor and suddenly she lets loose and oh, has so much fun dancing with him. It’s the thrill of her life.”
Asked about a thrill of her own, Caron – a talented French dancer and prolific film actress who found early fame in 1950s musicals such as “Daddy Long Legs,” “Gigi” and others – was still a teenager when she began performing with Roland Petit’s Ballet des Champs Elysées. She went on to dance with Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Rudolf Nureyev as well as receiving two Academy Award nominations for best actress and an Emmy for a guest appearance on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
But when it comes to her favorite dance partner, she goes back to the past.
“Jean Babilée, he was the best, as great as Nijinsky in Europe. Baryshnikov, Nureyev, neither of them could come close to Babilée,” Caron says decisively of the French rebel famed for his star turn in Petit’s “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort.”
Babilée also played Oedipus opposite the then unknown 16-year-old Caron’s Sphinx in “La Rencontre,” her opening night performance so powerful that it caught Gene Kelly’s eye and led to her being cast in “An American in Paris.”
“When the phone call came to go to Hollywood I had completely forgotten about it,” Caron emphasizes. “I wanted to be a classical dancer, to do everything like Pavlova did it. I didn’t know anything about modern dancing. Gershwin who? Gene Kelly who?”
She went, however, and the journey revealed a new facet to her career, the stuff legends are made of. It’s also led her now to Laguna Beach, more dance training (in ballroom this time) and a character as forthright and passionate as the dancer/actress herself.
“It’s a relief to hear people say the truth to each other and I think the audience will appreciate that,” says Caron. “Lily and Michael are fiery and they fight a lot. It’s a bit like ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ A lot of it is quite funny. It’s both pure pleasure and very touching.”
“Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” runs May 3 through June 8 at the Laguna Playhouse. Tickets are $35 to $76. Visit lagunaplayhouse.com or call (949) 497-ARTS (2787).