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William Shatner has been in the news lately, because of the opening of the new Star Trek without him. When Dish recently asked him about how it felt, he responded in his usual dry and cryptic manner, “unusual”. But actually, what should be in the news is his tour de force turn in another film about to debut, William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet, based on his 2004 album Has Been, and was filmed in cooperation with Margo Sappington,  a choreographer who often works wiith the Milwaukee Ballet. 


This is what Ms. Sappington and William Shatner had to say about the making of this film: 


Shatner: I’m sitting in my office. The phone rings. I hear, “I’m Margo Sappington, and I’d like to do a ballet of your album.” I had seen too much ballet in my life, too much dance, not to think of it as a great compliment. I said, “This is a treat. This is so interesting. It can’t possibly turn out bad.”

Ms. Sappington and William Shatner


Sappington: I was listening to NPR in the car. There was an interview with Bill Shatner about his CD Has Been, which had come out. I became completely enthralled with it. I got it and listened to it over and over again. Because there’s so much music and the music is so incredible with the content of the songs, of the lyrics, that I wanted to do a ballet on it. I wanted to get in touch with Bill and ask his permission to do it. Toward the end of the conversation, he said, “Well, Margo, is there any money in this?”


Shatner: Apparently, I said, “Is there any money in this?” And she said, “No. No money.” And I said, “Great. Do a ballet of my record? Are you crazy? Of course!”


Sappington: Michael Ping, the director of the Milwaukee Ballet, contacted me. I was very happy about that  because I had in mind to do something new. Ping told me he went to the website and listened to Has Been and immediately thought, ‘What fun. This is going to be wacky. This is going to work well.” It’s exciting, very dynamic, great for the audience, great for the dancers. It’s a perfect piece. 


Shatner (singing): “Common People…..”


Sappington: With every ballet, I have a passage. Whether it tells a long story or whether they’re story-less, which is the way I approached this, with each one being a little self-contained unit of its own story. And each one of those songs tells a story. This CD is so personal to Bill, and he wrote these things as recollections and memories and reminiscences of his own. 


Shatner: I was in my first year of college at school, and I was a pretty lonely kid, a very lonely kid in Montreal. Well, I didn’t know what loneliness was until you’re in a strange city away from home, homesick beyond belief, wanting something, in this case to be an actor. And it’s winter, and it’s cold, and the snow is falling, and the sounds of the peace bells in Canada’s capital were ringing out, and I was crossing this large lawn, huge field in front of the peace star. As I was writing the lyrics, I resonated on that moment in my most extreme loneliness in Ottawa. I brought it to life for myself in trying to reproduce the thought that as much as I yearned for all the things that I wanted, I still felt that that hadn’t happened, even now. [He sings] “I was crossing the snow fields / in front of the snow buildings …”


[Shatner continues] Somewhere … a guy who ordinarily would have a belt around his waste with screwdrivers and hammers and nails and things, he was—he’s a craftsman. This guy was also a musician. And he said, “Why don’t we make a record?” I said, “To make a record, get the themes, and then use great literature. Add new music to it. And then take literature, songs that had great lyrics at the time, and segue from the literature to the song. Wouldn’t that be a great idea?”


So I did Transformed Man for Decca Records, which was a big record company at the time. And it was gone. It disappeared. It didn’t sell particularly well and didn’t get particularly good notices. From time to time, Transformed Man was trotted out and mocked because it was a six minute cut—it might not have been very good—but the other reason is, it was a six minute cut, the literature and the lyric. And the radio only played three minute cuts.


So I was very apprehensive because I knew that when another record comes out, they’re gonna say, “Oh, here comes Shatner with another Transformed Man, some weird, wacky thing that we can poke fun at.” And I’m a little sore about being poked fun at. 


So a couple of guys ask for an appointment. Can they come and see me? I’m sitting in my office, and they’re saying, “We want you to do a record.” And they had introduced themselves as the guys who owned Rhino Records. Because there had been a spate of actors singing, and some were good and some were not good. And so they took the not-good guys, like me and (whispers) Leonard Nimoy and put them all together in a Rhino Record, Golden Throats or something like that. So these guys are saying, “Would you make another record?” And I know what’s on their minds. But I don’t want another Golden Throats. I want another attempt—secret, in the back of my mind. I want an attempt at a theme record. 


What I wanted to do was to distill the experience so that I could find some common connection with the rest of the world, a commonality of experience. I wanted to write about something minute and amplify that to a universal experience and see if that can be done. So that from something so small that everybody says, “Oh, I’ve walked in that garden,” and observe or feel something that they hadn’t, but it is an observation by you on a very common experience. People then go, “Wow, I understand that experience. I understand what he’s doing. And I understand that, not him so much, but I understand that.” And that was what I was after.  


Sappington: That’s what the ballet is about. It’s Bill as every man. They’re all emotions that everybody has. They’re the same ones. 


Shatner: I was enthralled with the ballet because the ballet has the same distillation that poetry does. It’s the distillation of line, the beauty of the human poem, the grace of a human line, and then once you see, you’re forever fulfilled by it. People want to know about Gonzo, the title. Well, it’s a novel duo, something that none of us has ever done. Gonzo is a term that’s used for rough and ready or Nuevo approach, a real thing. It’s a wonderful word that takes on a meaning of its own, so here is a look at the ballet, the beautiful art of dance in a novel way, so it’s a gonzo ballet. 


Sappington: Dance is an expression. It is a language. Dance is an expressive art. It’s not just about the athleticism. The athleticism is something that leads you to express something. Dances can make you cry. Dances can make you laugh. They can move you in incredible ways without words. 


Shatner: She’s a wonderful artist, Margo is. It was a complete surprise to me as to how well it turned out. And what Margo did was use her dancers to capture the words. 


How did this happen? From these few words to this great creative performance art that gives you that feeling of love or that feeling of togetherness. 


Because I’m bewildered by the world as it is right now, bewildered that all of us see this terrible fate of the world coming like a catastrophe, like a tidal wave—oh, my god, that’s 100 feet high; it’s coming this way; maybe I should get out of the way … no, I think I’ll watch it come. That’s what we’re all doing. We’re in a catastrophe that’s about to happen, and maybe we should do something about it. I can’t get behind any of that. 


Sappington: Basically, the world is caught up with Shatner. The world is kind of like, “You’ve been laughing the whole time.”


Sappington: When I heard the interview with William Shatner on NPR about Has Been, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s venturing out. He’s going somewhere else. This is really fantastic.’ 


At this time of his life, that he’s taking all of these steps, Boston Legal and this CD, and that also gave me the courage to find him, to call him, and not just say, “Oh, do you want us to do a ballet piece” and let it drift away and be forgotten, it’s just an idea. And now here it is, a completed piece with the audience loving it, the dancers loving it, and we love it. 


Shatner: For me, I also want to express that watching it again on the big screen and this time with an audience, which I don’t think I could have done, sometimes when you see it with an audience … we like it, but I like a lot of stuff. I can be very moved. I can break down at any moment. You all seemed to like it, so I’m in a very emotional state right now because of this screening. / Issue 96 - September 3243
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