Lena Hall Returns to San Francisco with Villa Satori

8 Jan

Ahead of Lena Hall’s appearance at Feinstein’s in the Nikko Hotel January15 and 16, I spoke by telephone with her about her earlier years of training and professional experience.

Lena Hall is special to those of us ‘who knew her when’ she was the lively, curious second daughter of Carlos and Carolyn Carvajal, the artistic director of Dance Spectrum and one of the principal dancers. Both had met at San Francisco Ballet where Carlos was ballet master for Lew Christensen and resident choreographer, having returned to his native city after a decade in Europe. There he had danced with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, Bremen Opera Ballet and the Bordeaux Opera, principal dancer in the last two organizations, soloist with the Marquis, having worked his way up from the corps de ballet. Carolyn was a Ford Foundation Scholarship holder with some credits before and after with Merriem Lanova’s company. Carolyn later was one of the stalwarts with Dance through Time and the dance component of the San Francisco Opera. It is scarcely surprising that Lena, in her childhood years as Celina, was early exposed to the discipline and delights of theater.

it was through those early years that I watched Celina navigate childhood, adolescence, albeit at something of a distance. What I remember most about her was her presence with Carlos in 1990 when he served as Spanish and German translator at the U.S.A.International Ballet Competition. This was the year that Jose Manuel Carreno was bestowed the second ever Prix de Jackson, that first having been awarded to Nina Ananiashvili and Andris Liepa, young Bolshoi Ballet principals. Carlos had brought her along and she took classes and sat with Carlos during the Competition session, fresh-faced, alert and quite observant. At the time I thought she was assessing the work involved in entering the competition. As history has demonstrated I was quite wrong.

From her middle school years, Lena had been singing in choirs and under the direction of Diane Price was a member of Young People’s Teen Musical Theatre Company. She also had been studying voice, jointly with her sister Calliope, or Calli, nearly five years her senior. Entering high school she auditioned for SOTA, School of The Arts, now named to honor the late artist and education activist Ruth Asawa. Lena’s audition concentrated on voice and theatre.

Before entering Equity theatre, what did Lena do?

“I graduated from SOTA or high school at 17, and worked a little on Haight Street in a kids’ store, studied dance with my Dad who was then artistic director of Peninsula Ballet Theatre and I served as his rehearsal assistant.”

So how did Lena arrive in the Cats cast?

“I got a phone call from my friend Noah Haydon who had answered an audition call for non Equity males. It was being held at Lines Ballet, and he told me to get myself down because they would be auditioning for women in about an hour.

“My mother dropped me off and my sister was with me. Lines Ballet was then situated on Oak Street near Van Ness and Market, a building now occupied by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“There must have been about 150 girls auditioning. We were separated into two or three groups. They asked us to do several series of combinations before there were cuts. Then there were more cut and finally there were about ten of us left. Then they asked us to sing. I sang “Dance Ten, looks Three” from the musical Chorus Line. Then they asked me to sing again, so I did “Losing My mind,” from the musical Follies, and finally “A Singing Bee” by Harold Arlen.

“They thanked me and said they would be in touch. That was in October 1997 and I didn’t hear from them until February, 1998 when I was invited to join Cats in St. Louis.’ Lena appeared with tour when it played at the San Jose Performing Arts Center in August, and in a year was playing Demeter in the Broadway Cats cast. After a couple of years with Cats, Lena elected to join the Annie Get Your Gun touring company in 2001. As a footnote, Carolyn
said to me that when she and Celina had seen Cats together, Celina had said she would like to be in that musical.

Did Lena study voice once she got to Broadway?

“I worked with Neal Semer when I was in Tarzan in 2006.I had been having problems with my tonsils, had them removed and worked with him for a few months. Mostly, though, I have taught myself.”

I asked her about her music with her rock band where she really belts it out and to be able to sustain it. “You have to be strong to be heard above the band.” The group, The Defening, and Lena produced an album of original music in 2013,

From Tarzan, where she understudied Jane, as she had in the lead for Annie Get Your Gun, the next big leap was Kinky Boots. “It was my first principal role.” From there it was on to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. “I saw the 1999 production and loved it. When I learned that it was being revived with Neil Patrick Harris jn the lead, I made sure I auditioned.” The result, of course, was Lena’s 2014 Tony as the Beat Featured Actress in a Musical.

With ICM as her agent after two earlier affiliations, Lena and her association with Josh Grobn occurred in a round about way. “Josh saw me in Hedwick at one of our first performances. He then started following me on Twitter so I followed back, and we started talking.We became fast friends. When he told me he had been mentioning me as someone he wanted to sing with in interviews, I jokingly answered, “Oh, then when are you gonna ask me to sing with you>”

Groban invited her to sing a duet at the Time-Warner Center which led to performing together at the Opening Ceremonies at the U.S. Open August 2015. Soon after, Groban asked Lena to join him in a national tour, one stop of which included a sold out Masonic Auditorium, San Francisco November, 2015.

After the San Francisco stint in January what? “I have several things brewing, and I am initiating others. I enjoy playing catalyst, it’s quite stimulating.

On a final note, I asked Lena how she keeps in shape with her packed schedule. “I work with a personal training three times a week. I found that when I take a ballet class, dancing is much easier because I am stronger. I have been a practicing plant-based vegan for the past year. It’s done wonders for my skin, energy, frame of mind and body. I stay away from processed foods and sugar.”

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