Ballet theater gives the stage to this pianist's drag persona

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Ballet theater gives the stage to this pianist's drag persona
John Epperson performing as Lypsinka at the Connelly Theater in New York on Nov. 7, 2014. Shows by Lypsinka, seen here in 2014, are darkly funny dissections of femininity and artifice. Ruby Washington/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- On a recent afternoon, inside one of American Ballet Theater’s studios near Union Square, John Epperson sat at a piano, unassuming in jeans and a muted button-down shirt.

Epperson, 66, has been a pianist with the company off and on for several decades. But he may be better known as his alter ego: Lypsinka, a drag artist who has been on the scene just as long, dressed like a Stepford wife doll and miming sound bites arranged in an irreverent and slyly political supercut of classic Hollywood’s women on the edge.

Stepping up from the piano and turning on a portable speaker, Epperson gave a preview of Lypsinka in action, shortly before heading downstairs to play piano for a class. He ran through a 10-minute act that will be presented at the David H. Koch Theater Wednesday and Saturday as part of Ballet Theater’s inaugural Pride Nights — the first time the company is putting Epperson onstage and the first time he has brought his drag persona to his day job.

But not his first time performing at that theater; he played the evil stepmother — in drag, of course — in New York City Opera’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” alongside Eartha Kitt, in 2004. That’s just one chapter in a long and varied career that started, while he was studying piano in college, with playing in ballet studios in Mississippi. Then he continued in New York, a city he fell in love with at a young age and visited with his mother to see the original casts of “A Chorus Line” and “Chicago.” (Well, minus Gwen Verdon, who was out sick. Her replacement? Liza Minnelli.)

He’s been in the presence of Andy Warhol and shared a performance space with the likes of Keith Haring and Klaus Nomi. Lypsinka’s act — a darkly funny dissection of femininity and artifice — was a fixture of the downtown art scene beginning in the early 1980s, attracting regular audiences at the Pyramid Club and garnering praise from critics like Ben Brantley of The New York Times. Now the New Group is in talks with Epperson to produce a virtual Lypsinka show, with Chloë Sevigny attached to direct.

But first, Pride Night at Ballet Theater. In an interview, Epperson discussed his history with the company and what it means for someone with an often-unnoticed job there to suddenly be given a major platform. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: You started playing piano for dancers in Mississippi, but what was your introduction to Ballet Theater?

A: I was very friendly with one of the singing teachers that I was working for, and I was at her home around Christmastime. One of her daughters put a copy of Vogue in my lap, and the page was open to a photo of Gelsey Kirkland. Two years later I was working at the Jackson Ballet, and we watched Gelsey Kirkland in this “Nutcracker” with Baryshnikov on PBS. Three months later, “Live From Lincoln Center” had a whole evening of American Ballet Theater. And Baryshnikov and Kirkland did “Theme and Variations.” I said to myself, “This is the Judy Garland of ballet, and I want to meet her. I want to work with her.”

Q: Did you work with her?

A: After I moved to New York, I got a job at ABT pretty quickly, in 1980, but of course Gelsey Kirkland was famously fired. [She rejoined the company but resigned in 1984.] I ended up working, though, with Natalia Makarova. She had her own class, which the regular company pianists didn’t want to do because it started later — but also they considered themselves rehearsal pianists, not class pianists. So I said I would do it. She fascinated me as much as Gelsey Kirkland. Once, they put the “Swan Lake” score in front of me, and I played it in kind of a trial by fire. Makarova was pretty demanding, and it’s not easy; you have to keep an eye on the dancer, on the score, on the rehearsal director and I guess even the keyboard.

Q: Can you explain the difference between the pianism that rehearsals and classes require?

A: In rehearsal, the music is set. Sometimes the dancer is tired, and you don’t do anything. Some people look at their phones; in the past they would read newspapers. A rehearsal can get canceled. You never know what’s going to happen. But you go to a class, and you’re going to work. There’s a bit of a formula, but the music is up to you.

Q: A rehearsal pianist needs to be able to play rep as varied as the company’s — Bernstein to Stravinsky to Tchaikovsky. Is that hard?

A: If a piece is really difficult, I’m not going to be able to sight read it. Like “The Rite of Spring,” I have to prepare in advance. But some is sight readable: “Apollo,” “The Prodigal Son,” “Romeo and Juliet.” This leads me to a story.

I was traveling with ABT, and I picked up a story in the Times about something called gay cancer. It wasn’t even yet called GRID [AIDS]. I thought, well, wait a minute, what if I have this thing? OK, I’ve got my job at American Ballet Theater, but there’s so much else I want to do. That’s when I realized I needed to try to do more with this character I had created — Lypsinka. And I wanted to write musicals. As it turns out, I didn’t have it, but people around me did, including people in the company.

I didn’t leave the job completely, and I had enjoying working with Kenneth MacMillan. In 1985 Kenneth came back to stage “Romeo and Juliet.” In Los Angeles, there was an onstage rehearsal that Friends of ABT could attend. The dancers were not in hair and makeup, and there was no orchestra; it was just going to be me in the pit following the conductor. Well, the conductor missed the rehearsal, so I had to play the whole thing under the stage, and I couldn’t even see the dancers. But I did it. No one said “Congratulations,” “Thank you,” “You saved the day.” I remember going to my car thinking, it’s always going to be like this.

By that time I had already found the Pyramid Club, so I was building an audience there. I finally wrote a musical, a parody of “Valley of the Dolls” in the ballet world called “Ballet of the Dolls.” Kenneth came to see it. I was in the wings playing the piano, but I did have a cameo. When I saw Kenneth at work a few days later, he said, “I enjoyed the show very much, but John, the person the audience wants to see onstage is you.” No one had ever said that to me, and here was the great Sir Kenneth MacMillan. It was such a great validation.

Q: How does it feel, then, to be taking center stage at ABT now?

A: It’s very strange because I’ve always been behind the scenes there. And I’ve always known that was part of the deal. There was a pianist at ABT named Barbara Bilach. She badly wanted to be respected more. She was pretty vocal about it, and it rubbed people the wrong way. But she was beloved. No matter what, I could always make her laugh because there’s a part of Lypsinka’s show where she says, “Barbara, please!”

Q: In what other ways has ballet bled into your life as Lypsinka and vice versa?

A: I’ve never considered myself a real dancer. I do somewhat jokingly say that I learned dance through osmosis. I studied Makarova’s port de bras. There was a critic who said Lypsinka performs with the precision of a Balanchine dancer. I don’t know if that’s true, but if you’re working in the ballet world, there’s a discipline to it.

There are other pianists at ABT with ambitions, I should say. I may just be the flashiest. But you know, there’s a hardworking group of musicians behind the scenes. Their names may not ever be in the newspaper, but they’re back there, and they have ambition and drive, and they deserve to be acknowledged.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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