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Francesca Cipponeri on dreams, diversity in theatre, and Dennis the Menace

Modesto, California must be the place where stars are born: the city is the birthplace of George Lucas, Macklemore’s grandmother, and rising star Francesca Cipponeri. Cipponeri is a dancer, choreographer, actress and singer who recently earned an MFA in Dance with an emphasis in Choreography at Mills.

Cipponeri calls San Jose and San Francisco her homes, splitting her time between each of their dance and theatre communities. Outside of the Bay Area, Cipponeri has performed with the Buglisi Dance Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York, NY and with the SF MOMA. Though Cipponeri has worked in many places, she says Mills still remains a favorite.

Photo courtesy of Francesca Cipponeri

“It was everything I could have wanted it to be, to be honest,” Cipponeri says of her time at Mills. “It was a place where I could experiment. It was a place to learn from those who are in the industry, not just those who have dabbled in it or went straight into the education system. I learned from professors who had worked in all aspects of dance and dance production and choreography and I loved the opportunity I had to collaborate with other dancers and other artists within Mills.”

Mills has made an indelible mark on Cipponeri. She nods to the specialness of Mills’ Dance program in particular.

“Being part of the program is something that I will forever treasure,” she continues. “And I’m deeply sad that it’s ending. But yeah, it’s definitely a marking in my journey that has shaped the way I approach my career and how I feel equipped and like an actual contributor to my community.”

In conversation with Mills Dance professors, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, “Whether the new Mills College at Northeastern University will resume the legacy of Mills dance remains unknown. The current faculty has the coming year to develop proposals for a new program, and it would take years beyond that to get such a program running. As for the new Mills Institute, Northeastern has promised, “I’m pretty confused as to what that would look like,” [department chair Sheldon] Smith said.”

Outside of Mills, Cipponeri keeps the spirit of her program alive in her most recent endeavor: playing the role of Ivy Smith, an aspiring young dancer, in South Bay Musical Theatre’s upcoming production of On The Town.

On The Town is a lighthearted musical about young men and women chasing (or unexpectedly finding) love set against a heavy background. According to the South Bay Musical Theatre’s website, On The Town is “a sweet tale about three sailors grabbing 24 hours of shore leave in New York City before shipping off to World War II.”

Cipponeri feels passionately about the play’s history. She explains, “[…] the first actor who played Ivy was an Asian woman and [there was] deep, deep adversity against the Asian community, and her father actually was in a Japanese internment camp while she was on stage.”

That first actor was Sono Osato, a late Japanese-American dancer and actress, who became the youngest dancer in the prestigious Col. Wassily de Basil’s Ballets Russes ballet company at 14. Cipponeri believes that On The Town provides evidence of how much representation matters in the performing arts.

“It’s important that we have diverse voices in theater. On The Town opened and takes place during WWII (1944), and at the time, diversity was not given the importance it should have. Sono Osato as Ivy was an incredible step in representation as she herself is a Japanese-American woman who was facing prejudice, racism, and adversity. As she originated the role of Ivy, her own father was in a Japanese Internment camp. I feel honored to be able to share Osato’s story and learn from the work she did to make Ivy come to life.”

Cipponeri considers her portrayal of Ivy thoughtfully because she feels connected to Ivy’s story. Ivy is an aspiring dancer who works at Coney Island to make ends meet. “She’s hardworking, she’s innocent. She wants to make her way in the world her own way,” Cipponeri explains passionately.

As Cipponeri steps into her version of Ivy, she is prompted to think deeply about what dance means to her. She has found that one challenge of playing Ivy is conveying character through movement.

“[Ivy is] a dancer first and dance doesn’t have a whole lot of words to it,” Cipponeri reflects. […] “So how does she communicate with you? It struck me. I was talking to Laura from SBMT. She’s our dramaturg and she was talking to me and she said, ‘There’s this honesty in being a dancer, and you can play x, you can set a face on [the character]. But your body is going to tell the story and that’s what’s going to take the audience on the journey with you.'”

As a dancer playing a dancer, Cipponeri is steeped in self-reflection and connection to her art form. When asked what advice she would provide to a newcomer in the performance arts, Cipponeri shares,

“I would say, you are allowed to play! As artists we often get wrapped up in being the ‘right’ thing or being the ‘best’ thing, and we often get into a mindset that there isn’t room for too many of the same thing. If you allow yourself room to play, you discover what makes your artistic voice unique to your medium. Let yourself discover your passion because that is what will make you a good artist. Not following the so-called formula, I guess.”

Cipponeri wants to bring the youthful spirit of play and connectivity into her dance, taking it full circle. She recalls laughing at the Sunday morning comic “Dennis the Menace” with her family as a young girl. “[That feeling is] the point of being an artist,” she says. “[…] There’s this common community and this common playfulness.”

On The Town will be showing at South Bay Musical Theatre from May 20 to June 4. Tickets can be found here.