Dinner theater choreographer in the spotlight; Toby's: Ilona Kessell has been nominated for two Helen Hayes Awards, which will be presented at a Kennedy Center ceremony.; Howard Live


For some people, getting nominated for a Helen Hayes Award, Washington's annual theater prize, would be reason to jump for joy. Ilona Kessell, the resident choreographer at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, was nominated twice last month for her work on "Follies" and "State Fair."

Her reaction?

"I try not to think about it," the 46-year-old Baltimore County resident says. Her reason is personal: The Hayes Awards didn't recognize dinner theater for a number of years, and a little resentment lingers.

Sitting in the theater while the cast of "42nd Street" gathers for a Saturday morning rehearsal, Kessell says she hadn't paid attention on the night of the nominations. She learned of her triumph when she called the theater that evening to talk to her boss, producing director Toby Ornstein.

"The girl at the desk said, 'Congratulations,' " Kessell says. "And I said, 'Why?' "

Kessell plans to attend the awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts next month, and says she'll be happy to sit in the front with the other nominees, as she did last year when her work on Toby's "West Side Story" was a contender.

Meanwhile, she's more absorbed by her day job -- teaching dance at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills -- and with getting "42nd Street" on its feet for a June opening at Toby's.

Kessell, who was raised in New Jersey, has been dancing since she was 4. It wasn't always clear that it would be her career, though. She studied biology in college and made deep progress in two Ph.D. programs before settling into a career teaching and choreographing.

She has done more than 30 shows at Toby's since 1988, when she was hired to choreograph "42nd Street." She met her husband, Peter, during that show. He was a trumpet substitute with the orchestra and now heads the band program at McDonogh, where the couple lives with their 8-year-old son, Joshua.

If you recognize some of Jerome Robbins' original choreography in Kessell's dances for shows such as "West Side Story" or "The King and I," that's intentional.

The people who control Robbins' estate "would prefer that you use his choreography," she says, "and they send you now a choreographers' manual. If it's an Equity production, you have to have a Jerome Robbins representative come and review the material and say, 'OK, this is good.' And you have to be doing the original choreography."

At Toby's, which is not an Equity theater, "they give us the manual, and I do have some flexibility."

Kessell says she did not try to replicate Robbins' ballet precisely in Toby's current production of "The King and I." The dances are bound to be somewhat different because of Toby's in-the-round theater, with the audience surrounding the stage.

Kessell says that when she's doing shows made famous by great choreographers, audiences expect to see some of the original style in the dancing. But she has to balance that with what her boss wants.

She tells the story of her first job with Ornstein 12 years ago. Kessell had taught her dancers one of choreographer Gower Champion's trademark moves because they were reviving his signature show, "42nd Street." Ornstein said that she didn't like the step. Kessell replied that it was classic Gower Champion.

As the director, Ornstein had the last word: "Can't you do better than him?"

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