By Joseph Hurley
She has no name. She is described simply as “a Girl in a Yellow Dress.” When she walks through the door of the after-hours club in downtown Manhattan, by day a pool hall, by night a mecca for swing dancers, her “task” is to electrify the males among the movers who habituate the place, and anybody else who might happen to be watching from the sidelines.
That “club” is, of course, the setting for the last, longest, and most dynamic segment of director Susan Stroman’s spectacular choreographic triptych, “Contact,” which has been running at Lincoln Center since September 1999.
The challenge the show hurls at the occupant of that yellow dress, namely to captivate and fascinate every man and boy within sight, is now being met by Colleen Dunn, an Irish American from Pittsburgh who stepped into the role, and, metaphorically speaking, into “the Dress,” as well, on Sept. 4, 2001, replacing he galvanic Deborah Yates, the dancer who created the role.
The willowy Dunn is now “the Girl” smiling out of the show’s ads on the city’s buses and taxis, not to mention billboards in the theater district and elsewhere.
Being the focus of the concentrated attention of the Beaumont Theater audiences, not to mention the gifted company of dancers with whom she shares the stage, comes easily to Dunn, or at least she somehow manages to give the impression that it does.
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“Contact” is, after all, Dunn’s ninth show. When she came to New York in 1988, fresh out of high school, she quickly landed a job in the late Peter Allen’s “Legs Diamond.” The show was short-lived, but the experience, and the attention that came with it, led to other Broadway productions, including the original casts of “The Will Rogers Follies” and “Sunset Boulevard,” a replacement assignment in “Cats,” plus Broadway revivals such as “Annie,” and, recently, Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”
At Lincoln Center Theater, she was Princess Veronica in “My Favorite Year,” performing on the same stage that is now the center of her performing life.
Dunn’s role in “Contact” is the most rigorous task she’s ever taken on. For one thing, her role casts her opposite a character identified mainly as “an Advertising Executive” who is a non-dancer and a stranger to the downtown world of dance clubs and the denizens they attract.
Suitably, the role has been cast from the start with actors not generally thought of as dancers, starting with Boyd Gaines, who won a Tony Award for his work in the show.
On a recent afternoon, Dunn spoke of the complexites of performing a demanding dance role with a succession of different partners.
“John Bolton and I have a long, mutual history,” she said, “because we did ‘Annie’ together, and Alan Campbell and I had done ‘Sunset’ together. I’d never done anything with D.W. Moffett, nor did I know him at all before we got together. D.W. and I rehearsed together for a month. We found each other in the parts, and learned together, which really solidified our performances before we ever got on stage.”
Dunn readily acknowledges the differences in the leading men with whom she’s worked, and the adjustments she’s made as a result.
“Working with Alan is really different, because even though we’d both been in ‘Sunset,’ we really hadn’t seen each other very much, and we’d never worked together on this level before as partners,” she said. “He’d done ‘Contact” on the road, for the last 10 months. The road is different because you’re working on a proscenium stage, which requires a lot of retooling on our parts.”
And there was something else. “He was accustomed to dancing with Holly Cruikshank, who’s 6 feet tall in her bare feet, which makes her a good 3 inches taller than I am. So, overall, it’s very different doing it with someone new when you’ve been doing it a certain way for six months.”
Accommodating the people around her comes naturally to Dunn, one of six children born to a Sears salesman and his wife, a onetime Ice Capades performer. The dancer’s paternal grandfather came from Dublin as an orphaned child.
“He was in an orphanage in Ohio and ended up working on the rail cars in the steel mills,” Dunn said. He passed away when I was 6. My mother’s family had come from Ireland, too, but they’d been here for a long while.”
Dunn made her first trip to Ireland after “Sunset Boulevard” closed in “Los Angeles” and, after a layoff period for a few weeks reopened in New York.
“It was the first time that I went somewhere that I immediately felt as though I’d gone home,” Dunn said. “Whatever that awareness is, I found myself thinking ‘this is my home.’
Married for the last four years to Steve Killebrew, a financial analyst from Oklahoma City whom she met in an acting class, the dancer is enrolled at Hunter College, majoring in art and religion, making up for the education she missed out on earlier.
With a large, supportive family, a loving husband and a sterling career, not to mention a hunger for education, Colleen Dunn would appear to have a charmed existence. As is usually the case, however, things aren’t that simple.
“I had open heart surgery about four years ago and there were about three years when I couldn’t dance,” she said. “That’s why I was able to enroll in college, and why I had to retrain before I could take this job.
Dunn candidly admits that, at one point, her situation was perilous. “They found a hole in my heart the size of a quarter, and a potential aneurysm, and they gave me less than 10 years to live if I didn’t have it fixed,” she said.
Naturally enough, she had the surgery, but there were complications that lengthened the recuperative period.
“I’m good now,” she said, almost blithely. “They sewed it up, and I’m good to go now. Life without dancing is very sad for a dancer, and I went through a very serious mourning period wondering, ‘What if I can’t ever do it again?’ I’d been injured before, but never to the point where I thought it might be the end of my career as a dancer.”
Dunn’s characteristic optimism won the day. “I love life so much,” she said, “and learning. I did a yoga teacher training course to teach heart and cancer patients at Greenwich Hospital, and I found it extremely rewarding. Life affords us amazing possibilities if we can just keep our eyes open.”
Dunn didn’t want to return to dancing unless she was, as she put it, “100 percent again.” So the first job she took after she got well was a commercial that didn’t require dancing. As it happens, it’s the one thing for which Colleen Dunn is most easily recognized by the general public.
“I’m the French maid in the Dannon yogurt spot,” she said. “Everybody seems to love it. I’m serving this man a meal, and I start to seduce him with the yogurt, when these two girls come in, and one of them says to the other, ‘My parents are so weird,’ at which point I drop the French accent and say, ‘You’re home early.’ ”
Dunn’s rich laugh seemed to endanger the confining walls of her Lincoln Center dressing room. “The wonderful thing about life,” she said, “is that it’s so precious and so brilliant and that it offers you so many opportunities if you stay open to them.”