Dancing Duo: Sostek and McClellan

Originally Published in the December 2015 Entertainment Guide

Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek danced at the State Theatre in Minneapolis on Sept. 21 of this year to celebrate their Ivey Award for the choreography and playwriting of Trick Boxing. Photo by Thomas John Wallace

When Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan won the Ivey Award, which recognizes accomplishments of Twin Cities’ professional theaters and artists, on Sept. 21, 2015, they spontaneously danced down the aisle at the State Theatre in Minneapolis and continued dancing on the stage. A delighted audience cheered them as they accepted an Ivey for their choreography and playwriting of Trick Boxing, which the couple performed at St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre earlier that year.

McClellan told me, “When we celebrate, we dance. We really do skip around in our house all the time to celebrate. Our kids know when something good happens, everyone stands up and holds hands and skips in a circle.”

Sostek and McClellan have been artists-in-residence at Carleton College in Northfield, presenting Trick Boxing, developing another show and working with Carleton’s student dance company, Semaphore, at Carleton’s Weitz Center for Creativity. Sostek is quite familiar with the Weitz Center because he attended junior high school in this building before its conversion. He went to Washington, Sibley and Greenvale elementary schools and was a 1985 graduate of Northfield High School. He is also a 1990 graduate of Carleton College, where his mother, Antoinette (Toni) Sostek, taught ballet, tap and jazz and his father, Edward Sostek, taught theater and directed plays. Brian was born in Iowa City while his father was working on his doctorate in theater at the University of Iowa. The move to Northfield came in August of 1969.

Brian Sostek told me Carleton’s Arboretum was his playground in his youth and he and his friends would “take off on our bikes” for hours, riding around town. He would also appear in Carleton plays which called for children. In March of 1976, Sostek and his younger sister, Hilary, were in the Carleton Players’ production of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Ruth Weiner. (This play had its world premiere at Carleton’s Nourse Little Theater in 1948.)

Brian Sostek and his sister, Hilary (seated together), were in the cast of The Sound of Music of the Northfield Musical Theater, directed by their father, Edward, and choreographed by their mother, Toni, in August 1976. Courtesy Northfield Arts Guild

Sostek participated in Northfield Musical Theater plays, including The Sound of Music in August of 1976 with Hilary, which was directed by their father and choreographed by their mother. In December of 1979, when he was 13, Sostek played the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, directed by Myrna Johnson. He was also in On Golden Pond and The Count of Monte Cristo, both in 1983.

Sostek remembers his mother “teaching me how to do a time step in the kitchen when I was a tiny, tiny tot” and he took ballet lessons from her at a class for kids held at Carleton for three months when he was in 6th grade. But when he entered junior high, Sostek said, “Some girls found out about it and then I quit,” since “taking dancing classes was not cool” back then (for males, at least).

Oliver! was presented by the Northfield Musical Theater in December 1979, with Dick Cantwell (top) as Fagin, Brian Sostek (left) as the Artful Dodger and Doug Carlson (right) as Oliver. It was directed by Myrna Johnson and choreographed by Toni Sostek. Courtesy Northfield Arts Guild

Sostek attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania for a year after high school but dropped out to return home. He worked as a cook at the Ole Store Café for a year and then transferred to Carleton as a sophomore, by which time he had taken more dance lessons from his mother in ballet, modern, jazz and tap. At Carleton, he added student-taught ballroom dancing lessons. Sostek majored in English at Carleton, after being inspired by an African American poetry class taught by Rudolph Byrd.

Brian Sostek performed with the Uninvited Company, the Carleton student-run summer stock theater company. Here he is in the summer of 1986, hanging over a balcony outside the Little Nourse Theater on campus. Courtesy Carleton College Archives

From the beginning, Sostek immersed himself in theater and dance performances. He was in summer stock plays of the Uninvited Company of Carleton. He won the lead in the existentialist play Friends by the Japanese writer Kobo Abe in October of 1987, put on by the Experimental Theatre Board at Nourse Little Theater. In April of 1988, he choreographed and danced in a modern dance Kalochoros performance under Mary Easter.

Then, in his senior year, Sostek starred in the Experimental Theatre Board’s production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago by David Mamet. The Carletonian of January 26, 1990, said, “Sostek is outstanding as Bernie Litko, a gold-necklaced, open-shirted, sleazy swinger; he has a terrific feel for comedy.” The only criticism: Sostek’s “trademark hair tends to obscure his face and some expressions.”

Sostek told me that some of the “best performance training I ever had” came from his experiences with comedic styles in Carleton’s improvisational group, Cujokra, founded in 1987. (The group has variously claimed that the name is a Zulu prayer meaning “Bring us the harvest,” a little-known Aztec demon, an archaic Spanish word for “comedy ensemble” and a dwarf’s name combined with a vegetable. Another famous alum, besides Sostek, is Peter Gwinn, Class of 1993, who wrote for The Colbert Report on Comedy Central.) In a May 6, 1988 Carletonian story, Sostek credits British poets Alexander Pope and John Dryden as heroes to the group, along with Robin Williams and David Letterman.

Brian Sostek played Charlie Chaplin in a film excerpt within the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre’s 1989-90 production of Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Photo by Melissa Gerr

After his graduation in 1990, Sostek, who had been a DFL precinct delegate to the Rice County convention in 1984, canvassed for Paul Wellstone’s first Senate campaign and had a brief outdoor education internship on the East Coast. Upon his return to Minnesota, Sostek started auditioning and had a gig at the Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis backing up a prima ballerina passing through town. Thereafter, he wrote short pieces of monologue, physical theater, puppetry, “just anything cobbled together as I still do,” including an audition piece which landed him a role in The Ballroom for Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis in 1992. He also supported himself delivering singing telegrams. He parodied a striptease dancer and dressed up as Santa Claus, a pink gorilla, a coconut-clad hula dancer, whatever was required, presenting surprised recipients with Mylar balloons as he sang out proposals of marriage, announcements of births and so on. Sostek then took training in ballroom dancing and “got hooked,” starting out a teaching career which continues today.

While in rehearsal for Children of Paradise, his next show at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Sostek began dancing with the Joe Chvala Flying Foot Forum, a percussive dance company in Minneapolis. He toured nationally with them and then internationally, first to France in January of 1996 and then to England and Wales in late spring and summer. Upon his return to Minnesota, Sostek met Megan McClellan, a newcomer to the company, that August.

McClellan grew up in New Hope, Minnesota, and had been dancing since the age of three. McClellan’s mother, believing that dance would “create poise and grace and confidence,” in McClellan’s words, enrolled Megan and her sisters, Kari, Colleen and Erin, in Summit Dance Studio in Plymouth where they danced all through their school years at competitions and shows. They also sold tickets to their own dance shows held in their garage. McClellan graduated from Robbinsdale-Cooper High School in 1995.

When McClellan auditioned for the Joe Chvala Flying Foot Forum in Minneapolis, her talent was such that she was cast immediately. Sostek, who had been with the group for four years, took note of McClellan at the first rehearsal. He told me, “She was raising the bar…I show up and there’s this young girl just flying through it and, sure enough, in the first rehearsal Joe, the choreographer, was using Megan as an example of how the rest of us should be doing it.” McClellan remembered Sostek having said something witty and she thought to herself, “I’m going to like this one.”

Brian Sostek, shown with Sonja Ledanski, played the role of Lank and did the choreography for the Northfield Musical Theater production of Crazy for You in 1996. Directed by Myrna Johnson, the production was dedicated to the late Toni Sostek, Brian’s mother. Courtesy Northfield Arts Guild

Sostek was also starring in and choreographing Crazy for You (directed by Myrna Johnson) for the Northfield Musical Theater, which ran from Aug. 23 to Sept. 8 and featured Gershwin music. The show was dedicated to Sostek’s mother, Toni, who had died Jan. 28, 1996, at the age of 58 after a long illness. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, she had started dancing at a dance school there, operated by the family of Gene Kelly. She became a professional at 17, toured the country and danced on Broadway and on television. In 1962, she married Edward Sostek, a Boston native who had undergraduate and graduate degrees in theater from Tufts College and was a production stage manager at that time. After their move to Northfield in 1969, Toni Sostek taught ballet and tap dancing at Carleton and St. Olaf colleges and was a dance teacher and choreographer for the Northfield Arts Guild.

McClellan and Sostek had a Joe Chvala Flying Foot Forum tour to Pittsburgh in December of 1996 and, McClellan told me, they came back “pretty smitten with each other.” They soon realized that they had the “same level of work ethic and commitment.”

There was one problem: Sostek had been making plans to move to Los Angeles. He did so in February of 1997. Sostek said, “I was fleeing everything, just reeling from my mother’s death and just wanting to have a clean slate and start over.” Although his aim was to be in the movies in Hollywood, not to dance, he did teach ballroom dancing at the Beverly Hills Arthur Murray Studio to pay the rent. Sostek did a lot of commercials, some “stupid sitcoms” and appeared in a “horrible horror movie” that went straight to video called Hellraiser. Sostek said he still gets checks from that movie, eighteen cents every six months from a couple of people who may have rented the movie in Bulgaria.

Sostek said, “I went there thinking I would like the business and not like the city and I left there liking the city and not liking the business. Because it’s a business that panders to the lowest common denominator.” Not mincing words, he told me, “Most of the work that is out there is garbage and there are a lot of talented people who are just wasting their time, talent and energy making crap.” Sostek feels his best work was in some high quality, short student films he took part in at the University of Southern California.

Under the name Sossy Mechanics, Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan have been performing their work Trick Boxing since it premiered at the Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2002. This picture was on the first page of the Arts section of the New York Times on Aug. 23, 2010, when they took their show to the New York International Fringe Festival to critical acclaim. Photo by Ed Bock

Meanwhile, McClellan was taking classes, first at the University of St. Thomas and then at the University of Minnesota. She had taken over Sostek’s company manager position with the Joe Chvala Flying Foot Forum and arranged for Sostek to fill in on tour for the group, including in Houston, San Diego and Brazil. And she found reasons to fly to Los Angeles for three years (“I absolutely courted him,” she said.) She finally joined him in Los Angeles.

The couple returned to Minnesota in 2000 with the agreement that they would make work for themselves under the name Sossy Mechanics. They were married May 26, 2001, at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. When they won entry by lottery into the 2002 Minnesota Fringe Festival which showcases new scripts, they created a show called Trick Boxing. They incorporated dance duet choreography into a 1930’s boxing milieu after Sostek found that the sport of boxing was “really a fantastic microcosm of American immigrant history.”

Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan, as “Dancing Danny” and dance hall lady Bella, kick up their heels in one of the dance numbers of Trick Boxing, set in the 1930s. Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

Sostek plays multiple roles in this Depression-era show, switching parts in the blink of an eye. David Danielovich is an apple-seller who is unknowingly recruited into a betting scam by the hustler Buck, who turns him into a boxer named “Dancing Danny.” McClellan plays the dance hall lady, Bella, who teaches “Dancing Danny” some moves. Their dance sequences summon up memories of the iconic dance partners Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in movies of the ’30s. The inventive and tightly choreographed scene in which Sostek and McClellan demonstrate boxing moves, including slow motion takes, can be seen online at Trick Boxing Vimeo. The boxing matches are staged in a small box, with puppets representing the fighters, manipulated by Sostek as he narrates the action in a staccato, old-time announcer voice.

McClellan said they had a theory that if they “made a show that our parents would like,” a wider audience would like it also. Their 50-minute Minnesota Fringe Festival show was a hit. Sostek commented, “People were literally lined up down the block” for Hey City Stage, with around 600 people attending their five shows. The couple took suggestions about their work from friends in the arts, adding another scene and more dancing when the show was transferred to the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater.

Brian Sostek plays a variety of roles in Trick Boxing. Here he is during the production of Trick Boxing in 2012 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

In June and July of 2003, the pair took the show to Canadian festivals and spent August performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, billed as the “largest arts festival in the world.” Their success led to a return to Edinburgh in 2004, as well as to shows in England and headliner status in the Fringe Festival in Prague.

Sostek found Equity acting work on the main stage at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2005, performing in She Loves Me and understudying His Girl Friday. Sostek has played numerous roles, including at such Twin Cities venues as the Children’s Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, Ordway Center and Southern Theater. McClellan was awarded a McKnight artist fellowship in dance in 2003 and was named artist of the year by City Pages in 2012.

Between 2007 and 2010, they took a break from touring in Trick Boxing, coinciding with the birth of son Misha in 2007 (now eight) and daughter Mahira in 2009 (now six). Then, in 2010, wishing to gain more creative control over their careers, they applied for and were selected to present their reworked Trick Boxing for the New York Fringe Festival of 2010. So, with their two children, ages 3 and 11 months old, they stayed in the NYC studio apartment of a friend who was out of town for the month of August, an apartment which just happened to be a block away from the theater they were assigned. A former dance student of Brian living in NYC took care of the kids during the shows. Then they waited for the reviews.

Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

They found themselves pictured on the first page of the Arts section of the Aug. 23, 2010, New York Times. How exciting! But the headline gave them pause:

“A Fringe Too Tame? Too Bad.” Luckily, the reviewer (Jason Zinoman), after skewering most of the New York International Fringe Festival offerings, called Trick Boxing “the best show I have seen,” citing the “marvelous chemistry” Sostek had with McClellan as his romantic interest, the ingenuity of the puppet show and the “fleet-footed fantasy” of the dances.

As Sossy Mechanics, Sostek and McClellan conduct workshops for all ages, using a movement-based approach to tap into both individual and group creativity. Sostek says, “Ball balancing is not required.” Courtesy Brian Sostek

Their success in New York led to the Guthrie Theater engaging an expanded 90-minute version in 2012, renamed Trick Boxing: Swingin’ in the Ring. The show was reworked yet again for Park Square Theatre this year, the eighth theater in the Twin Cities in which they have performed and perfected Trick Boxing.

The same development process was applied to another show which they premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2004, called Pieces of Eight. The plot involves a 1940’s screenwriter and a dancing pirate queen. In November 2015, Sostek was awarded a $10,000 artist initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to rework this show “using the unorthodox combinations of live theater, dance and puppetry in a completely original work.” They developed Pieces of Eight as part of their residency at Carleton, where they worked with their longtime collaborator, Jeff Bartlett, production manager at the Weitz Center.

Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek share a celebratory kiss after receiving their 2015 Ivey Award at the State Theatre in Minneapolis on Sept. 21. Courtesy Brian Sostek

As Sossy Mechanics, they perform and present workshops focused on their movement-based creativity concept, “going out of your mind and back in again,” to tap into the creativity of individuals and groups of all ages. Their website is sossymechanics.com. After January 2016 stops in Faribault and Winona, the duo performed Trick Boxing and had a creativity residence at the Univ. of Texas in Dallas until mid-February, followed by appearances at W. Illinois University, Worthington, Minn., and Mitchell and Spearfish, S.D. At Shattuck-St Mary’s, they taught and choreographed for dancers in addition to their Jan. 7 performance of Trick Boxing there. Then, in Winona, they engaged in community activities and performed Trick Boxing on Jan. 27.

Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek strike a pose for their show, Pieces of Eight, which they are developing through a $10,000 artist initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Photo by Ed Bock

Sostek’s mother, Toni, once said that if someone asked her if he or she should be a dancer, she would say no because “They shouldn’t have to ask. To be a professional dancer, you have to give up everything else. Dancers have this saying that if they’ve rested five minutes, they’re out of shape.” Brian Sostek remembers her saying, “When a dancer wakes up and nothing hurts, that means they’re dead.” When Sostek and McClellan are asked about going into the theater, their answer is, “Give it a shot but you better have a plan if it doesn’t work out. Just assume that you need something to make money. It’s rare you can actually do what we’re doing and make enough to survive.” Sostek and McClellan say they have been lucky, but the secret is working, sometimes seven days a week. Yet they haven’t given up everything else. They elected to stay in Minnesota for a more “well-rounded life” and their children often travel with them when they are on the road (“They just roll with it,” enjoying the cultural opportunities, McClellan said.)

Toni Sostek also said, “You either enjoy it or you quit.” Clearly, Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan are still enjoying what they are doing. As are the cheering audiences along their way.

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