There reportedly was some tittering during the cast's first read-through of the Duluth Playhouse production of "A Chorus Line" when Paige Kohler, as the character Sheila, said:

"I mean, how many years do I have left to be a chorus-cutie? Three? Four? If I have my eyes done. ... So, just lately I've been thinking about opening a dance studio."

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It's a moment in the musical where the longtime professional dancer considers a life beyond the legwarmers and the wall of mirrors.

Kohler has been there.

She's been through the adjustment period that comes with ending a dance career -- though not due to age. And as for the dance studio -- she had that before she even graduated from high school.

"There are little things from Sheila's life that hit home for me," said Kohler, the show's dance captain.

The Duluth Playhouse's production is in its fifth month of rehearsal, a marathon of six-day-a-week, three-hour-plus sessions meant to give the actors a taste of living like a dancer.

This period has included leafy dinners eaten quickly from portable containers, vocal sessions and line memorization. But mostly there has been a ton of dance, which is the meat of the show about dancers auditioning to be part of the chorus line of a Broadway show.

At this point, a few members of the ensemble have dropped out of the show because of the commitment. They started rehearsing in October; the show opens April 19 at the Duluth Playhouse.


Kohler, who grew up in Spooner, said she always knew she was going to be a dancer. From the time she was 12 there were daily trips to Duluth to take lessons at the School of the Minnesota Ballet --more than a 75-mile drive each way.

"I loved it and I miss it and I'd do it again," her mother, Pam Lanford, said of the commutes.

Paige Kohler also attended summer sessions with the Boston Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City.

Her senior year of high school, she and her sister took over ownership of the Spooner School of Dance -- where she first learned to dance -- and she continues to teach lessons twice a week. The school has 185 students, ranging from 3-year-olds to adults.

After high school, Kohler was hired by the American National Ballet, a dance company led by artistic director Armando Maldonado that opened in 2002 and lasted about four years in Duluth.

Just before the small company shut down, Kohler was in a car accident. She had been driving south on U.S. Highway 53 and tried to pass a car. The other driver was asleep at the wheel, according to Kohler, and veered into her lane. She spun out and got hit by the car.

Kohler ended up in the emergency room and was told she was lucky to be alive. She severely damaged muscles in her neck and back. When the American National Ballet closed, she was still in a neck brace.

"It was horrible. Horrible. Going to doctor after doctor and test after test," Lanford said. "There were no answers for such a long time. At first we had no idea how serious it was going to be. We thought it was just whiplash. It was horrible, everything kind of crashing."

The plans for a professional dance career ended.

"It was really difficult," Kohler said. "You don't realize how much it's part of your life until it's taken away -- when you can't do it anymore. It was really hard to be a normal person, working a 9-to-5 job. It's depressing when you know 'this isn't what I'm trained to do.' "

Though Kohler won't ever be part of a professional company, she was able to pick up musical theater gigs after healing. She was an ensemble member for the Playhouse's production of "Cats" in 2007. She was first named dance captain for a production of "White Christmas," directed by Nikki Swoboda and then again for "Chicago," directed by Seitz.

"It was a hard transition, being a strict ballerina-type and then going into musical theater," Kohler said.

Rehearsals for "A Chorus Line" have Kohler in a decisively "Sheila" position. She is a veteran dancer, one whom a younger dancer could sneak a look at to see how it's done. While Sheila has an ego, Kohler is less ego, more confidence and at ease with the choreography. She alternately performs with the cast and watches the performers from the sidelines, fixing problem arms and troubleshooting footwork. Seitz looks to her for opinions or a second opinion, tossing out a "Right, Paige?" The director also puts her in charge when she has to step aside to consult with costume designers about the length of a dancer's pant leg.

"When you develop a relationship with an assistant, it's because they think the way you do," Seitz said. "She works in the same manner I do. She's tough-love, and so am I."

Where they are

The show is still in a rehearsal space at the Playhouse Conservatory. During a recent session, price tags dangled from the arms of costumes and hems were pinned on the sidelines. The sets, composed mostly of a collection of theater mirrors, are being built. The actors' lines are embedded and choreography has been learned -- to the point where the cast is now expected to forget it is choreography.

"We're at the stage where I'm pushing them to be mastering the material as their character and to stop thinking about what they're doing, but to think about what they're saying," Seitz said. "At the same time, we have to clean it up, fix problems with spacing, taking that leap from technically rehearsing to fully engaged."

Seitz put the show into context for the cast: They must sell themselves to the director, Zach, played by Cal Metts. Look him in the eye. Flash him a wicked smile, even after a misstep. They need this job. They might know other dancers at the audition, but they are not friends. Size each other up.

The show is at a nitpicky point where the dancers critique other dancers, and choreography is recorded so they can see for themselves what needs fixing.

"It's fun to see the run-throughs now, where all these different things are coming together," said Naomi Christensen, a newbie to Duluth's theater scene whose form on a jazz combination Kohler recently had the other dancers watch as a good example of how to do the moves.

They are close to losing one of their crutches -- soon they won't be able to watch themselves as they rehearse. Or, as the character Zach says at the beginning of the show:

"Let's see the whole combination ... away from the mirrors."