Inside DM

A Place to Play

Broadway Dance Lab gives choreographers freedom to experiment.

Dancers perform at a Broadway Dance Lab fundraising gala. PC Daniel Robinson, Courtesy BDL

He calls it the Broadway Dance Lab, but Josh Prince doesn’t think parochially. The not-for-profit “dance incubator” he founded in the fall of 2012 has welcomed choreographers from the ballet world (American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes) and from contemporary concert dance (Bessie winner Larry Keigwin) as well as, of course, the working theater folk you might expect, like two-time Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler. To Prince, they’re all “theater-dance makers,” and enabling them to do their best work is his mission, and that of BDL.

A performer whose choreography sideline turned into a full-fledged Broadway career with Shrek and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Prince learned firsthand that dance can sometimes be a last-minute, seat-of-the-pants addition to Broadway musicals. And the fact that theater choreographers and would-be choreographers must sometimes beg, borrow or steal to line up the dancers, rehearsal space and time required to practice their craft struck him as not just unfair, but detrimental to the art of musical theater itself. Prince thinks of choreographers as writers, “authors of dance,” despite the fact that unlike the authors of poems and books, they can’t just hole up somewhere with a laptop to do their work. He started Broadway Dance Lab to give others what he craved: “The artistic freedom to create from the ground up.” Choreographers get 20 hours, a company of 12 professional dancers, one of several large borrowed studios and no boundaries or performance deadlines.

Prince likes to say that BDL is the only nonprofit that exists solely to support theater choreographers, but in pursuing that goal, it has ended up supporting dancers, as well. Because BDL pays competitive salaries, provides workers’ comp and enables dancers to work in multiple styles with many different choreographers, it’s become a highly desirable gig. Over 100 dancers tried out for the 12 nine-week contracts in the 2015–16 season, and Prince expects equally large numbers at BDL’s next audition this spring.

When we spoke, Prince was off to Spain to start work on the Disney Cruise Line’s shipboard version of the animated film Frozen. He acknowledges that being both the artistic director of BDL and a working choreographer can be “daunting.” But he feels lucky that he started BDL after getting some Broadway experience. “Working in the commercial world prepared me to start a nonprofit that can run like a business,” he says. There’s an “invaluable staff” of 10, plus interns, to handle day-to-day managerial chores. “If I was doing it all by myself,” he adds, “it would be impossible.It takes so much structural support.” But, he says, it all feels worthwhile when choreographers reach out to tell him how invaluable their BDL residencies have been.

Blankenbuehler is one of those, singing the praises of the “great tool Josh created” and singling out “the safety of the room, the quality of the dancers, and the concentration and passion from all present.” Prince invited him to BDL when he was between projects, “in that tricky phase of being creatively tired and not quite ready to fully focus on the next assignment,” Blankenbuehler recalls. “I went into the room of wonderful dancers with really no idea of what I wanted to accomplish. I decided to throw myself off the cliff and just experiment. And they followed!” 


A Ballet Is Born

For Josh Prince, inviting Marcelo Gomes to Broadway Dance Lab was something of a no-brainer—“Ballet has always had a large influence on musical theater,” Prince says. “It’s important to foster connections with our current ballet choreographers, and give them a safe space to explore ideas that could transfer to Broadway stages.” For Gomes, accepting was a no-brainer as well—“I had written a children’s story,” he says, “but I just didn’t know where to begin with it.” He’d just created AfterEffect for ABT, and, he recalls, it had been really stressful. “There’s never enough rehearsal time, there’s never enough tech time, and you’re juggling all the dancers when people get injured.” Prince’s offer “was a calm thing to jump on.” He knew that the dancers Prince hires have ballet training, but that “ballet is not the primary thing they do.” Gomes wasn’t worried: “It’s your job as the choreographer to work with the dancers that are in front of you,” he says. Working on his story, centered on “a young girl named Sofie who has this little adventure” and set to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Gomes found that the dancers’ theater orientation put extra tools in his choreographic arsenal: “They really want to collaborate. They like to act, they’re not afraid of getting it wrong. It’s very beneficial to have dancers who can fill up the music with just their acting.” Another difference: “They like to talk,” he notes. “We did character studies—who was Sofie, who were the other kids? Such a different kind of work than at a professional ballet company.” In the end, Gomes was pleased enough with the results to have a small showing of Sofie MayBelle at Judson Memorial Church. But that was never the point. “The thing that attracted me the most,” he says, “was that I didn’t have the pressure of showing anything—no final performance.”

Ashley Wallen's choreography brought The Greatest Showman to life. (Photo by Niko Tavernise, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

The 2018 Oscar noms are here. Which is fun and all; we'll never not get excited about a night of glitz and glamor and, when we're lucky, pretty great dancing. But we'd be a heck of a lot more excited if the Academy Awards included a Best Choreography category. And really—why don't they?

Last year, La La Land's Oscars domination (FOURTEEN nominations) made the fact that Mandy Moore couldn't be recognized for her fantastic choreo—a huge, indisputable part of the film's success—seem especially cruel. This year, it feels weird not to recognize the dance contributions of Ashley Wallen (The Greatest Showman), Anthony Van Laast (Beauty and the Beast), and Aurélie Dupont (Leap!), to name just a few.

Read the full story at dancespirit.com.

Photo by Nicol Vizioli, Courtesy 14–18 NOW

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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