The Case for Choreography You Barely Even Notice
The works of theater that win awards for dance and choreography—and admittedly the ones we usually cover here at Dance Magazine—tend to be ones with lots of dance. Sure, there are exceptions: The play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time got a Best Choreography Tony nod in 2015 for its subtle yet powerful movement direction by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, and we love shows like Hundred Days and Indecent that feature choreography tailor-made for actors. But by and large, the shows that get the most recognition have the biggest, boldest dances.
But what if someone told you that the best choreography is actually the choreography you barely notice? Barry McNabb has built a successful career with that notion, as a frequent choreographer for Irish Repertory Theatre as well as musical theater productions around the world. His most recent work, Irish Rep's The Dead, 1904, features a traditional Irish quadrille.
The cast of The Dead dancing a quadrille. PC Carol Rosegg
"These are dances that the characters would have known by heart," says McNabb. "It should look like something they're creating in the moment." Sometimes, he says, people see dances like this in his work and assume the actors have come up with the movement themselves. Though that can be frustrating, McNabb takes it as a sign that he's doing his job—that the movement is serving the characters and is fully integrated into the story.
Here are his biggest takeaways on making theater choreography that stays true to the show:
1. Question the dance break.
"I don't do big dance breaks for the sake of doing big dance breaks," says McNabb. "I've worked on new musicals where they're like, 'We need a dance break here,' and I'm like, 'Why?' " Dance should always come from an emotional build, he emphasizes, that starts with a scene, transitions into singing and finally breaks into movement.
McNabb's production of New Girl in Town at Irish Rep. PC Carol Rosegg
2. But that doesn't mean you have to go small.
Even though McNabb frequently choreographs plays, he's no stranger to big musical theater shows. Earlier in his career he served as dance captain for Bob Fosse, and he's created movement for shows as iconic as West Side Story. He names Andy Blankenbuehler as someone who creates big, exciting choreography, while always integrating it into the story at hand.
3. Stand up for your work.
"Putting together a musical is the hardest thing in the world," says McNabb. "You have to have either really thick skin, or a really huge ego, or both." Sometimes, he says, when a show isn't working, choreographers get blamed when it's really a larger issue of structure or story. "If the choreographer doesn't have a story to tell, the team is doing them a disservice. The dances are just putting artificial energy into the show."
4. Meet actors where they are.
If you're working on a show with primarily non-dancers, making them feel comfortable with movement is key. "The word 'choreographer' puts the fear of God into some actors," says McNabb. "You have to make them feel like you're not going to have them make fools out of themselves." McNabb makes a point to always wear street clothes rather than dance clothes to the first rehearsal to avoid intimidating performers.
McNabb's choreography in Irish Rep's Meet Me in St. Louis. PC Carol Rosegg
5. And learn from your actors.
McNabb says choreographers could do better at working with actors to integrate their characters in the choreography. "When you're working with good actors who physically manifest the character, they should inspire you," he says. "Ballet and modern choreographers will use the dancers' vocabulary to inform choreography, but theater choreographers tend to think they have to go in with everything made ahead of time. Be open to realizing that this actor moves in a way that you didn't quite see before. Learn how an actor builds the way their character moves."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
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."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.