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Choreographer's Confessional: Patrick McCollum's First Time Working in Heels
Choreographer Patrick McCollum says he's accident-prone. So he hesitated a bit when Stephen Brackett, the director he'd loved working with on the off-Broadway musical The Lightning Thief, asked him to choreograph The Legend of Georgia McBride.
It wasn't the material that gave him pause—the author, Matthew Lopez, is an award-winning playwright, and the comedy centers on a married Elvis impersonator who chucks his glittery jumpsuit in favor of a glam gown and a career in drag. The timing and the location were enticing, too—a two-week summer run, now over, at the Dorset Theatre Festival in cool, green Vermont. But McCollum had to "give it a think"—he didn't own any high heels.
Choreographer Patrick McCollum. Photo by Ahron R. Foster, Courtesy Polk & Co.
"I'd never done drag in any way, shape or form," he says, "so putting what are essentially little stilts underneath my feet kind of freaked me out." On the other hand, looking for something to do on the tail end of evenings out with friends in New York, he'd gone to lots of drag shows. "Inadvertently, I was studying for this for a long time," he laughs. "With a cocktail in my hand."
He got his shoes, size 12 Dexflex Comfort pumps, when rehearsals began in Vermont. He'd already done much of the choreography for the preening, lip-syncing drag queens—numbers like Shirley Bassey singing "Big Spender," LeAnn Rimes doing "Jailhouse Rock"—in his apartment. Wearing tennis shoes or barefoot, he worked "on my tippy-toes" to see how it felt. Then he found out, and he was amazed.
"It's very hard!" he declares. "There's an endurance to it that I wasn't prepared for. I understand why people get cranky at the end of the night when they've been in high heels." And his pair weren't even that high—"something you'd wear to a meeting." When I ragged him for complaining about 3-inch heels, he shot right back: "Hey, Sylviane—I gotta start somewhere. I can't go from working on Rocky on Broadway to wearing 7-inch heels!"
Joey Taranto as "Casey/Georgia McBride" in The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo Courtesy Dorset Theatre Festival.
Between La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots, Broadway has seen plenty of men in heels. In fact, one of the reasons McCollum felt comfortable enough to take on Georgia McBride was that its star, Joey Taranto, had played one of Billy Porter's high-stepping Angels in the original Kinky Boots cast. "I knew he would be a great source of information and a great person to collaborate and conspire with," McCollum says. What McCollum didn't know was that in addition to his own experience as a Broadway associate choreographer and movement consultant, he'd done some amateur drag: "When I used to dance around as a kid to Britney Spears and Madonna, I was basically doing my own little drag performances in my room. I kind of realized I'd been doing this my whole life. But now I'm actually able to curate it in a way that feels artful."
The shoes helped. He discovered that they moved his center of gravity forward and made him walk more "lifted up. I learned how to distribute my weight, how I needed to ground myself into the floor a little bit more in a different way and how to carry myself upstairs," he says. He also found that he needed to tap into what he calls "a sense of femininity," both for himself and the characters. "You can put on heels and still manage to walk like a linebacker," he notes.
David Turner as "Miss Tracy Mills" in The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo Courtesy Dorset Theatre Festival.
Georgia McBride looked nothing like football on the Dorset stage—the show won praise from local critics, audiences realized that "it's not degrading to put on a heel" and McCollum expanded his vocabulary. "I was trained by a male teacher growing up, so I dance like a guy," he says. "It felt nice to flex a different muscle and allow myself to dance like a woman. And it felt really strong, really powerful."
Also, his ankles and feet remained intact. He goes into rehearsal Labor Day for the Broadway run of The Band's Visit, starting previews Oct. 7. Other exciting projects are on the horizon, and if any of them require heels, he's now got some. "They're a valuable tool—as valuable as a good set of speakers or a good mirror."
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.