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."
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.