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Meet the Next Generation of Broadway Choreographers
DanceBreak came roaring back to life on Monday after seven years on hiatus, and six choreographers now have the opportunity to be the next Andy Blankenbuehler. Or Joshua Bergasse, Kelly Devine, Casey Nicholaw, Josh Prince or Josh Rhodes. These stellar Broadway choreographers all got their first big shows after Melinda Atwood's musical-theater launching pad let them show the industry what they could do.
Since 2002, DanceBreak has been a sort of "So You Think You Can Choreograph" for Broadway. Although not everyone goes straight there—Mandy Moore and Mia Michaels are alumni, too—the program is meant to funnel talented choreographers to the Broadway stage by providing a platform for their work. Prince, who introduced Atwood to the cheering crowd, has paid DanceBreak the ultimate compliment, creating his own non-profit incubator for theater choreographers, Broadway Dance Lab. On Monday, he recalled the story of how he was offered the role of choreographer on Broadway's Shrek just days after its director saw the 2007 edition.
What About the Choreographers?
Wannabe playwrights, songwriters and directors can get career support—and sometimes their big break—from a variety of non-profit organizations. Atwood wondered why fledgling musical-theater choreographers had no such options. So now they do, and dozens submit reels and resumés for consideration by Atwood and the DanceBreak selection committee (which includes Tony winners Rob Ashford and Jerry Mitchell). Six are chosen every year—the current crop is Grady McLeod Bowman, Ryan Domres, Karla Puno Garcia, Ryan Kasprzak, Jenn Rose and Charlie Sutton—for two workshop-style performances before an invited audience of theater professionals. The choreographers can use up to 10 dancers, and they get $1,000, musicians and 12 hours of rehearsal time to create two numbers, one rooted in the story of a traditional book musical, the other anything they care to dream up, for a total length of no more than eight minutes.
Along with watching DanceBreak participants go on to choreograph 41 Broadway shows and win slews of awards and nominations, Atwood has also witnessed plenty of change. Since the last DanceBreak (in 2011, when the program went on hiatus), she's noted a tremendous surge in technique, an abundance of amazing men and huge strides in the videography of submissions. But there won't be any changes to the DanceBreak basics, she says. "We had a winning recipe, and we're gonna stick with it."
At Monday's coming-out party, the next generation of Broadway choreographers and their 60 dancers transported us from New York City's Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater to a boxing ring, an Iowa library, a pinball arcade, two unorthodox parties, a newspaper office and more. With the variety of material and the high spirits of both performers and onlookers, it was a little like being at a succession of Broadway opening nights in a single sitting.
Ready for Their Close-Ups
Karla Puno Garcia's "My Turn." Photo by Steven Rosen, Courtesy DanceBreak.
Grady McLeod Bowman, whose off-Broadway and regional work scored him a Dance Magazine "On the Rise" selection earlier in his career, choreographed a sexy and, yes, wild "Juggernaut" from Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. His second piece, "Silent Movies," was an ode to classic slapstick, in which he had to take the pratfalls (the original dancer couldn't make the performance).
Ryan Domres, whose credits include shows on and off-Broadway and on cruise ships, went with The Music Man's "Marian the Librarian," turning it into a courtship dance punctuated by stacks of books. In "Wonderland," his freestyle dance, he turned Alice into a high-flying gymnast playing with the Hatter and Wonderland's other madcap residents.
Broadway gypsy and recent Hamilton swing Karla Puno Garcia cast Donald Jones as the cigar-chomping columnist in "Dirt," from 2002's The Sweet Smell of Success, and Roddy Kennedy embodied the loser who turns the tables on the in-crowd only to have them turn on him in "My Turn."
Two more parties were thrown by Jenn Rose, who has 20 regional choreography credits. The first gathering was the downtowners of Rent doing "La Vie Bohème"; the second was a more sardonic group lending a very adult twist to the Hokey Pokey under the title "That's What It's All About."
Jenn Rose's "La Vie Bohème." Photo by Steven Rosen, Courtesy DanceBreak.
Ryan Kasprzak, a Chita Rivera Award nominee for his performance in Bandstand, gave the "Pinball Wizard" hero of The Who's Tommy a mean pair of tap shoes. And he turned the Jackson 5 song "I Want You Back" into a number for mismatched lovers.
Ryan Kasprzak's "I Want You Back." Photo by Steven Rosen, Courtesy DanceBreak.
The show's boxers arrived at the behest of Charlie Sutton, who nabbed an Astaire Award nomination for his performance in Kinky Boots. First, he choreographed "Baby, You Knock Me Out," from the film It's Always Fair Weather, then switched to the 19th century for "The Deduction Ballet: Sherlock Holmes," an elaborately plotted tale of murder with Melanie Moore as the master detective.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Stephen Petronio brings a bracing season to New York City's Joyce Theater, where he has performed almost every year for 24 years . His work is exciting to the subscription audience as well as to many dance artists. He delves into movement invention at the same time as creating complex postmodern forms. The new work, Hardness 10, is his third collaboration with composer Nico Muhly. The costumes are by Patricia Field ARTFASHION, hand-painted by Iris Bonner/These Pink Lips. Petronio's work still practically defines the word contemporary.
Stephen Petronio Company also continues with its Bloodlines series. That's where he pays homage to landmark works of the past that have influenced his own edgy aesthetics. This season he's chosen Merce Cunningham's playful trio Signals (1970), which will be performed with live music from Composers Inside Electronics.
Completing the program is an excerpt from Petronio's Underland (2003), with music by Nick Cave. Video footage courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company, filmed by Blake Martin.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.