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Meet the Next Generation of Broadway Choreographers

Charlie Sutton's "Baby, You Knock Me Out." Photo by Steven Rosen, Courtesy DanceBreak.

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.

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