Even Dark Stories Need Dance
How Andrew Palermo brought movement to a musical about World War II internment camps.
One of Allegiance's lighter scenes. Photo by Henry DiRocco, courtesy The Old Globe.
As last season began winding down, it looked as though dance musicals had come roaring back to Broadway, with choreography front and center in shows like The King and I, On the Town and An American in Paris. But when the Tony Awards were distributed, the big winner was Fun Home, a dazzling musical with a choreographer (Danny Mefford), a dance captain (Joel Perez) and virtually no dance.
Broadway audiences know that this isn’t exactly new. For years, hit musicals, even a few great ones, have been minimizing, if not dispensing with, full-blown dance numbers. “Everything goes in waves,” says Randy Skinner, who has always specialized in what he calls “dance-driven” musicals, and who is directing and choreographing yet another, Dames at Sea, opening this month. But you won’t catch him bemoaning the limited-dance productions that keep arriving. “There’s a place for both,” he says. “There’s chocolate and vanilla, there’s apples and oranges, there’s room for everything. The worst thing is when you try to impose dancing on a show that doesn’t need it.”
Michael K. Lee and Lea Salonga dance. Photo by Henry DiRocco, courtesy The Old Globe.
At first glance, Allegiance, which begins previews this month, would seem not to need it, with its dark story of a Japanese American family caught up in one of the more shameful episodes in American history, the mass arrests and internment of our Japanese population after Pearl Harbor. Suggested by the World War II experiences of the family of actor George Takei, best known for his work in “Star Trek,” Allegiance is set in one of the camps as several generations of internees, among them American citizens both native-born and naturalized, cope with being imprisoned as enemies by their own country. Stressed-out and conflicted, they seem unlikely to break into dance.
Indeed, when the show opened in 2012, at San Diego’s The Old Globe, with choreography by Andrew Palermo, dance numbers were few and far between. But it has changed a lot, says Palermo, who is making his Broadway debut as a choreographer with this revamped version. He had joined director Stafford Arima’s team three years ago, when the show had already been “percolating” for several years, and he inherited a structure without predetermined dance slots and a cast comprising “primarily actor-singers.”
Like Skinner, Palermo underlines the idea that a choreographer’s job is to be “sensitive and appropriate” to the subject matter at hand. “For Allegiance,” Palermo says, “I didn’t want to shoehorn in big, splashy dance numbers if it didn’t make sense.” For the San Diego production, he devised a Saturday-night dance for the internees and a military drill for the ones enlisting—as many did—in the U.S. Army.
The show went back to the drawing board for a lab production in New York the following year. Palermo was delighted—“I said ‘hooray!’ ”—when the feedback from industry insiders urged “More dance! More movement!” Adding dance was possible, he says, because, “these internees had to find ways of breaking the tension.” So there’s a new baseball number, and a celebration when they hear that Japan has surrendered. The choreography draws from ballroom boogie-woogie and swing dance, which, Palermo says, is a challenge for his 12-member ensemble. “A lot of the partnering is a little bit counterintuitive to trained dancers, different from what we’re used to. I’m encouraging my cast to get some lessons. You can be working with Baryshnikov, but if he’s never done that style before, it’s definitely a learning curve.” Other elements alluded to in the dance sequences are martial arts, military drill-team moves, contemporary concert dance, traditional Japanese gesture and, of course, baseball. “Now,” Palermo says, “I don’t think of it as a show that doesn’t have dance.” And neither will anyone else.
George Takei of "Star Trek" fame. Photo by Henry DiRocco, courtesy The Old Globe.
Palermo's Big Break
Andrew Palermo’s path to Broadway began when he was 5, saw Fred Astaire and decided he wanted to dance. The local ballet studio, near Rochester, New York, didn’t take boys, but his mother enrolled him in a neighboring town. He went on to Rochester’s School of the Arts and then the University of Cincinnati, where he earned his musical-theater degree. He quickly augmented his Broadway performing career, which included Wicked, Annie Get Your Gun and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with choreography. When he moved to Los Angeles, he found himself teaching dance classes with his old high-school classmate Taye Diggs. In 2004, they founded the contemporary company dre.dance. “I love to bring concert-level dance into theater as much as possible,” Palermo says. He likes mixing genres in his work and his life—he’s also an assistant professor of drama at University of California, Irvine. “I try to be as bicoastal as I can,” he says. “Right now it’s the best of both worlds.”
Showing choreography at a major venue in New York City is a goal and milestone for many dance artists. Yet when such an opportunity comes their way, choreographers frequently find themselves scrambling for time and technical resources to give their work that professional shine. What they end up performing may not have the polish they intended. "Far too often artists are arriving at their presenting house and the piece isn't ready," says Adrienne Willis, the executive and artistic director of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts, an organization that helps dance artists develop new work.
Back when Lumberyard was known as the American Dance Institute and operated out of a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland, it pioneered its Incubator program to whip new pieces into shape, kind of like the "out-of-town" tryout model for theater. Several of the artists it supported ultimately brought their shows to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of New York City's most prestigious venues, which quickly recognized the positive influence of the Incubator on performances.
Since Thanksgiving is finally here, it's officially time to talk Nutcracker. With countless productions taking place between now and Christmas (and even some through the new year), we've been keeping tabs on Instagram to check in on rehearsals. Whether you're obsessed with all things Sugar Plum Fairy or the snow scene is more your speed, we've got your first look at the holiday classic.
We have a feeling even the Boston Ballet dancing bear couldn't keep up with second soloist Lawrence Rines' tricks in Russian.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
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.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
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.