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.”
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
New York Live Arts opens its 2017-18 season with A Love Supreme, a revised work by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and collaborator Salva Sanchis. Known as a choreographer of pure form, pattern and musicality, De Keersmaeker can bring a visceral power to the stage without the use of narrative. She has taken this 2005 work to John Coltrane's famous jazz score of the same title and recast it for four young men of her company Rosas, giving it an infusion of new energy.
Photo by Anne Van Aerschot
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.