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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.”
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.