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What Can You Expect from Disney's "Frozen" on Broadway? We Sat Down with the Choreographic Team.
They speak a language of their own. You could call it Arendelle-ish, except that they were using it long before they started working on Frozen. So maybe the dialect filling a Times Square rehearsal hall last month should be dubbed Robsarahcharlie-ish, after choreographer and Tony winner Rob Ashford and his associate choreographers, Sarah O'Gleby and Charlie Williams. Based on Disney's smash animated film about the royal sisters of magical Arendelle, the musical is heading into rehearsals before previews on February 22 and a March 22 opening night at the St. James Theatre. But for now, it's in pre-production, and Ashford, O'Gleby and Williams are deep into their private shorthand, both verbal and physical, as they dissect a step.
They're revisiting "Fixer Upper," a number that Ashford says "never was what we wanted it to be" when the show tried out in Denver last year. "We felt we needed to move the storytelling along." It's in Act Two, after Anna has hired Kristoff, a commoner, to help her find her sister Elsa, who's hiding in the mountains with a secret. They stop to visit his family, who sense what Anna and Kristoff don't yet know—that they could be a pair even if they're not perfectly matched, that "everyone's a bit of a fixer-upper, that's what it's all about."
Frozen's choreographic team. From left, Rob Ashford and associate choreographers Sarah O'Gleby and Charlie Williams. Photos Courtesy Disney Theatrical Group.
The dance, Ashford says, is about "learning how to work together as a couple." But the choreographer and his two associates are demonstrating how to work together as a trio, looking and sounding like a unit—sometimes a body with three heads, sometimes a head with three bodies. They hone each detail of the step until it sends the right message about the evolving relationship between Anna and Kristoff, and until the mechanics look smooth.
O'Gleby is pushing for Anna to be less dependent on Kristoff as he turns her; Williams points out that he's supposed to be guiding her. They settle on a crossed-wrist hold "that feels more equal" to her. Another move is rejected when Williams notes that "it's gonna look like a dance." Their work is regularly punctuated by bursts of laughter at jokes that a visitor in the room can only guess at. After years of working together, they've forged a bond that's personal as well as professional. "Rob creates such a warm environment," Williams says. "We kind of laugh our way through the entire day."
The choreographic team recently finessed Kristoff and Anna's moves for the number "Fixer Upper." Photo by Deen van Meer, Courtesy Disney Theatrical Group.
Sharing the jokes and closely following along as the choreography develops are swings Ashley Elizabeth Hale and Jeff Pew, who are also dance captain and assistant dance captain, respectively. They're on hand because Michael Grandage, the director, had dropped in earlier to check things out, and two extra bodies make it easier to suggest a full number. Later, Ashford explains further: "It's helpful for them to understand where the moves come from—what we're trying to tell with each moment. Because once the show opens, we're not there eight times a week. They are, so they can help remind everybody what the intention behind this move or this lift is."
After about an hour fiddling, Ashford is satisfied: "It's much better—better storytelling, better musicality," he tells them. I ask how much stage time has been filled; "Eight 8s," he replies. But he's not fretting. This time between Frozen's Denver run and its still-incomplete Broadway incarnation is "a very exciting place to be," he says. "You don't have all of it ahead of you; you're not thinking, 'Oh my god. it could be anything.' You've narrowed it down, but there's still enough room inside of it to be creative, to let your mind go, 'Wait a minute—what if...?' "
Building the Team
O'Gleby and Williams have performed Ashford's choreography on the West End and on Broadway, but their dance chops aren't the reason they're his associates for Frozen. "They're there to help create it," he says. "An assistant performs the steps for you. With associates, it's not about steps—Charlie and Sarah are true creative partners. They're in it with the storytelling, with how it fits in the whole show…And they work really well together. It's great to have a guy and a gal who can figure out all of the mechanics, everything, before you teach the rest of the company. It just comes second nature to them."
The company of Frozen at its pre-Broadway run in Denver. Photo by Deen van Meer, Courtesy Disney Theatrical Group.
Learning on the Job
Ashford recalls that being Kathleen Marshall's associate earlier in his career taught him "how to be in the room with writers, creators, directors, actors, a dance arranger, an orchestrator—you can't learn that unless you witness it firsthand, but without the responsibility to make the decisions." Marshall, he says "was a great teacher, and she learned from her brother Rob [Marshall], and he learned from Graciela Daniele, and she learned from Fosse. It's something that is passed down." And he's passing it on to his own associates, who have choreographic aspirations of their own. "Every time I'm in the studio with Rob Ashford," Williams says, "I am learning something—I am always taking notes. Being a choreographer isn't just about making up cool dance moves. There's a whole other side—the business side of the business. Being an associate, you get a whole bunch of hands-on experience without a whole lot of the risk."
But being an associate does have its downside, he says. "We are the only people in the theater who aren't covered by a union. So here we are, creating a show—but we don't get health care, we don't get a 401(k), we don't get access, like the actors do, to a percentage of this show." That's been a double dilemma for O'Gleby, whose husband, Christopher Bailey, is on the same career track—since they moved here from England, he's been Ashford's associate on three other Broadway shows. "Years ago," she says, "people used assistant choreographer or associate choreographer as a stepping-stone—they didn't live there for very long. But now there are shows that have full-time associates traveling the world to put on Les Mis or whatever, having a gorgeous career." But it's a career without guarantees.
Mash-ups aren't uncommon in the dance world: Performers of varying styles have been known to share the stage, from ballerina Tiler Peck and famed clown Bill Irwin to Michelle Dorrance, who's mixed tappers and break-dancers. Likewise, collaborations between choreographers and artists from seemingly mismatched disciplines have produced magical creations, such as Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream, featuring Mark Ryden's whimsical and even grotesque designs and costumes.
But the Israeli troupe Ka'et Contemporary Dance Ensemble has found success in one of the most unlikely partnerships: Secular contemporary choreographer Ronen Itzhaki creates movement for a group of rabbis.
While undoubtedly best known for her dancing, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston has also been getting noticed for her style by Allure and Vogue—and with good reason. Her Instagram feed features a mix of on-trend athleisure wear and detailed dresses from runway designers like Valentino and Anna Sui, none of which would be complete without the makeup and hair to match. With a penchant for skin care and an ever-growing lipstick collection, Boylston talked us through some of her beauty must-haves on and off the stage.
Photo by Jayme Thornton
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
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.
When caring for your feet or trying to make them look good, it's tempting to seek shortcuts. Bad ideas—like dangerous stretches that promise perfect lines or ointments that were never meant to go on your toes—catch on all too easily backstage.
We asked podiatrists who've seen their dance clients try it all share the habits they'd like to see gone for good.
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country: