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By Sylviane Gold
It didn’t happen for Tanya Birl until she was a senior in high school. Yes, her father was always a big West Side Story fan. Yes, she’d been doing dance competitions since she was 12. Yes, she was attending the performing arts high school in Mississauga, Ontario.
But every time someone suggested she turn pro, she shook her head. “No, no, no,” she’d say. “I love it, but I’m going to college.”
Then her teacher at The Dance Factory in Mississauga, the studio where she’d begun training at age 10, took a small group of students to New York. “We saw Rent,” Birl recalls. “We had a bunch of classes at Broadway Dance Center. I was hooked. I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
For many Canadians, it would have been an impossible dream, a morass of green-card red tape. But Birl’s father was born in Alabama and raised in Buffalo, and—“just in case one of his kids wanted to move back”—he’d held on to his American citizenship. To Birl, “It was as if I had a free pass to New York.” And if it didn’t work out, she could always come back to Ontario.
It worked out. Not that a career fell into her lap—“I feel like auditioning is really the job,” she says. “Getting the show and getting to perform is the reward.” Still, eight years after leaving Canada, Birl’s been on tour across the U.S. and Europe; several of Broadway’s top choreographers have given her work; the percussionist she met in the first national company of The Lion King is now her husband; and she’s dancing on Broadway in Rob Ashford’s revival of the award-winning 1961 musical satire How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
A vibrant African-American presence in the all-singing, all-dancing, nearly all-white secretarial pool of World Wide Wickets, Birl brings her high kicks, flexible back, and buoyant good humor to the story of the ambitious young window-washer who flatters his way to the top of the corporate ladder. The star, of course, is Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, greeted each night by an intense roar. But to Birl, the star was Ashford.
“The first time I saw Rob’s choreography, in Cry-Baby, I thought, ‘I want to work for this man,’ ” she says. “It is so physical—he choreographs for dancers.” And she is still in awe, she says: “When I saw the choreography for How to Succeed, I thought, ‘This is jazz dancing. New York, Broadway, grounded jazz dancing.’ That’s really what I love, love, love to do.”
Such work hasn’t come her way often. She spent nearly four years on tour with The Lion King, doing the demanding leaps and gallops choreographed by Garth Fagan. She was in Finian’s Rainbow in both the original Encores! production and in the subsequent, sadly short-lived Broadway run, performing Warren Carlyle’s sprightly but necessarily rural-tinged numbers. And as a replacement in Memphis, she learned Sergio Trujillo’s vivid versions of 1950s social dances. To adapt to these styles, she says, her wide-ranging training was crucial.
She got the basics of ballet and jazz at The Dance Factory. The competition circuit added acrobatics and tap, and, she notes, “It taught me how to put on a costume and perform.” Modern came in high school—Graham technique, Limón technique—along with more intense ballet work. There were master classes with Milton Myers and other visiting teachers from The Ailey School, and then, when she came to New York, The Ailey School itself. She had been there several months when she got the Lion King gig.
“Going into The Lion King straight from Ailey was such a blessing,” she says. “It’s so Horton-based; you have to know your Horton. Garth’s choreography is so different from the rest of Broadway. You almost have to put on a different hat.”
There’s more than just a difference in choreographic styles for her in How to Succeed. She had to think about how she fits into the ensemble. That wasn’t an issue in the African landscapes of Lion King, the sharecropper world of Finian, or the black nightclubs of Memphis. In How to Succeed, she is the only black woman onstage, though nothing is made of it in the script or the choreography. She wondered, she says, “Who am I? Am I supposed to just be? Am I supposed to just pretend that I look like all the other girls?” Then Ashford sat down with the ensemble and talked about the corporate culture of Manhattan in the 1960s. “I started to think about my grandparents. My grandfather was an architect from Jamaica and attended Pratt. He was one of the first blacks in his program. So that’s who I am representing, who my character is going to be—the beginning of change.”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Making progress: ensemble member Tanya Birl, far right, in the ‘60s-era How to Succeed. Photo by Ari Mintz, Courtesy How to Succeed