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By Victoria Looseleaf
From left: Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Photo from DM Archives; Gwyneth Paltrow, Amber Riley, and Heather Morris of Glee. Photo by Adam Rose, Courtesy FOX.
They’re bringing on the swag, the ’tude, the moves—big-time. Yes, dance is coming on strong again in Tinseltown. And though today’s musical films may not resemble Depression-era hits such as Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pairings like Top Hat, Hollywood is once more rocking the rafters with dance.
This boom also includes reality television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars, as well as the High School Musical franchise. Then there’s the trend-setting Glee, another boon to dancers and choreographers that helped spawn the upcoming Steven Spielberg–produced TV show Smash. An episodic drama centered around mounting a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, this NBC series, already generating buzz, debuts in January. (One hopes that Monroe’s favorite choreographer, Jack Cole, will be worked in.)
For a while, however, the road paved with terpsichorean gold had hit a dead end: After the success of the MGM musicals of the ’50s like Singin’ in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and such ’60s hits as West Side Story, by the 1970s, tastes had changed.
A string of flops—Finian’s Rainbow, for example—sounded the death knell for the Hollywood musical. Exceptions were 1977’s The Turning Point, which helped fuel what was then a ballet boom, and Saturday Night Fever, which captured the disco frenzy (and catapulted John Travolta to superstardom). And though MTV burst onto the scene in 1981, its short-form videos were not a ticket to making Hollywood musicals.
However, the success of Flashdance (1983); White Nights (1985), starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines; and Dirty Dancing (1987), though not exactly musicals, laid the foundation for today’s dance boom. (Twitter recently went crazy when people heard there would be a remake of Dirty Dancing.)
While the ’90s were a mostly fallow period, things began revving up again at the beginning of the new millennium. It was then that the films Center Stage (2000) and Save the Last Dance (2001), helped spur the Step Up movies. And who would have thought that a dancing penguin—courtesy of tapper Savion Glover in 2006—could cause the sensation that was the film Happy Feet?
With dance now part of the pop cultural zeitgeist—hello, Black Swan!—Dance Magazine asked a number of industry insiders for their take on today’s scene.
Craig Zadan, who, with his partner Neil Meron, helped reinvigorate the genre with their TV productions of Gypsy (1993) with Bette Midler, and 1999’s Annie, went on to produce the 2002 Academy Award–winning film Chicago, as well as 2007’s Hairspray. “When you conquer both worlds—TV and film—and make a dent in the Hollywood culture, you have to be taken seriously,” says Zadan. “The success of these different forms of entertainment that involve dancing became huge, not only in America, but worldwide. And Hollywood reacts to success,” adds Zadan, who points out that flops, including Nine, haven’t made Hollywood leotard-shy.
Indeed, Zadan’s latest productions (with Meron) are the Footloose remake, choreographed by Jamal Sims and which comes to theaters this month, and Spielberg’s Smash. “It’s not possible for everything to be successful,” notes Zadan. “The key is that the successful movies were successful in such an enormous way—to everyone’s great surprise, but also joy—that they’ve led to opportunities to do more musicals.”
Zadan is not one for nostalgia. “You can’t compare this to the past. We lived in a different time when dance was done differently; it was shot in a different way. It’s all new today and I think dance is enjoying a renaissance in ways we never saw before.”
And while MTV undoubtedly contributed to the current dance boom, Zadan says its videos were more anonymous than today’s TV reality shows. “Somebody might get a chance to choreograph, but you wouldn’t know who that choreographer was. On So You Think You Can Dance, the choreographer is on camera and people are watching and saying, ‘Wow, I love that work. That’s fresh, that’s new.’ ”
What also emerged in the last few decades was the notion of action choreography in movies like the groundbreaking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. One could point out that it took former dancer Zhang Ziyi to make this a perfect melding of action and art. The latest movie star to try to emulate that level of grace is Anne Hathaway, who took daily dance classes to prepare for her role as Catwoman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, to be released next year.
Tapper Chloe Arnold hopes that Cobu 3D, directed by Duane Adler (who wrote Save the Last Dance and Step Up), will also have an impact when it comes out next year. With a story of star-crossed New York dancers who find themselves at the center of a bitter rivalry, the film stars Derek Hough (Dancing with the Stars), Wesley Jonathan, and Korean pop star BoA. There’s choreography by Tabitha and Napoleon, as well as Nick Gonzalez and Yako Miyamoto.
“I had a blast filming it,” says Arnold, who produces, dances, and teaches at tap festivals around the world. “Duane’s film is fun, and tap is an incredible language you can put on film in different ways—musically and visually.” She knows that the opportunity to make Cobu 3D is only possible because of the success of previous dance films. “In terms of getting the general audience to connect to dance on a narrative level, Black Swan was a huge marker. The general audience appreciated it. Then you have dance movies like Step Up and people follow them like they follow So You Think You Can Dance. I think in the next five years we’re going to see a ton of dance movies.”
Director Adler says he cast some 40 dancers in the film, and that there’s a little bit of everything in it, from contemporary and tango to hip hop, acrobatic style dancing, and tap. As for the 3-D element, he explains that he wanted to immerse the audience in the movie. “Often 3-D pushes you back in your seat, but I wanted to pull you deeper into the story. I wanted you to feel like you’re dancing alongside them.”
Josh Bergasse, who hoofed on Broadway and has choreographed for touring productions of West Side Story, was tapped to choreograph NBC’s upcoming Smash. “There will be dance on every episode, from duets to large group numbers,” says Bergasse. “I think it’s great that dance is coming back, and I’m looking forward to it being even more integrated into TV and the mainstream—so it’s not just dance competitions shows, but more like Glee or Smash, that make people want to go to dance class. It’s also great,” he adds, “that they’re creating movie musicals of hits on Broadway. This makes dance more accessible to audiences who don’t have the chance to go to New York and see a musical for $100.”
Having witnessed the dance boom since she began representing dancers in 1985, agent Julie McDonald went on to co-found McDonald Selznick Associates. The agency now has offices in New York as well as Los Angeles, and McDonald’s impressive client list includes Bergasse, as well as veteran director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (Dirty Dancing, High School Musical, and This Is It). Of her start in the business, McDonald, a former dancer, recalls: “I got people to say yes to me because MTV was a burgeoning art form. I built my business on music videos.”
Now her clients work as director/choreographers on Broadway, including Jerry Mitchell, whose choreography for Catch Me If You Can was nominated for an Astaire Award, or on concert tours for artists such as Madonna. She also handles Tabitha and Napoleon and Sonya Tayeh, popular choreographers on So You Think You Can Dance.
Still, with Hollywood all about the bottom line, studios and producers will be scrutinizing Adam Shankman’s new Rock of Ages, transferred from Broadway. Scheduled for a 2012 release, the film stars Julianne Hough, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Tom Cruise as the aging rock god, and has a cast of more than 25 dancers.
As for this being another Golden Age, McDonald opines, “I would love to see more product, especially on the big screen, that really celebrates dance. If Rock of Ages is a big hit, people will be more open, but I don’t think we’ve seen enough dance in movies yet to call it a Golden Age. Hopefully,” she adds, “we’ll get there.”
In the interim, dancers can take heart in all the moving and shaking that is happening in Hollywood—and beyond. With more jobs available for big and small screen work and more product being released, the current dance boom is a win-win for everyone involved.
Victoria Looseleaf, who teaches dance history at USC, contributes to the L.A. Times and KUSC-FM radio.
How to Impress Josh Bergasse
“I look for a high level of ballet technique and athleticism. I’m attracted to people that shine. Physically it’s when a dancer pays attention to every detail and they don’t let anything slip between the cracks; every moment they are performing. It has to come from a personal connection. I want to see who you are as a dancer. If I teach an audition combo and someone does it slightly differently but it’s more right for who they are, or they improve it and make it even cooler, that catches my eye. That means they are a smart dancer and aren’t just following.”
Inset: Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines in White Nights (1985). Photo from DM Archives; Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied in Black Swan. Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures; Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Kirstie Alley on Dancing with the Stars. Photo by Adam Taylor, Courtesy ABC; Sasha Mallory and Alexander Fost last summer on So You Think You Can Dance. Photo by Adam Rose, Courtesy FOX.