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By Sylviane Gold
The new off-Broadway musical gives Alex Sanchez his first full-scale production in New York.
Miguel Cervantes performs Sanchez’s Tex-Mex-flavored steps in Giant. Photo: Karen Almond, Courtesy The Public Theater.
So whose advice do you take? Ten Broadway shows into your career, Graciela Daniele tells you it’s time to quit dancing and become a choreographer; but 10 Broadway shows into your career, your mother is still urging you to quit dancing and go to truck-driving school.
Alex Sanchez did the sensible thing. “On reflection,” he says as he prepares for the Public Theater opening of Giant, “I realized that I had been choreographing my whole career.” Whether to fill out the details in a pas de deux in his early days in Chicago, or to design a sequence of steps for himself in a Broadway number when asked, he says, “I was a dancer who was choreographing.”
So he decided to go for it. And with Giant, the Michael John LaChiusa musical based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 saga about a vast Texas ranch and the families it sustains, Sanchez earns his first credit as choreographer of a fully staged, full-scale musical in New York. But the jam-packed, multigenerational story, best remembered for the 1956 film starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, doesn’t leave much room for big, show-stopping numbers like the ones Sanchez staged last year for the Encores! production of Where’s Charley?
“On Where’s Charley? I was like a kid in a candy store,” he says. “The approach to Giant is more like a dramatic play.” The movement is woven into the action rather than broken out into Broadway-style dances. But with a score redolent of Texas swing, mariachi, and country; a plot that takes the characters from the 1920s to the 1940s; and scenes set in an Austin ballroom and at a Mexican wedding, Giant nonetheless gives Sanchez opportunities. And the actors help, as well: The choreographer used the “snake-like quality” that P. J. Griffith brought to the character Jett Rink, the ranch hand who strikes oil, to devise a “Mick Jagger meets Texas” movement vocabulary for his songs. For the wedding scene, Sanchez researched Mexican folklore and “picked the brains” of the Mexican dancers he knows.
Sanchez himself is of Puerto Rican descent—both of his parents were born on the island, and he spent summers there as a child—and his blue collar upbringing in Chicago did not include dance lessons in the budget. “Everybody worked in factories, that’s what you do,” he says. “You get a job, you save your money, you get your pension.” He was 16, involved in the high school choir, when the director noticed how quickly he picked up dance moves and suggested he try some classes. He did, without telling his parents. The night he had to tell his mother that he was going to accept a scholarship from the Lou Conte Dance Studio instead of going to college was, he says, “the most stressful night of my life.”
He proceeded to fall in love with ballet and pursued further training at the School of Chicago City Ballet and the Ruth Page Foundation, ultimately dancing with Ballet Chicago, Festival Ballet, and Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Ensemble, among others. He did summer stock during layoffs, and made the big move to New York in 1993, for a job in the short-lived musical The Red Shoes. Longer runs followed—including one in Fosse, where he met his wife, Lainie Sakakura—leading up to that fateful night in 2005, when Graciela Daniele looked him in the eye and told him to stop dancing.
He was 39, warming up backstage before the opening-night performance of Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life, and Daniele was making the rounds, wishing everyone well. He hadn’t really thought about quitting, but, he says, “I took it to heart.” After the show closed, he and Sakakura, by then the parents of a toddler, took off for the Bay Area, helping her mother with the family dance studios. “We were just planning to be there a little while, but I got into a situation where I started choreographing,” he says. It began with an old friend from his Ruth Page days, Reginald Savage, who asked him to do a piece for his Oakland company, Savage Jazz Dance. Then a few shows came up. Over the next three years, he says, “I started honing my skills.”
His choreographic breakthrough in New York came when he landed a slot in the 2010 edition of Dancebreak, the annual showcase for rising theater choreographers. With an updated, Latin-beat version of Cinderella, and a witty reimagining of Sweet Charity’s “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” for construction workers, he won a prominent agent and the Encores! gig. For better or worse, he’s now a full-time New York choreographer. He and Sakakura have a second daughter, and Avelina and Isabela are both enrolled in the dance classes that Sakakura offers. Truck driving isn’t in the curriculum.
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.