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Hamilton's Morgan Marcell on "Going with Your Gut," Pursuing Film and Sonya Tayeh's New Show
For many performers, dancing in the original cast of the phenomenally popular Hamilton is the epitome of "making it." For film and history buffs, contributing a documentary to the Smithsonian's collection might be a bucket-list item. And for those with a heart for giving back, creating an organization that leads arts workshops for youth is a powerful accomplishment.
Morgan Marcell has done all those things, proving that dancers needn't limit themselves to one passion. We caught up with the former swing and co-dance captain of Hamilton to chat about The Eliza Project, her budding film career and her next Broadway-bound show.
Jon Rua, Morgan Marcell and Austin Smith in costume for Hamilton. Photo by Jayme Thornton.
How did The Eliza Project get started?
When I was in Hamilton with Phillipa Soo, we decided that we should do something to benefit the students at Graham Windham, which is the orphanage that Eliza Hamilton originally started and still exists today. We came up with this workshop concept where we would raise funds through Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and they would give a portion to The Eliza Project every time Hamilton collected for donations. Any participant in Hamilton could take that money and create a project to benefit the students and broaden their horizons through art.
We've done three projects so far, and the last one we decided to film for a documentary—I am an aspiring filmmaker, and the Smithsonian asked for a donation for their Giving in America exhibit on philanthropy. [Editor's note: Later this month, a portrait of Eliza Hamilton and a costume from the musical will be on display as part of the exhibit.] I decided to create something digital, instead of a T-shirt or a photo. They're going to put it in their archives eventually.
Right now, we have the 10-minute documentary, which I'm submitting to film festivals. This is my first go-round at directing. I have a real passion for it. Hamilton gave me a platform, and so did The Eliza Project, to create a piece of film that made a statement and hopefully betters the world a little bit.
How did you become interested in filmmaking?
It was something I was always interested in from a very young age. I wore out the VHS, yes, VHS, of The Wizard of Oz and Brave Little Toaster, some of the classic films. I was so enthralled with how they could possibly make that. As I got older, I was really interested in drama and storytelling. I had a huge connection to Martin Luther King, Jr., and what he did in the civil rights movement. I think I was really interested in people that were creating change, whether that was through art and filmmaking or marching and activism. I always wanted to combine the two but I didn't really know how. So I decided to just start somewhere, and hopefully this is the beginning of a journey.
What are some of The Eliza Project workshops you've done so far?
The last project, we rented out Avatar Studios where they record all the Broadway soundtracks. The idea is as the funds grow, they're available to the artists to change these kids' lives in a very small way. Phillipa and I did the first one together, and that one was a singing, dancing and improv workshop. The second one was the art of storytelling around a campfire. It was designed around this eco workshop. We took these kids into a forest and taught them how to make a fire and shelter and how to be green, more aware. Anything can fall under the umbrella, and we're excited about that.
So as long as there's an arts tie-in it seems pretty open?
An arts tie and letting the kids own their own story. We really love that we're not the doctors and the advisors and the council members that are at Graham Windham because they've read the files and know exactly what these kids have gone through. When the kids come in, they're surprised by the fact that we don't know who they are, and they have to kind of define themselves through art.
What's your involvement with musical theater now?
I just did Chess at the Kennedy Center, and that was part of their new concert series. They're aiming for it to go to Broadway. And then I'm also going back there to do the concert series of In the Heights, which will be fun because I did the tour. And then Moulin Rouge! in Boston and then Broadway in 2019.
Have you started working with Sonya Tayeh on the choreography for Moulin Rouge! yet?
We had a six-week lab at the end of last year, so I spent a long chunk of time with her. And we're doing some pre-production for the show coming up. She's a beast and a force and has a vision.
Do you have any advice for dancers who also have multiple interests on how to juggle them and stay open to possibilities?
So many people told me to go with your heart, but I think it's also about going with your gut and not falling into what you think you should be doing. I did that for a long time: I didn't admit that I loved musical theater. I didn't really admit that film was my number-one priority or my number-one passion. But I think if I had honed in on that and accepted that earlier, it would have been maybe easier—I wanted to go to Stanford and be an academic because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. There's a part of me that had a passion for that, but I leaned in so far to the image that I had created and that my parents had created for me, that I think I lost sight of what I was really passionate about.
The other thing is use any platform and opportunity that you have to link your other passions. Whichever one rises the fastest will help you, and then you've also developed these other skills.
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."
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.
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:
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.
Onstage, Clifton Brown is a force of nature. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer joined the celebrated company at 19, in 1999. In 2011, he left to dance with Jessica Lang Dance and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before returning to Ailey last year. Brown has been trying his hand at choreography on the side, but this week his first larger work—a commission from The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent—premieres on a program of new works by choreographers who still perform.
Brown will take a day or two away from the Ailey company's rigorous tour schedule to see TWB dancers perform his Menagerie, danced to Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major, at Washington, D.C.'s Harman Center for the Arts. We caught up with him last week in Chicago.
Once Adriana Pierce caught the choreography bug as a teenager, dancemaking came naturally. More difficult was navigating the tricky situations that would arise when choreographing on classmates and friends. "If a rehearsal didn't go well, I'd worry that people didn't respect me or didn't like my work," says Pierce, who went on to participate in the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop twice, at 17 and 18. "I had a lot to learn: how not to take things personally, how to express what I wanted, when to push and when to back off."
Choreographing on your peers can feel intimidating. How can you be a leader in your own rehearsals when you're dancing at the same level the rest of the time? How can you critique your cast without hurting feelings? Avoiding pitfalls takes commitment and care, but the payoff is worth it.
Ever since we heard that Michaela DePrince's memoir, Taking Flight, was going to be a movie, we've been on the edge of our seats waiting for more info. Almost three years later, it's been worth the wait—we just learned that the Queen of Pop herself will be directing DePrince's biopic.
"Michaela's journey resonated with me deeply as both an artist and an activist who understands adversity," Madonna said in a statement. "We have a unique opportunity to shed light on Sierra Leone and let Michaela be the voice for all the orphaned children she grew up beside."