Reimagining a Classic
Holiday Inn pairs tap shoes with jump ropes and firecrackers.
Corbin Bleu and Bryce Pinkham play song-and-dance partners Ted and Jim. PC Jenny Anderson, Courtesy Polk & Co.
It didn't take much to put Denis Jones in a 1940s frame of mind for Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical. “A lot of my esthetic is informed by that period," notes the choreographer. “To say I was an admirer of the golden era of film musicals as a child is like a crazy understatement—I was actually obsessed with them. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, the whole gang."
Astaire, of course, was in the original Holiday Inn, the 1942 movie that paired him with Bing Crosby in the story of song-and-dance partners who split up when the singer buys a farm. He soon realizes his property is more suitable for an inn, which he decides will operate only on holidays—thus the name, appropriated a decade later by the hotel chain. Holiday Inn's gimmick was less a plot point than an excuse for a slew of landmark Irving Berlin holiday songs—think “White Christmas" and “Easter Parade." There was also a dance classic, the Fourth of July number in which Astaire's tapping is accompanied by exploding firecrackers. The Broadway version, playing at Studio 54 until January 14, retains these iconic numbers and adds other Berlin tunes to fill out the story, reworked by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge.
Greenberg, who is also the director, has collaborated frequently with Jones—this is their fifth show together, and Jones' second outing as a choreographer on Broadway. (His first was the sadly underappreciated Honeymoon in Vegas.) After prior iterations in Connecticut (at Goodspeed) and Missouri (at The Muny), it's arrived on Broadway under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company, with Bryce Pinkham, of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder fame, as the singer, Jim, and Corbin Bleu, of High School Musical fame, as the dancer, Ted. Jones sees a great advantage to working with an institutional theater like Roundabout: “We know we're running at least till January," he says. “Having a guaranteed run takes a certain amount of pressure off."
But the pressure and pitfalls of reimagining a classic remain. “In most cases," Jones says, “our treatment of various songs is quite different from what was in the movie." There are also new contexts for songs that weren't in the movie. “Dancing Cheek to Cheek," which Berlin wrote for Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, is now a big ballroom number, which Jones tackled without recourse to the original. The song comes at a point in the plot that allows Jones to transform this quintessentially romantic number into rambunctious comedy. “But in something like 'Easter Parade,' " Jones notes, “it would be reckless not to have women parading in beautiful hats with the gentlemen in boaters—that is what the song is."
Jones revisits yet another indelible Astaire number, the firecracker dance, which is said to have required 38 takes to shoot. “It's one of those moments from the film," he says, “where if you don't explode some firecrackers for people, they will be annoyed with you." New York's fire marshals wouldn't countenance actual firecrackers in a crowded theater, so Bleu's firecrackers are simulated with technology. But there's nothing simulated about his expert tapping. “You want to deliver, as best you can, a theatrical version of what the film did so beautifully," Jones says. “The audience comes in with a certain expectation, and we certainly shouldn't disappoint them."
Jones, who started tap very early, feels particularly at home in the style. “It was my first love," he says. And tap shoes fly—sometimes literally—throughout the show. In the Christmas Eve scene, when Jim's showbiz friends arrive to help decorate the inn, they cheer him up with “Shaking the Blues Away," from the 1948 film Easter Parade. Christmas-tree garlands become dance props, and the ensuing tap-dance/jump-rope number brings down the house. The stage throbs with seven dancers courting disaster, twirling garland jump-ropes and skipping and tapping simultaneously.
“Their safety is of utmost importance to me," Jones says. “...But I do like danger. I'm attracted to things happening onstage that are surprising, that verge a little bit on danger." Of his rope-skipping tappers, he says, “I'm so impressed that they're able to accomplish that." But he knows that sometimes they won't.
“If you create a number where there's jumping ropes and juggling, throwing things and catching things," he concedes, “occasionally something's going to go wrong." And he tells the dancers, “Don't be afraid of that." Of course, he wants them to get it right. But if now and then they don't, “That's fine."
It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)
Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:
-Hey. U up?
-Ya. I'm at the ballet.
-Oh ok. Talk later.
-Nah, it's cool, it's a slow part right now.
Nope, it's not cool. Put your phone away. In the hushed darkness of an auditorium, light explodes from that screen like shrapnel, blasting those around you out of their viewing experience.
2017 felt like we were living the Upside Down of the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." From Donald Trump becoming president, to the sexual harassment scandals that ricocheted into the ballet world, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.
Yet while the deconstruction of institutional paradigms is frightening, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity for redesign.
Ballet, much like our political parties, seems to be stuck in an antiquated format that's long overdue for a makeover. With the world changing at lightning speed, if ballet wants to survive it will have to undergo a radical reimagining. But what would that look like?
Dear dancers of the New York City Ballet,
I realize that you are scared because the future of the New York City Ballet is uncertain; you don't know who will man the ship, and your career that you've worked your entire life for feels under attack.
On social media some of you alluded to the idea that Peter Martins' downfall is a result of the times; a maelstrom of allegations sweeping the country, bringing down powerful men, for misdeeds proven and unproven. I understand that for many of you this feels unfair: Peter has helped you personally ascend the ranks of the company by believing in you, and mentoring you. For others the described behavior may feel abstract; it isn't something you've witnessed, and many of the accusations occurred long before your time, maybe even before you were born. And above all, how could you possibly betray the man who plucked you from the school and gave you the chance of a lifetime: to dance with one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world? How could you see this person, who gave you this chance, this gift, as the monster he's being painted as?
Throughout his remarkable career, the fiercely determined, intelligent and energetic Arthur Mitchell has become accustomed to being called a trailblazer. "Being a typical Aries, I like being the first," he says, laughing. "That's what I've been doing all my life."
This is true, especially when it comes to the discussion at the forefront of today's national dialogue about dance: diversity in ballet.
In the dance world, Mandy Moore has long been a go-to name, but in 2017, the success of her choreography for La La Land made the rest of the world stop and take notice. After whirlwind seasons as choreographer and producer on both "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," she capped off the year with two Emmy Award nominations—and her first win.
You've come a long way on "So You Think You Can Dance"—from assistant to the choreographer (Season 1) to creative producer (Season 14). What keeps you returning to the show?
"So You Think You Can Dance" was one of my first jobs, so it feels like home. I love the chaos of live television; as soon as one show is over you're on to the next.
Last Saturday night, Dance/NYC, Gibney Dance and the Actors Fund hosted a conversation on sexual harassment in the dance world. The floor was open for anyone in attendance to share whatever they wanted: personal stories, resources, suggestions.
The event brought to light some of the questions the dance world is facing, and though we don't yet have all the answers, it helped lay out the areas we need to address:
What would dance-specific sexual harassment training and policies look like?
Corporate harassment trainings tend to tell employees to avoid touching coworkers and to not wear revealing clothing in the workplace. Obviously, these rules aren't applicable to the dance world. Many in attendance agreed that everyone in the dance world should undergo training, so what should it include?
The ballet world can't get enough of Arthur Pita. With his maverick, surreal imagination, the self-styled "David Lynch of dance" brings a welcome theatricality to everything he touches, from his version of Kafka's The Metamorphosis to 2017's Salome for San Francisco Ballet.
The South African–born Pita competed in disco dancing and later performed with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures. Today, he is Bourne's offstage partner, and the pair live together in London. His latest work, which premiered in November, is a one-act adaptation of Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 Texan novel, The Wind, for The Royal Ballet.
We've been a fan of the space bun look since our Spice Girls days, which is exactly why we were so excited when hair and makeup artist Angela Huff brought the double-bun style back for our January cover shoot with American Ballet Theatre's Erica Lall. To give the '90s style a modern twist, Huff added a few braided details. Here's how to copy the look for your next class:
Photo by Nathan Sayers
At age 24, dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher already has accolades beyond his years. But this week, the Bessie Award–winning performer adds another impressive feat to his resumé: His company's Joyce Theater debut. Though tap is Teicher's focus, he masterfully combines everything from jazz to Lindy Hop to hip hop in his fresh, clever choreography.
We caught up with him for our "Spotlight" series: