Inside DM

The Accidental Choreographer


Pinkleton (in glasses) rehearsing Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 at ART. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.

Sam Pinkleton has never danced in a Broadway musical. He's never assisted a Broadway choreographer or made a piece of concert dance. He's never even been much of a dancer—“enthusiastic," he says, but “not terribly skilled." Nevertheless, with four big-deal credits coming this season, his career as a Broadway choreographer is thriving: He's doing two musicals, the immersive off-Broadway hit The Great Comet and the more traditional, film-based Amélie; and two straight plays, Heisenberg, the two-character romance by Tony winner Simon Stephens, and Significant Other, Joshua Harmon's comedy about a gay New Yorker looking for love.

“I sort of very accidentally became a choreographer," Pinkleton says. He discovered theater early on, growing up just outside of Richmond, Virginia, and always danced. “There was never a moment where I considered myself a serious dancer," he says. Still, “people let me do things"—things like choreographing his high school show choir. But he saw his path in musical theater rather than dance, and he went to New York University “with big starry-eyed dreams of being a chorus boy." But he quickly abandoned those dreams, realizing that it felt “like a very strange use of how I think and how I look at the world and how I wanted to be spending my time." His change of heart was affirmed when his NYU teachers, many of them former Broadway dancers, told him, “Sam, you're gonna be successful because you have a lot of personality and you work really hard—you'll be fine, just as long as it doesn't involve dancing."

He loved dance, but, he says, “What drew me to it was what happens when your body hears music and nobody's watching—when you let yourself go." He switched tracks, leaving “chorus-boy camp" in favor of NYU's directing program. “I felt an immediate attachment to leading a room and to collaborating," he recalls. He especially liked that “my voice and ideas are made more interesting when complicated by someone else's." And he was lucky, he says, to have flexible collaborators who were open to his movement ideas.

Working on projects downtown and off-Broadway, he amassed both directing and choreography credits. “I started choreographing based on intuition and based on my love for jumping around," he says, “and really not any technique at all. I don't know any of those French words." In 2012, his name first appeared in a Broadway Playbill, as assistant director of The Lyons, Nicky Silver's dark family comedy. In 2014, still in his 20s, he earned his first choreography credit on Broadway, for the mechanical, expressionistic movement in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Sophie Treadwell's brooding 1928 melodrama, Machinal. But he's a choreographer without portfolio. “I love the dance world," he says, “but I can't claim to be a part of it. When people ask me, 'What's your style like?' I have absolutely no idea. Because I work in theater, and it's entirely based on the conversation between me and the material, and me and the director."

He may not have a “style," but he does have a take. He apologizes for sounding “lofty" as he says, “The joy of dance, my way into dance, is about regular human beings—what they can do, and finding the virtuosity in that." Whether choreographing a play or a musical, for a proscenium stage or an offbeat space, he wants spectators to feel one thing: “I am a human being in an audience, whether sitting, standing or hanging upside down. And that is another human being, over there, doing something utterly remarkable." And, he adds, and Broadway will find out, “ 'remarkable' could mean any number of things."


The Great Comet

Dave Malloy's pop opera The Great Comet, coming to the Imperial Theatre October 18, began life in 2012 as Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Based on War and Peace, directed at the 99-seat Ars Nova by Rachel Chavkin, the show garnered rave reviews, including one from Sam Pinkleton, who knew Chavkin and Malloy from “the same downtown circles." The immersive show put the audience in a faux Russian nightclub as Tolstoy's characters surrounded them singing about their passions. “I loved it so much," says Pinkleton. “And I enjoyed the free vodka and sent them love letters and went on with my life." But when he next ran into Chavkin, she told Pinkleton that the nightclub was going to be re-created in a tent in 2013, and that the show was growing to fit the larger space. “She said, 'I need some help moving bodies around,' " Pinkleton recalls. “Neither of us knew exactly what that was going to mean." There had been only minimal dance at Ars Nova, in the ballroom scenes. With six additional cast members, movement “began to take on its own level of value," Pinkleton says. With more rave reviews, Natasha, Pierre then moved to American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We had a cast of 24 and 500 seats and we were doing it in a proscenium," Pinkleton continues. “With so much ground to cover, and so many people, I realized, Oh my god, this is a dance show now." Pinkleton says one of his favorite things is that the audience is “surrounded by the action, and they can't see everything. I had this necessity to make people really dance, and to make sure that, wherever you look, there's something that maybe you've never seen before."

Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

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PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

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"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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Joan Marcus

Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?

The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."

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From left, Ethel Merman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Debbie Allen. All Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.

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News
When it comes to BodyVox, it's best to expect the unexpected. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy BodyVox

In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected. bodyvox.com.

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