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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."
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."