Career

What’s a Jellicle Cat?

CATS holds a sacred place in many dancers’ hearts. Tackling T.S. Eliot’s alternate, feline universe offers a chance to be part of a legacy, and cast members speak reverentially of the show’s whimsy and technical demands. Now, in the current revival on Broadway, a new litter is exploring Andy Blankenbuehler’s movement layered in with Gillian Lynne’s original choreography.

Pazcoguin runs through her solo 30 minutes before curtain. PC Jim Lafferty.

Georgina Pazcoguin: Victoria 

Backstory: Also a New York City Ballet soloist, Georgina Pazcoguin is known for exploring unorthodox roles. But although she was always drawn to CATS’ theatricality, she never thought she’d perform it. Now she’s donning a white unitard as Victoria, the balletic kitten coming of age. 

Committing:CATS is a weird show, so you must be fully committed. That’s why we do our own makeup and spend so much time crawling around finding our own cat.” 

Solo Work: Victoria’s iconic solo is filled with endless développés punctuated by twitches and swerves, ending in a Pilates-teaser–like seat. Pazcoguin first learned it from Lynne for a performance with American Dance Machine for the 21st Century last year. “Gillian, an 89-year-old woman, schooled me! I was sore for days. The tempo and control are difficult, and at the same time, Victoria’s exploring her own body. The second I start, I think of a waterfall flowing off my body.” 

Hanes channels his Fosse felinity as Rum Tum Tugger. PC Matthew Murphy, Courtesy CATS.

Tyler Hanes: Rum Tum Tugger 

Working With Andy Blankenbuehler: “Andy’s brain is always going. He takes this show to a different level. He understands a dancer’s body and knows what looks good.”

Becoming Tugger: “Since my background is Fosse, with that slink and felinity to it, I’m giving myself permission to be free in that vein. But also, I feel like the character has a mind of its own. Before, I felt like I was trying to emulate Andy to be ‘correct.’ Now, the movement is coming from a place of character. It’s more fun. Tugger dancing is not Tyler trying to dance like Andy!” 

Body Prep: Because of the snug costume, Hanes had a clear

vision of what he wanted the character to look like: Adam

Levine. So, he hired a trainer who’s helped him to build strength, not bulk, through basic strength-training moves like squats and

bench presses.  

Shonica Gooden: Rumpleteazer 

Ubeda (left) and Gooden (right). PC Jim Lafferty.

Backstory: Gooden had never seen CATS, but she wanted to work with Blankenbuehler again after performing in Hamilton. “When I watched the video, I thought, What did I get myself into?!” Now, she’s fallen in love with the show’s themes of forgiveness and community.

Becoming Rumpleteazer: Gooden and Blankenbuehler worked together to make her Rumpleteazer sassier than other versions. “I made her unapologetically part of my culture: Being a black woman, that sass and attitude was naturally coming out. I didn’t want to suppress it.” 

Two-Person Cartwheels: To tackle the tricky double cartwheels with Mungojerrie, danced by Jess LeProtto, the two initially practiced daily during the lift call preshow. “I learned to place my hands on his thighs exactly the same every day. If you hesitate, it’s not happening!”

Feline Features: “If I’m relaxed, I keep my fingers closed for a calm paw. But when Grizabella comes on, I open up my fingers for claws and my shoulders tense up.”

The Naming of Cats: The cast often calls each other by their cat names. But, there are variations. “Georgina is so spicy in the show, and she has so much attitude. So I said, ‘Your name is Lakisha.’ It stuck.”

Ricky Ubeda: Mister Mistoffelees

Backstory: Ubeda wore out his VHS copy of the London production as a kid. “I cried for three days when I got this part.”

Making Mister Mistoffelees: While Mister Mistoffelees is traditionally pulled up and über-clean, Ubeda and Blankenbuehler agreed theirs would be a cooler, more personable cat. “He loves to get the party started, and I have this theory that he teaches the other cats to dance.”

Rough Rake: “In rehearsal I had found my flow, but then I got to the rake and cried. Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t fight the rake. If it’s throwing me, I just go with it.”

Fauré as Demeter. PC Jim Lafferty.

Kim Fauré: Demeter

Backstory: This show was one of the reasons Fauré started dancing. “It was my plan to be in a ballet company for a few years—and then CATS for the rest of my life.”

Feline Features: To keep her sophisticated character intact even when she’s not dancing, Fauré lies on her stomach, paws crossed and one leg bent.  

Body Prep: To handle the demands of the show, Fauré cut out sugar to avoid inflammation and upped her potassium, vitamin B, calcium and magnesium to keep her muscles pliable.  

Fame: Tons of fans wait outside to meet the cast, and Fauré thinks it’s because everyone can find a cat they connect with. “You can see yourself in the cats.”

Corey John Snide and Emily Tate: Coricopat and Tantomile

Tate (left) and Snide (right) danced together at Juilliard before joining the show. PC Jim Lafferty.

Backstory: Pre-Broadway, the two danced together at Juilliard. Now, they play twin cats.

Twin Tales: The twins are clairvoyant, and Blankenbuehler allowed Tate and Snide a large role in creating their movement. “During one moment when the whole stage goes into slow motion, he said, ‘I want the intuition to come from your head,’ ” says Tate. “We created a movement where we take our hands next to our ears as if a thought bubble is popping out.” 

Bloopers: Since the pair works so closely, snags are unavoidable. Snide says, “One day, my unitard got stuck on her tail, I ripped my arm away and it went flying!”

Duo Details: The whole cast improvises certain sections. But for their version of improv, Tate and Snide have to maintain almost identical movement. Snide says, “The details, the position of our legs and contraction of our backs, are essential to creating the look.” 

Blankenbuehler updated the choreography, but kept its sensual felinity. PC Jim Lafferty.

Layers of Choreography

When CATS first opened on Broadway in 1982, Gillian Lynne’s choreography earned much of the accolades. Infused with jazzy ballet lines, her now-iconic movement struck spectacularly odd shapes to depict energetic, sensual felinity.

For the revival, the team brought in man of the moment, Tony Award–winner Andy Blankenbuehler to add his take. Fresh off Hamilton, he integrated his blend of gestural hip hop and cool jazz into the framework. Fans still find Lynne’s trademark portions. But audiences looking for a modern stamp now enjoy details like a techno-fab Mister Mistoffelees nailing tilts in an LED-light jacket. “We don’t move the way they did in the ’80s,” says Ricky Ubeda. “But it’s great training to dive into that style and then be balanced by Andy’s storytelling choreography.”

For the dancers, this combination meant double benefits—and double challenges. To ensure Lynne’s portions were tackled correctly, one of her associates oversaw rehearsals. “She’d explain the heart and the direction of those sections,” says Kim Fauré. “Then, we could approach the layers of Gillian’s and Andy’s work more easily.”

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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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.

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