The Case for Choreography You Barely Even Notice
The works of theater that win awards for dance and choreography—and admittedly the ones we usually cover here at Dance Magazine—tend to be ones with lots of dance. Sure, there are exceptions: The play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time got a Best Choreography Tony nod in 2015 for its subtle yet powerful movement direction by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, and we love shows like Hundred Days and Indecent that feature choreography tailor-made for actors. But by and large, the shows that get the most recognition have the biggest, boldest dances.
But what if someone told you that the best choreography is actually the choreography you barely notice? Barry McNabb has built a successful career with that notion, as a frequent choreographer for Irish Repertory Theatre as well as musical theater productions around the world. His most recent work, Irish Rep's The Dead, 1904, features a traditional Irish quadrille.
The cast of The Dead dancing a quadrille. PC Carol Rosegg
"These are dances that the characters would have known by heart," says McNabb. "It should look like something they're creating in the moment." Sometimes, he says, people see dances like this in his work and assume the actors have come up with the movement themselves. Though that can be frustrating, McNabb takes it as a sign that he's doing his job—that the movement is serving the characters and is fully integrated into the story.
Here are his biggest takeaways on making theater choreography that stays true to the show:
1. Question the dance break.
"I don't do big dance breaks for the sake of doing big dance breaks," says McNabb. "I've worked on new musicals where they're like, 'We need a dance break here,' and I'm like, 'Why?' " Dance should always come from an emotional build, he emphasizes, that starts with a scene, transitions into singing and finally breaks into movement.
McNabb's production of New Girl in Town at Irish Rep. PC Carol Rosegg
2. But that doesn't mean you have to go small.
Even though McNabb frequently choreographs plays, he's no stranger to big musical theater shows. Earlier in his career he served as dance captain for Bob Fosse, and he's created movement for shows as iconic as West Side Story. He names Andy Blankenbuehler as someone who creates big, exciting choreography, while always integrating it into the story at hand.
3. Stand up for your work.
"Putting together a musical is the hardest thing in the world," says McNabb. "You have to have either really thick skin, or a really huge ego, or both." Sometimes, he says, when a show isn't working, choreographers get blamed when it's really a larger issue of structure or story. "If the choreographer doesn't have a story to tell, the team is doing them a disservice. The dances are just putting artificial energy into the show."
4. Meet actors where they are.
If you're working on a show with primarily non-dancers, making them feel comfortable with movement is key. "The word 'choreographer' puts the fear of God into some actors," says McNabb. "You have to make them feel like you're not going to have them make fools out of themselves." McNabb makes a point to always wear street clothes rather than dance clothes to the first rehearsal to avoid intimidating performers.
McNabb's choreography in Irish Rep's Meet Me in St. Louis. PC Carol Rosegg
5. And learn from your actors.
McNabb says choreographers could do better at working with actors to integrate their characters in the choreography. "When you're working with good actors who physically manifest the character, they should inspire you," he says. "Ballet and modern choreographers will use the dancers' vocabulary to inform choreography, but theater choreographers tend to think they have to go in with everything made ahead of time. Be open to realizing that this actor moves in a way that you didn't quite see before. Learn how an actor builds the way their character moves."
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.