Captain Casual

Choreographer Steven Hoggett collaborates with Sting to bring The Last Ship to Broadway.

Hoggett sets movement on Michael Esper, who stars as Gideon. All photos by Shawna M. Hamic, Courtesy The Last Ship.

 

Steven Hoggett isn’t the kind of choreographer who does “choreography.” He comes out of England’s physical theater tradition, which uses heavily designed—and sometimes incredibly athletic—movement to tell a story without stopping the action for song-and-dance numbers. In shows like American Idiot, Rocky and Once, Hoggett has expanded the definition of dance on Broadway. His latest project, The Last Ship, about the community in an English ship-building town, opens on Broadway this month with music and lyrics by Sting. Halfway through The Last Ship’s summer run in Chicago, the muscular movement director sat down to discuss his work with Zachary Whittenburg.

 

The impact of your choreography comes in part from the sense that we’re watching “real people,” as opposed to dancers. Does working with highly trained bodies throw you off?

I just don’t get those jobs. [Laughs] I don’t get offered companies of dancers. I get offered companies of actors, by directors or producers who want a kind of choreographic shape to what they’re doing. I would probably be really awful at that kind of job.

 

Above: Clockwise from left: Producer Rob Mathes (in pit), actor Jimmy Nail, director Joe Mantello (back), Sting, associate music director Dan Lipton, Steven Hoggett, associate director Tom Ridgely.

Creating a big ensemble piece, with complex patterns and unison?

Exactly. That’s just not where my strengths are. I adore that kind of stuff. But what I do tends to begin with a script or a narrative. Even just an environment, or inherent physicality, a sense of characters. I live in fear of the words “dance break.”

 

At the top of The Last Ship, the character Jackie White walks onstage with his hands in his coat pockets, and another character, Gideon, cracks his knuckles. Do those kinds of details come from you?

Yes. All of it’s deliberate, although it’s not just from me—it comes out of working with the actors, too. It’s about imbuing each character with a sense of physicality and telling a story. You can’t just make a casual gesture onstage—that’s as mindless as opening your mouth and letting any old words come out.

What’s the first thing you do with a new cast?

I have to find out who I’m working with. What they look like, the way they move, how to get the room moving without them feeling like they’re under some kind of dance instruction.

 

So, you don’t clap and yell, “Five, six, seven, eight”?

Oh, I do shout out a lot from the front of the room. [Laughs] But there’s no routine in my body that they all have to learn.

 

Right: Hoggett works with Esper and Collin Kelly-Sordelet, who plays his son.

Is there a structured warm-up?

During the rehearsal process, yes. For me, it’s so they connect as a company. The Last Ship is an ensemble performance. Without a sense of connectivity, it becomes very tricky to paint stage pictures and do group scenes, without them looking stilted.

You’re extremely skilled at subtle blocking. During the first “Shipyard” scene, everyone moves stage right and leaves Arthur by himself, stage left. We see the room turn against him, quite literally, but the way it happens is very sly.

It’s just using simple devices to show, Where’s the unanimous feeling in the room? Where’s the adversarial line and how do people draw it? How do you impose upon an individual? Is it by gathering around him? Or do you create distance?

There’s also a lot of kneeling in the show.

Well, there’s a…religiosity about The Last Ship. In a way it’s about faith, whether in terms of religious doctrine or just in the sanctity of work. It also has to do with being floored, you know? These men had, literally, their foundations taken. These are men who did very manly jobs. Take away that and you take away more than just their wages.

 

How much feedback are you getting from Sting?

More and more, which I encouraged. We were in rehearsal one day and he said, “I’ve never had anyone choreograph to my music before. I find it very strange. I don’t even understand where those ideas come from, but I’m really liking what I’m seeing.” And I told him, “Don’t sit back. You wrote these songs. I’m only interpreting what you’ve created.”

 

Left: Associate choreographer Patrick McCollum, Hoggett and ensemble member Colby Foytik on set.

 

You’ve said you feel that directors are becoming more adventurous in how they think about choreography. On the flip side, how are they still too cautious?

I still think it’s quite rare for cinema, for films, to give us beautiful choreography. In Anna Karenina, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui did a fantastic job and the space that director Joe Wright created for the choreography was great. But that doesn’t happen very often in movies. I saw Under the Skin recently and director Jonathan Glazer has got a beautiful sense of bodies. It’s never “choreography,” but it’s not far off. He’s very smart with physicality.

 

You’ve been described as someone who focuses on the arc, with a partner who takes care of the details. Do you rely on having someone else doing the fine tuning?

I like having strong associates. I don’t have assistants—I don’t believe in that. If you’re next to me, we’re in this together. I’ve had the pleasure of working with directors who get their hands dirty, who are part of making decisions about choreography and, by that same token, I end up being part of a directorial view about the piece. That’s where I’m best served and also where I’m most comfortable

 

How important is accessibility to you?

On a good night, an individual who didn’t think they had any right to be talking about choreography might say that they really enjoyed a certain physical phrase, or a certain gesture, and say that they thought it meant something.

 

Right: McCollum and Hoggett go over notes.

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