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Choreographer's Confessional: Patrick McCollum's First Time Working in Heels
Choreographer Patrick McCollum says he's accident-prone. So he hesitated a bit when Stephen Brackett, the director he'd loved working with on the off-Broadway musical The Lightning Thief, asked him to choreograph The Legend of Georgia McBride.
It wasn't the material that gave him pause—the author, Matthew Lopez, is an award-winning playwright, and the comedy centers on a married Elvis impersonator who chucks his glittery jumpsuit in favor of a glam gown and a career in drag. The timing and the location were enticing, too—a two-week summer run, now over, at the Dorset Theatre Festival in cool, green Vermont. But McCollum had to "give it a think"—he didn't own any high heels.
Choreographer Patrick McCollum. Photo by Ahron R. Foster, Courtesy Polk & Co.
"I'd never done drag in any way, shape or form," he says, "so putting what are essentially little stilts underneath my feet kind of freaked me out." On the other hand, looking for something to do on the tail end of evenings out with friends in New York, he'd gone to lots of drag shows. "Inadvertently, I was studying for this for a long time," he laughs. "With a cocktail in my hand."
He got his shoes, size 12 Dexflex Comfort pumps, when rehearsals began in Vermont. He'd already done much of the choreography for the preening, lip-syncing drag queens—numbers like Shirley Bassey singing "Big Spender," LeAnn Rimes doing "Jailhouse Rock"—in his apartment. Wearing tennis shoes or barefoot, he worked "on my tippy-toes" to see how it felt. Then he found out, and he was amazed.
"It's very hard!" he declares. "There's an endurance to it that I wasn't prepared for. I understand why people get cranky at the end of the night when they've been in high heels." And his pair weren't even that high—"something you'd wear to a meeting." When I ragged him for complaining about 3-inch heels, he shot right back: "Hey, Sylviane—I gotta start somewhere. I can't go from working on Rocky on Broadway to wearing 7-inch heels!"
Joey Taranto as "Casey/Georgia McBride" in The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo Courtesy Dorset Theatre Festival.
Between La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots, Broadway has seen plenty of men in heels. In fact, one of the reasons McCollum felt comfortable enough to take on Georgia McBride was that its star, Joey Taranto, had played one of Billy Porter's high-stepping Angels in the original Kinky Boots cast. "I knew he would be a great source of information and a great person to collaborate and conspire with," McCollum says. What McCollum didn't know was that in addition to his own experience as a Broadway associate choreographer and movement consultant, he'd done some amateur drag: "When I used to dance around as a kid to Britney Spears and Madonna, I was basically doing my own little drag performances in my room. I kind of realized I'd been doing this my whole life. But now I'm actually able to curate it in a way that feels artful."
The shoes helped. He discovered that they moved his center of gravity forward and made him walk more "lifted up. I learned how to distribute my weight, how I needed to ground myself into the floor a little bit more in a different way and how to carry myself upstairs," he says. He also found that he needed to tap into what he calls "a sense of femininity," both for himself and the characters. "You can put on heels and still manage to walk like a linebacker," he notes.
David Turner as "Miss Tracy Mills" in The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo Courtesy Dorset Theatre Festival.
Georgia McBride looked nothing like football on the Dorset stage—the show won praise from local critics, audiences realized that "it's not degrading to put on a heel" and McCollum expanded his vocabulary. "I was trained by a male teacher growing up, so I dance like a guy," he says. "It felt nice to flex a different muscle and allow myself to dance like a woman. And it felt really strong, really powerful."
Also, his ankles and feet remained intact. He goes into rehearsal Labor Day for the Broadway run of The Band's Visit, starting previews Oct. 7. Other exciting projects are on the horizon, and if any of them require heels, he's now got some. "They're a valuable tool—as valuable as a good set of speakers or a good mirror."
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit:
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.
For 17 years, James Samson has been the model Paul Taylor dancer. There is something fundamentally decent about his stage persona. He's a tall dancer—six feet—but never imposes himself. He's muscular, but gentle. And when he moves, it is his humanity that shines through, even more than his technique.
But all dancing careers come to an end, and James Samson's is no exception; now 43, he'll be retiring in August, after a final performance at the Teatro Romano in Verona, where he'll be dancing in Cloven Kingdom, Piazzolla Caldera and Promethean Fire.