Cuban Heat

Sergio Trujillo’s moves for On Your Feet! called for a trip to the Caribbean.   

Ana Villafañe plays Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet! Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy On Your Feet!

Sergio Trujillo got his feet dirty choreographing his newest Broadway musical. But he didn’t mind. He was in Havana soaking up the local dance flavors, which included taking class with barefoot inner-city kids on the dirt floor of an old warehouse. For eight days in January, before starting work on the Gloria Estefan musical On Your Feet!, he immersed himself in Cuban dance, getting to know the teachers, the little companies that perform in the streets and the larger ones in the state-run theaters. “I didn’t do touristy things,” he says. “All I did was stay with the locals, seeing the culture.”

On Your Feet! had its premiere in June in Chicago, and opens on Broadway November 5. Trujillo, along with director Jerry Mitchell, wanted to make the show as true as possible to the Cuban roots that fueled Estefan’s music and her rise to stardom. (“How lucky can I get,” asks Trujillo, “having a director who’s a choreographer? He’s a friend, he’s family, and he’s got my back.”) The subtle nuances of Latin dance would probably escape Mitchell and Anglo audiences alike, but the Colombian-born Trujillo, who grew up in Canada, is acutely aware of the fine distinctions that separate Colombian cumbia from Afro-Cuban mambo and Brazilian samba. “The way that Colombians dance,” he says, “the footwork is very fast. I put some into the show, because I felt I needed to celebrate my family. But the Cuban stuff is Afro-Cuban, down to the ground. They use their rib cages a lot more.”

There are also differences in the music and instrumentation, Trujillo says. “The Cubans use more Afro-Cuban rhythms. Basically, in the music, you’re going back to Africa.” In the music of Gloria Estefan, who fronted Miami Sound Machine’s amazing string of hit records in the ’80s, you’ve got one foot in Cuba, where she was born, and one in Florida, where she was raised. Her Latin pop leaves Trujillo with lots of choreographic leeway. “I have some traditional stuff in there,” he says. “Within the traditional stuff, I have some mambo, I have some salsa, I have basic ’80s hip hop, because there are some concert sequences in the show. There’s a little bit of samba in one of the songs, there’s some contemporary dance. And there’s some classical stuff that I threw in there.”

On Your Feet! is more than a hit parade of Estefan’s records or a tribute concert. Like Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Jersey Boys (Trujillo’s first major Broadway hit), On Your Feet! is a biographical portrait, tracing Gloria’s early years, her marriage to Emilio Estefan, who guided her career and produced her records, and the horrific 1990 bus accident that nearly cost her her life. The dance sequences are mostly organic, set in concert halls and clubs. But in the second act, to the yearning ballad “Wrapped,” Trujillo changes the pace. “I hate to call it a dream ballet,” he says, “but it’s a moment that offers the opportunity to tell some narrative through dance.”

The show’s eight dancers are primarily Hispanic—no accident. “There is a certain je ne sais quoi to the way Latinos dance,” Trujillo says. “If you grew up in a Latin household, you’re bound to have heard Latin music your entire life—it’s part of our everyday living. Not that every single Latin person can actually feel the beat the way that they’re supposed to. But I did not want to compromise. I really wanted to make the show as authentic as it could be. I didn’t want to have jazz dancers and teach them how to do Latin dance.” By the same token, he didn’t want to teach Latin club dancers how to take direction, perform on a stage or create characters. “These dancers,” he says of the professionals he hired, “are also great actors. I didn’t want them to be just a chorus line.”

He knew he’d succeeded, he says, when his husband, actor Jack Noseworthy, told him, “What’s wonderful about this show is that your family is up on that stage.” 

Trujillo’s New Take

On Your Feet! is not Sergio Trujillo’s first time choreographing to Latin music for Broadway. He’s best known for Jersey Boys and Memphis, but the first show he did was The Mambo Kings in 2005 (though it closed out of town). “When I started working on On Your Feet!,” Trujillo says now, “there were a couple of times when I said, ‘Let’s try to figure out if I can use a little section from Mambo Kings.’ And it just didn’t quite work. It didn’t feel right. Ten years later, you’re a different person—you see things differently.”

Trujillo gets another chance at mambo choreography this winter, when Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical has its world premiere at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland. Moisés Kaufman has updated the Bizet opera and set it in Cuba just before the Revolution. Then Trujillo’s on to Africa, musically speaking, for a show set in Uganda, Invisible Thread, to be directed off-Broadway by Diane Paulus (Pippin).

Day in the Life

Most people may know Derek Dunn for his impeccable turns and alluring onstage charisma. But the Boston Ballet principal dancer is just as charming offstage, whether he's playing with his 3-year-old miniature labradoodle or working in the studio. Dance Magazine recently spent the day with Dunn as he prepared for his debut as Albrecht in the company's upcoming run of Giselle.

Dance Training
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Mark Morris Dance Group

You know compelling musicality when you see it. But how do you cultivate it? It's not as elusive as it might seem. Musicality, like any facet of dance, can be developed and honed over time—with dedicated, detailed practice. At its most fundamental, it's "respect for the music, that this is your partner," says Kate Linsley, academy principal of the School of Nashville Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
The USC Kaufman graduating class with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Gus Ruelas/USC

Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.

Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:

Keep reading... Show less
In Memoriam
Ross Parkes, right, teaching in Shanghai in 1983. Lan-Lan Wang is at left. Courtesy Lan-Lan Wang.

Notable dancer and beloved teacher, Ross Parkes, 79, passed away on August 5, 2019 in New York City. He was a founding faculty member at Taipei National University of the Arts in Taiwan, where he taught from 1984 to 2006. Lin Hwai-min, artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theater, said: "He nurtured two generations of dancers in Taiwan, and his legacy will continue."

About his dancing, Tonia Shimin, professor emerita at UC Santa Barbara and producer of Mary Anthony: A Life in Modern Dance, said this: "He was an exquisite, eloquent dancer who inhabited his roles completely."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox