Cuban Heat

October 31, 2015

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).