Choreography's Constantly Shifting Role on Broadway
I first got hooked on Broadway musicals as a preteen at Gypsy, with its tapping moppets, gyrating burlesque queens and Tulsa, the dancing heartthrob. I've been going ever since, but Dance Magazine has been at it even longer.
The 1926-27 Broadway season was just ending when DM began publication, and of its 200-plus shows, dozens were new musicals. One, a Ziegfeld revue called No Foolin', listed more than 80 performers. Such huge ensembles of dancers and singers were common, whether in revues, operettas or musical comedies.
And why not? The '20s were roaring, and Broadway was flush. But that wasn't the only difference between then and now. Dance in the theater was only tangentially related to a show's content. It was window dressing—however extravagant, it remained mere entertainment.
But just look at who was providing it! Fred and Adele Astaire had become the toast of the town two years earlier in Lady, Be Good! Its "musical staging" was credited to Sammy Lee, whose six shows in DM''s inaugural season included Oh, Kay!, with "Fidgety Feet" and "Clap Yo' Hands," and A Night in Paris, the second Broadway outing for a young dancer named Ray Bolger, who would gain lasting renown in The Wizard of Oz. (In 1932, his rubber-legged hoofing was on the opening-night bill of Radio City Music Hall, along with the Roxyettes and Martha Graham.)
Ray BolgerCourtesy of DM Archives
The Cocoanuts featured not just the Marx Brothers but famed ballroom dancers the De Marcos. They went to Hollywood, along with stage luminaries like Eleanor Powell, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Busby Berkeley, who'd been "arranging" dances.
But "choreography" was making inroads. In 1926 Berkeley was credited as choreographer on The Wild Rose, an operetta set in Monte Carlo; George Balanchine weighed in in 1936 with On Your Toes. "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" made dance a channel for detailed storytelling, and the choreographic milestones that followed brought us to this season's Bandstand, in which Andy Blankenbuehler evokes the psychological burdens of its World War II veterans with heartbreaking battle choreography.
Earlier, in 1927, Show Boat had already proven that musicals could tackle serious social issues while providing glorious song and dance—with hardworking Sammy Lee choreographing; Agnes de Mille fused dance with the plot and invented the dream ballet in 1943 for Oklahoma!; Jerome Robbins made standard dance breaks look old-fashioned in 1957, with the nonstop choreography of West Side Story.
At that point, stardom could still attach itself to Broadway dancers. Chita Rivera joined Gene Kelly and Gwen Verdon as a household name. Fame and fortune were by no means certain—Katharine Sergava's star performance as the first Laurey in Oklahoma!''s dream ballet landed her on DM's cover, but she disappeared after only two more Broadway shows (though The New York Times gave her an extra 15 minutes in 2003 by erroneously reporting that she had died). But celebrity status was still possible.
Gwen Verdon Courtesy of DM Archives
However, as times changed, Broadway musicals tried to keep up. Spectacular pop operas like Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera were too bulky to move much. And director Harold Prince and composer Stephen Sondheim were pioneering a new kind of show that delved into serious material that didn't necessarily accommodate the featured dances that had become de rigueur in musical comedy.
Still, the first of their collaborations, Company, in 1970, had "musical staging" by one Michael Bennett, and featured a chorus dancer named Donna McKechnie. You know the rest. Along with other Broadway gypsies, McKechnie took part in the all-night conversations and workshops that in 1975 became A Chorus Line.
It changed how musicals were created, the definition of a hit, the look of Broadway ensembles and the way dance was perceived. "It really exposed what it means to be a dancer, what drives one to become a dancer," says Nikki Feirt Atkins, founder and producing artistic director of American Dance Machine for the 21st Century, which reconstructs and performs significant work by theater choreographers like Jack Cole, Bob Fosse and Gower Champion.
But in glorifying ensembles, A Chorus Line changed the terms of Broadway stardom. Shows no longer produce marquee dancers, and it's not just because AIDS robbed the theater of so much artistry. Apart from McKechnie and Tommy Tune, whose breakout role was in Bennett's Seesaw, dancers have not become above-the-title performers.
Savion Glover is an exception, because musicals like Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk were built around his talent. Atkins points out that Robert Fairchild's stunning work in Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris did not bring him the super stardom he might have achieved in another era.
Josh Groban and the cast of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812Chad Batka, courtesy of Matt Ross PR
Lately the focus has been on ensembles, and choreographers like Wheeldon, pushing and pulling at the musical's boundaries. Susan Stroman's Contact and Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out made dance the main narrative vehicle; for this season's Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Sam Pinkleton's split-level choreography surrounds the audience and sends the ensemble on a taxing, exhilarating marathon of movement that would shock—and probably thrill—Ziegfeld. Here come the next 90 years!
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.