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How Joshua Bergasse Won The Golden Ticket
He's the Emmy-winning, Tony-nominated Joshua Bergasse in the playbill, but just "Josh Bergasse" (pronounced bare-GAHSS) when he affably introduces himself to the 70 people assembled at Broadway Dance Center for his advanced theater class.
They know who he is, of course, and it's the reason they're there. Reese Snow, BDC's associate executive director, calls him "one of the finest theater teachers in New York." He's also the choreographer of the Broadway shows Gigi and On the Town (for which he won the Astaire Award and that Tony nomination), the off-Broadway hits Cagney and Sweet Charity, the NBC series "Smash," and the new musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, opening this month at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Bergasse puts on Adele and starts a strenuous, fluid warm-up to prepare the class for the taxing but lyrical combinations they will dance to Sammy Davis Jr.'s swing-happy rendition of "The Goin's Great," from 1969. "A lot of my movement has fast directional changes, so I try to get their thighs and core really strong and warm," he says.
Bergasse leading rehearsal. Photo by Jenny Anderson, Courtesy On The Town
As Bergasse begins the routine, it's clear that he's still, at 44, a beautiful dancer with a sleek line. You see how he landed three separate productions of West Side Story—often as a 5' 5" Baby John—and other musicals, some on Broadway, some not. Even back then, when not performing he was choreographing—summer theater, regional theater, Florida, Massachusetts.
He says he likes to tell aspiring choreographers about the years spent traipsing around the country, "because I don't want them to think they've just got to get that show. Life isn't necessarily winning 'American Idol.' Sometimes you just have to put the work in."
Bergasse started putting the work in as a child, taking tap, jazz and ballet at Annette and Company School of Dance, in Farmington Hills, Michigan, outside Detroit. Annette is his mother, and by the time Bergasse was 15 or 16, he was teaching and choreographing recitals. "That's when I got the bug," he says. (Every so often, when he returns home, he teaches a class.)
His choreographic touchstones from the start were the movie musicals he watched "over and over, not realizing what I was learning—watching because I loved it. And now when I choreograph, that's all a part of me." His heroes: Michael Kidd, Hermes Pan, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire "and, of course, Bob Fosse."
But when he choreographed the recent off-Broadway revival of Sweet Charity, he opted not to echo or redo Fosse's choreography. "Before we opened," he says, "I watched the movie, to make sure I hadn't inadvertently done his choreography, because I'd seen it so many times."
Sweet Charity. Photo by Monique Carbon, Courtesy Th Cooper Company
But when a step looked familiar, he discovered he'd "done it in a different number in a slightly different way." It made him realize, he says, "how much these influences from that time were important to my development as a choreographer." On the Town was less daunting, he says, because the Jerome Robbins choreography is not as well documented. And doing it gave him particular joy because, he says, "dance was a major part of the storytelling. It was written that way."
Another influence was being a swing in Hairspray. Learning all of the tracks helped Bergasse "to understand the bigger picture of how the staging operates, how a big show functions." That's also where he first worked with Tony-winning director Jack O'Brien. O'Brien remembers him as bright, energetic, focused. "But I had no idea what his gifts were as a choreographer."
Those became apparent, O'Brien says, when he saw On the Town. "It's great fun to watch people growing and flowering," which he did firsthand in 2014 for a Carnegie Hall benefit concert of Guys and Dolls. "Josh had no space, because the entire symphonic orchestra was onstage," O'Brien recalls. He didn't expect much from the huge "Luck Be a Lady" dance number, but it was "ravishing," he says. "It had attack, it had masculine edge, it had danger, and it was done on the head of a pin."
O'Brien is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's director, and Bergasse surprised him again when they did a workshop in June. O'Brien expected three or four numbers, but "in three weeks he did everything. I mean capital EVERYTHING, exclamation point, close quote. It was not a sketch—it was a cornucopia of originality."
The show is based on the 1964 Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which became a 1971 movie musical starring Gene Wilder, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and a 2005 Tim Burton film with Johnny Depp. The stage version, with songs by Tony-winning Hairspray team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, direction by Sam Mendes and choreography by Billy Elliot's Peter Darling, opened in London in 2013, to mixed reviews.
The Broadway team has completely retooled it, Bergasse says. "We decided, Let's go back to the book for this, let's go back to the film, figuring which pieces of the puzzle are best for our version." There's also some new music, and, Bergasse says, "it has a different feel to it, very American. I think we have added a little more brightness and lightness."
Bergasse says he's usually drawn to a project by the collaborators and the story, and working alongside O'Brien was a dream come true. "Jack makes people feel they're the most important person in the room. You feel safe to try things, you feel like you can do your best work."
Without knowing it, he's echoing what dancers say about him. Khori Petinaud, currently in Aladdin, did the Charlie workshop and worked on pre-production for Gigi. "He never made me feel like my input was not important," she says. "He pushes, but he's so friendly and warm. He jokes around." She's a regular at his classes, too, because, she says, "they are so extremely challenging." She cites not only the "immense amount of steps in a small amount of time," but also his musicality: "It's not basic, and when you finally hit it in the right way, it's so exciting."
Gigi. Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown
"I like finding my material in the dancers," Bergasse says. "Something indigenous to them. My philosophy is, 'If it's something I can do, then I've probably already done it.' So let me find something new on you. Or let me help you create something."
Like Petinaud, he enjoyed the sense of ownership when choreographers encouraged him to contribute to the process. "Not all dancers are good with that. They want steps: 'Tell me what to do,' five-six-seven-eight." Bergasse looks for dancers "who will just do anything, just jump around inventing things."
But there's more to being a choreographer than jumping around. He devoted over a year to Charlie before rehearsals began, but only six weeks in the studio with dancers. "You never think, when you're coming up, that you're going to spend so much time in boardrooms," he says. "You'll be going from meeting to meeting to fitting. All the props and all the costumes have to be planned out before you start."
With Charlie finally up and running, Bergasse will turn to musicals he says are "circling for a landing." There's Bull Durham, based on the 1988 baseball movie that starred Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner; Smokey Joe's Cafe, a revival of the 1995 hit created from the songs of Leiber and Stoller; and The Honeymooners, derived from Jackie Gleason's classic '50s sitcom about a Brooklyn bus driver.
Like his other credits, they're a study in contrasting themes and styles—the frilly charm of Gigi was nowhere visible in On the Town, and the exuberant tap in Cagney made no appearance in Sweet Charity. "A jack-of-all-trades and master of none," he jokes. More seriously, he adds, "I try not to get stuck doing one thing. I like to think of myself as a chameleon."
Cagney. Photo by Carol Rosegg, Courtesy Keith Sherman and Associates
He's also developing a theater project "with a lot of dance" with his fiancée, New York City Ballet star Sara Mearns. At this point he can't say much more than, "It will showcase Sara beautifully." They're hoping it will be ready in another year or so.
"She's just so wonderful and so brilliant," he says, "that sometimes it's intimidating. But I can help her with certain things—certain theater things. And she helps me with certain things. I like to say she's my choreography consultant. I'll say, 'I need you to look at this, because it's not working—tell me how to fix it.' She'll look at it, and she'll know like that." At the final word, he snaps his fingers, adding, "She just lives and breathes all things movement." Sometimes, he says, he lets her make the fix herself. When he's in rehearsal, he says, they'd barely see each other if she didn't come to the theater. "Sometimes she'll sit through tech and sew her pointe shoes."
He got to have some fun with pointe shoes in Charlie, in a satirical ballet for Veruca Salt. She's one of four obnoxious children who compete with the hero, Charlie Bucket, to win a lifetime supply of chocolate from Willy Wonka. Another contender, Augustus Gloop, is Bavarian, and for his number, Bergasse researched cuckoo clocks and gave the dancers complex hand-slapping routines based on traditional Bavarian folk dances. He had to choreograph a pas de deux with no touching for Charlie's mother and the ghost of his father—and a dance for his bed-ridden grandfather. He also collaborated with acclaimed puppeteer Basil Twist on choreography for Willy's factory workers, the Oompa-Loompas. These are strange assignments for a choreographer, but Bergasse embraced them. "My favorite thing is to tell a story," he says.
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
So far, the fervor to create diversity in ballet has primarily focused on dancers. Less attention has been paid to the work that they'll encounter once they arrive.
Yet the cultivation of ballet choreographers of color (specifically black choreographers) through traditional pathways of choreographic training grounds remains virtually impossible. No matter how you slice it, we end up at the basic issues that plague the pipeline to the stage: access and privilege.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
Christopher Wheeldon is going to be giving Michael Jackson some new moves: The Royal Ballet artistic associate is bringing the King of Pop to Broadway.
The unlikely pairing was announced today by Jackson's estate. Wheeldon will serve as both director and choreographer for the new musical inspired by Michael Jackson's life, which is aiming for a 2020 Broadway opening. This will be Wheeldon's second time directing and choreographing, following 2015's Tony Award-winning An American in Paris.
Wheeldon is a surprising choice, to say the least. There are many top choreographers who worked with Jackson directly, like Wade Robson and Brian Friedman, who could have been tapped for the project. Or the production could have even hired someone who actually choreographed on Jackson when he was alive, like Buddha Stretch.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
Let's start with the obvious: Over the weekend, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a joint album, Everything Is Love. Bey and Jay also dropped a video for the album's lead track, which they filmed inside the actual Louvre museum in Paris (as one does, when one is a member of the Carter family). And the vid features not only thought-provoking commentary on the Western art tradition, but also some really incredible dancing.
So, who choreographed this epic? And who are the dancers bringing it to life in those already-iconic bodystockings?
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
This week, New York City's Joyce Theater presents two companies addressing LGBTQ+ issues.
When most people think of dance students, they imagine lithe children and teenagers waltzing around classrooms with their legs lifted to their ears. It doesn't often cross our minds that dance training can involve an older woman trying to build strength in her body to ward off balance issues, or a middle-aged man who didn't have the confidence to take a dance class as a boy for fear of bullying.
Anybody can begin to learn dance at any age. But it takes a particular type of teacher to share our art form with dancers who have few prospects beyond fun and fitness a few nights a week.
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).