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.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
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On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.