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.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
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.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
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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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.
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?
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.