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This New Musical Honoring Donna Summer Features An All-Female Ensemble Playing Both Men and Women
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.
Women even portray some of the leading male characters, like Summer's first producer and songwriting partner, Giorgio Moroder. Co-writer and director Des McAnuff wanted a musical drenched in glitter and androgyny, like the disco era itself. The show, which opens this month at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is the third hit-parade musical Trujillo has done. In 2005, he tracked the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys, which moved to an off-Broadway theater after 11 years. A decade later came On Your Feet!, the Gloria and Emilio Estefan story that's currently on a nationwide tour.
Summer may resemble those productions, but Trujillo says it's deceptive. He won't call them "jukebox musicals," a term he reserves for songbook shows where "a sort of contrived story is written around the music." He classifies the pop-star musicals he's choreographed as autobiographical, because, he says, [paraphrase "we are actually telling the story of the artist."
For Summer's, the challenge has been "finding a vocabulary that vacillates between the sexes from number to number, and asking the dancers to find within them a specific way of moving—not to be men, but to have a mystery in the way that they move."
Summer also tells the story of a period—"an exuberant era of music and life and fun," Trujillo says. Starting with "Love to Love You Baby," in 1975, Summer churned out hit after hit until 2010, releasing singles and albums that inspired gyrations across the globe. The show includes some two dozen of her songs, but leans heavily on the '70s, those fabled disco years in which Summer's music reigned supreme.
PC Kevin Berne, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown
It's a period that's especially meaningful to Trujillo, who moved to Canada from Colombia in 1976, at the age of 12. "I had been listening to all-Latin music—Celia Cruz and Tito Puente," he recalls. "But when I arrived in Toronto, it was the height of the disco era, and my cousins, who were already there, were heavily into the scene. One of them was a disco-dance champion."
Now he's setting the dances on his all-female ensemble and the three women playing Summer at various stages of her life. The first thing he did was call dance cobbler Phil LaDuca to ask for a special pair of shoes.
"I said, 'I need to know exactly how it feels when I'm choreographing for these women.' So he built me these fabulous boots with three-inch heels, and the minute I start rehearsal, those shoes are on. I've had instances where somebody says, 'I can't do that.' And I say, 'Okay, let me put my shoes on and I'll show you that it's possible.' "He's not just rearranging moves remembered from his teenaged disco outings with his cousins. "It's not going to be a disco museum piece," he asserts. In fact, it couldn't be—Trujillo points out that without a codified style, disco allowed dancers many choices, including whether or not to dance with a partner.
The crucial element, he says, is freedom. "Donna had her own way of moving," he notes. "She had rhythm and was very expressive in the way she felt the music." Self-expression and joy, he says, were the point. So for Summer he stayed away from the partnered hustle moves, except for "hints now and then," in favor of solo dancing.
With its ambisexual casting and disco-flash extravagance, he says, "It is not like any of the other shows I've ever done." The aim, Trujillo says, "is to re-create the joyous time of disco, and what it meant, through the lens of 2018."
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit:
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.