Reimagining a Classic
Holiday Inn pairs tap shoes with jump ropes and firecrackers.
Corbin Bleu and Bryce Pinkham play song-and-dance partners Ted and Jim. PC Jenny Anderson, Courtesy Polk & Co.
It didn't take much to put Denis Jones in a 1940s frame of mind for Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical. “A lot of my esthetic is informed by that period," notes the choreographer. “To say I was an admirer of the golden era of film musicals as a child is like a crazy understatement—I was actually obsessed with them. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, the whole gang."
Astaire, of course, was in the original Holiday Inn, the 1942 movie that paired him with Bing Crosby in the story of song-and-dance partners who split up when the singer buys a farm. He soon realizes his property is more suitable for an inn, which he decides will operate only on holidays—thus the name, appropriated a decade later by the hotel chain. Holiday Inn's gimmick was less a plot point than an excuse for a slew of landmark Irving Berlin holiday songs—think “White Christmas" and “Easter Parade." There was also a dance classic, the Fourth of July number in which Astaire's tapping is accompanied by exploding firecrackers. The Broadway version, playing at Studio 54 until January 14, retains these iconic numbers and adds other Berlin tunes to fill out the story, reworked by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge.
Greenberg, who is also the director, has collaborated frequently with Jones—this is their fifth show together, and Jones' second outing as a choreographer on Broadway. (His first was the sadly underappreciated Honeymoon in Vegas.) After prior iterations in Connecticut (at Goodspeed) and Missouri (at The Muny), it's arrived on Broadway under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company, with Bryce Pinkham, of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder fame, as the singer, Jim, and Corbin Bleu, of High School Musical fame, as the dancer, Ted. Jones sees a great advantage to working with an institutional theater like Roundabout: “We know we're running at least till January," he says. “Having a guaranteed run takes a certain amount of pressure off."
But the pressure and pitfalls of reimagining a classic remain. “In most cases," Jones says, “our treatment of various songs is quite different from what was in the movie." There are also new contexts for songs that weren't in the movie. “Dancing Cheek to Cheek," which Berlin wrote for Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, is now a big ballroom number, which Jones tackled without recourse to the original. The song comes at a point in the plot that allows Jones to transform this quintessentially romantic number into rambunctious comedy. “But in something like 'Easter Parade,' " Jones notes, “it would be reckless not to have women parading in beautiful hats with the gentlemen in boaters—that is what the song is."
Jones revisits yet another indelible Astaire number, the firecracker dance, which is said to have required 38 takes to shoot. “It's one of those moments from the film," he says, “where if you don't explode some firecrackers for people, they will be annoyed with you." New York's fire marshals wouldn't countenance actual firecrackers in a crowded theater, so Bleu's firecrackers are simulated with technology. But there's nothing simulated about his expert tapping. “You want to deliver, as best you can, a theatrical version of what the film did so beautifully," Jones says. “The audience comes in with a certain expectation, and we certainly shouldn't disappoint them."
Jones, who started tap very early, feels particularly at home in the style. “It was my first love," he says. And tap shoes fly—sometimes literally—throughout the show. In the Christmas Eve scene, when Jim's showbiz friends arrive to help decorate the inn, they cheer him up with “Shaking the Blues Away," from the 1948 film Easter Parade. Christmas-tree garlands become dance props, and the ensuing tap-dance/jump-rope number brings down the house. The stage throbs with seven dancers courting disaster, twirling garland jump-ropes and skipping and tapping simultaneously.
“Their safety is of utmost importance to me," Jones says. “...But I do like danger. I'm attracted to things happening onstage that are surprising, that verge a little bit on danger." Of his rope-skipping tappers, he says, “I'm so impressed that they're able to accomplish that." But he knows that sometimes they won't.
“If you create a number where there's jumping ropes and juggling, throwing things and catching things," he concedes, “occasionally something's going to go wrong." And he tells the dancers, “Don't be afraid of that." Of course, he wants them to get it right. But if now and then they don't, “That's fine."
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.