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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."
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.
"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.
A Jellicle Ball is coming to the big screen, with the unlikeliest of dancemakers on tap to choreograph.
We'll give you some hints: His choreography can aptly be described as "animalistic," though Jellicle cats have never come to mind specifically when watching his hyper-physical work. He's worked on movies before—even one about Beasts. And though contemporary ballet is his genre of choice, his choreography is certainly theatrical enough to lend itself to a musical.
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.
These days, everyone tells you how important it is to be versatile. But what if you're convinced there's just one style that's right for you? It can be tough to balance a deep interest in a single specialty and still meet many choreographers' expectations. Luckily, you don't have to choose between all in or all over the place, as long as you follow your interests thoughtfully.
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.
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.
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.