A previous lab cycle. Photo by Evan Zimmerman/MurphyMade, Courtesy RRR Creative
Choreographic incubator Broadway Dance Lab has recently been rechristened Dance Lab New York. "I found the nomenclature of 'Broadway' was actually a type of glass ceiling to the organization," says choreographer Josh Prince, who founded the nonprofit in 2012.
Broadway Dance Lab's Choreography Intensive. Photo by Whitney Browne
"Go to your choreographers" is the command, and ten 20-somethings sort themselves into two groups at either side of a studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in midtown Manhattan. On one side they become three students gossiping in a schoolroom as another enters alone; on the other, it's a guy sauntering into a club where three women are drinking at a table.
Emma Russo, 25, is in charge there, setting up a romance; across the space, Alexia Acebo, 22, is summoning a popularity contest. Both are working to the same jazzy instrumental version of "Pennies From Heaven."
Bouncing back and forth between the two story lines is Broadway choreographer (and Tony nominee) Josh Prince, asking questions, making suggestions, offering encouragement—half mentor, half mother hen.
Josh Prince looks back to the '60s for inspiration.
Carole King is most famous for the gentle, contemplative songs on her 1971 smash album Tapestry. It transformed her from a composer to a performer, dreamily accompanying herself onstage at the piano. So when Josh Prince learned that the producers of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical wanted to talk to him about choreographing the show, he was a little perplexed.
“What kind of movement or dancing is involved in a Carole King musical?” he wondered. “Dance is not the first thing you think of when you think about Carole King.”
The show, opening next month, follows King’s career from her start as a teenage songwriting phenom in the early days of rock ’n’ roll, through her troubled marriage to her writing partner Gerry Goffin, to her emergence as a star. And the ensemble consists of “singers who move well,” not true triple threats like Prince himself.
Still, he says, “There’s a lot more dance than people might expect.” And he notes that he found a certain irony in the timing of the show, which was offered to him last spring. He was then focused on founding the Broadway Dance Lab, a nonprofit aimed at making choreography part of a musical’s earliest developmental process. “On one hand I am trying to create an organization that showcases dancers,” he says, “and at the same time I’m going to a job that asks me to work with singers.”
The tricky part, they discovered, was not so much learning steps as learning how to do them together. “They have to work as a team,” he says, “the way dancers know instinctively how to work as a team—being in specific formations, with specific gestural elements that have to be stylistically correct. You have to feel each other; you have to create a unified picture.”
Keeping the moves true to the period was another challenge. King and Goffin had their first No. 1 hit in 1961. That was before Prince, 38, was born. When he did his research, he found that “our collective thought about that period is different from what it was. The actual dancing was nothing that we would expect on a Broadway stage today.” He finds it more “elegant and refined” than we might recall, and, he says, “It’s been nice to present the audience with movement that affects them in a subtle way.”
He admits, however, that the most fun he’s had on Beautiful is the “really aerobic” staging of King’s 1962 dance song, “The Loco-Motion.” It was a dance song without a dance, so Prince was free to choreograph his own, based on the twist and the pony and other dances of the day.
This was not exactly where Prince thought he was headed when, at the age of 7, he followed a friend to tap class and “took to it.” Born and raised in Indianapolis, he also tagged along when his mother auditioned for a community theater production of Annie Get Your Gun. She didn’t get the role of Annie, but he ended up playing Little Jake. He danced, sang, and acted his way through school, but never considered a show business career until his junior year in high school, when he had to pick a college and opted for a musical theater major at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
After graduation, he came to New York and got his first job in the national tour of Cats. In his late 20s, he decided to concentrate on acting, moving to Los Angeles and working in television. He returned to New York when he “fell out of love with auditioning and more in love with the process of creating theater.” He’d been directing and choreographing as a sideline all through his performing years. Three weeks after his presentations at the 2007 Dance Break showcase, he was asked to choreograph the Broadway production of Shrek.
The job, his first Broadway choreography gig, came just in time—he’d been going to bartending school. Odds are his bartending career will have to wait.
Dance Captain: one of the show’s swings, Sara Sheperd, who has been in Cry-Baby and Legally Blonde.
Associate choreographer: Alison Solomon, who has worked with Luis Salgado, Andy Blankenbuehler, and Joshua Bergasse.
Biggest number: “The Locomotion,” which features 8 of the 12 cast members.
Influences: the twist, the pony, the stroll, the jerk.