If you've ever seen Larry Keigwin's work, you probably guessed that he's a fun guy. His choreography is cheeky and humorous; unexpected and electrifying. And though his aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, there's a touch of that classic modern dance style that makes his partnerships with troupes like Paul Taylor Dance Company and Martha Graham Dance Company so fitting.
His musical taste is pretty similar: eclectic feel-good bops from the contemporary (Justin Bieber) to the classic (Dionne Warwick.) He made us a playlist of the songs that make him move, whether in the studio or in his bedroom:
If you studied at the American Dance Festival in the last 84 years, you may be in for a major treat—and an incredible career opportunity. As part of its 85th-anniversary season, ADF is seeking choreography submissions from alumni of its Six Week School and Three Week School (formerly the Four Week School for Young Dancers).
Idina Menzel and company members. All photos by Joan Marcus, Courtesy If/Then.
If there are any great tappers in the ensemble of If/Then, the audience can’t tell. If there’s anyone with a dazzling balletic line, no one will know. What’s clear is that there are eight triple threats singing the demanding score by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), dancing Larry Keigwin’s casually pervasive choreography and portraying dozens of New Yorkers who intersect in one way or another with Idina Menzel’s lead character, a city planner newly returned to New York after her divorce.
As two of her possible destinies unfold simultaneously, the ensemble weaves in and out of the stories without ever stepping into anything that could be isolated as a “number.” Keigwin’s choreography has been seamlessly integrated into the show, and ensemble members Stephanie Klemons, Curtis Holbrook and Joe Aaron Reid say that the process asked more of them than any of their previous Broadway gigs.
Klemons, a native New Yorker who grew up in New Jersey, has In the Heights and Bring It On on her resumé and regularly assists Andy Blankenbuehler. Holbrook grew up tapping at his mother’s San Antonio dance studio and booked his first musical, Footloose, at 17, subsequently dancing in All Shook Up, Xanadu and West Side Story. And Reid performed in Chicago and Catch Me If You Can, among others, after training in the Rochester, New York area. Keigwin has some Broadway experience, but he’s spent the last 10 years running his popular contemporary dance group, Keigwin & Company, so he came to If/Then with a somewhat unconventional pedigree.
His approach, Klemons says, “was very different for us.” She points out that choreographers who work mainly with their own dancers over the years develop a kind of shorthand; for a Broadway ensemble working together for the first time, “it was challenging to understand his language at times.”
Reid, noting that If/Then is his sixth Broadway show, says previous choreographers all relied on familiar Broadway terminology. “They say, ‘Do this, do this, do this,’ and I will regurgitate that. With Larry it was a matter of getting him to really express what he wanted to see and feel and try to translate that into what I know how to do."
Holbrook didn’t mind not hearing “Do this, do this, do this.” Most of the time, he says, Broadway choreography exists before rehearsals begin. “You come in and they tell you exactly where you’re going and exactly what the phrase of movement is going to be. You’re there to execute that as best you can. With Larry, it’s really been about ‘What is the vocabulary of the show?’ It took some time to figure it out, and it was actually pretty thrilling to be a part of that process.”
Klemons agrees. “He asked of us something really generous: He asked us to be creative performers, not just parakeets—‘Here’s an idea, now you run with it.’ And while we’re not used to that in this world, it was really generous of him to say, ‘I trust that I’ve hired people who can take this idea and complete it for me.’ ”
Says Reid, “At the end of the day, it was very rewarding, because I feel I grew as a performer. I don’t think I’ll go work in the concert dance world anytime soon, but my eyes were opened. The dancers in the show got to work with a concert-dance mentality and really try to feel each other. Instead of ‘It’s-a five, six, seven, eight, hit this, go,’ we learned to live and breathe in an organic kind of world.”
The process was at times arduous. Director Michael Greif and the authors didn’t want the dance to be too dance-y, and Keigwin was frequently asked to simplify the choreography. “It had to be movement that Idina or Anthony Rapp, who are really singer-actors, could join in,” says Klemons, “and that dancers like myself could do right next to them and not look like we were over-dancing it. We spent a lot of time re-choreographing."
But all three agree that it was worth it. “In other shows,” Reid says, “it’s about the principals doing their scenes, and then you come out, do a song and dance and go away. The great thing about this is we’re dancing, but it’s not a chorus where everyone has to look alike.”
“What we’re doing,” notes Holbrook, “may have actually come from me, or one of the other dancers.”
Ensemble: 5 men, 3 women
Swings: 2 men, 2 women
Number of roles they understudy: 13
Choreographer: Larry Keigwin
Dance captain: Stephanie Klemons
Warm-up: None—even Klemons doesn’t bother. “Since it’s not physically demanding, there really is no warm-up. I do not, nor have I seen anyone else, warm up.”
Above: Keigwin watching a rehearsal.
Though Larry Keigwin is best known for his work in contemporary concert dance, he’s no stranger to musical theater. After Keigwin choreographed the off-Broadway revival of Rent, director Michael Greif invited him to work on the Broadway production If/Then. Opening March 30, the musical stars Tony Award winner Idina Menzel, who plays a woman hoping to start a new life in New York City. Candice Thompson spoke to Keigwin about how he transformed his provocative, pop culture–influenced style for the Broadway stage.
What drives your choreography for If/Then?
Everything is about moving the story forward. If/Then takes place in contemporary New York City, so the movement is very pedestrian. There is a lot of walking and patterning. I wanted the performers to have a very human quality onstage, so that they are not extraordinary technicians, but real people you see on the sidewalk.
The production ran in DC first. What was that like?
It is a luxury that in Broadway, you have time to develop the work after seeing it in previews. But I think there is also something really refreshing and spontaneous about concert dance. You make it in the studio and it goes up very quickly—the process is instinctual.
Are you tweaking anything before it heads to New York City?
The changes I’m making are certainly a reaction to the preview audiences, but mostly my reaction to the story. I realized that I had given the performers movement, but the next layer is injecting that with a motivation. So instead of running for four steps, they are hailing a taxi for four steps.
Above: Idina Menzel (center) in If/Then. Courtesy The Hartman Group
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the process?
Detachment. Being willing to let go of any preconceived ideas because on Broadway, you work through many drafts. When you create for concert dance, the score is set. But in a new musical everything is up for change. We have a subway scene and at the end there was a musical loop that got cut. I had to let the dance go, even though it was my favorite moment. You have to remember the show is not always about the dance.
You’ve mentioned before that you are interested in creating a dance-focused musical. Is there more theater in your future?
Oh, god, yes! I think this project is a stepping-stone. It’s in the extreme near future—I’ll say the five-year plan.
Photo of Larry Keigwin by Matthew Murphy, Courtesy Keigwin + Co.
Every year the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers hold a rousing powwow on the Lower East Side. A New York troupe founded in 1963 by a group of Native Americans, the Thunderbird dancers represent a variety of nations descended from Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago, and San Blas peoples. They are not professional, but they’ve handed their dances down from generation to generation. There’s the Caribou Dance (from the Inuits of Alaska), the Buffalo Dance (from the Hopi of the Southwest), and a Jingle Dress Dance (from the Northern Plains). Come see how softly and rhythmically these dancers tread on the earth. Theater for the New City, Jan. 25 to Feb. 3. See www.theaterforthenewcity.net/programs. —Wendy Perron
Raymond Two Feathers (Cherokee) in an Eagle Dance. Photo by Lee Wexler, Courtesy TNC.
Celebrating American choreographers, Gotham Arts Exchange brings a slew of groups to the Skirball this month. They include the NYC companies of Larry Keigwin, Kate Weare, Pam Tanowitz, Karole Armitage, Aszure Barton, and David Parsons, as well as non-NYC companies Ballet Memphis, Aspen Sante Fe Ballet, Chicago’s Lucky Plush, and L.A.’s BODYTRAFFIC (see “25 to Watch,” page 48). Find out more at nyuskirball.org. And in a related marathon, Gotham presents the second annual Focus Dance, which includes Camille A. Brown, Rosie Hererra, Jodi Melnick, Eiko and Koma, and John Jasperse (see “Quick Q&A,” page 40) at the Joyce, Jan. 8–13. See www.joyce.org. —W. P.
Mora-Amina Parker of Camille A. Brown & Dancers. Photo by Matthew Karas, Courtesy Gotham.
2 from Tokyo and 1 from Taipei
Japanese contemporary dance can range from Pokemon-cute to butoh- drastic. This month’s 15th Annual Contemporary Dance Showcase: Japan & East Asia features a variety of dance. The Makotocluv dance company from Tokyo offers a “post-butoh” piece entitled Misshitsu: Secret Honey Room, co-created by founder Makoto Enda and former Dairakudakan dancer Kumotaro Mukai. The choreographer/singer KENTARO!!, also from Tokyo, brings his singing-and-dancing hip-hop group Tokyo Electrock Stairs in Send it, Mr. Monster. And from Taipei, Chieh-hua Hsieh’s Seventh Sense, for his company Anarchy Dance Theatre, promises to be high-tech and interactive—and hopefully anarchic. Jan. 11–12 at Japan Society. www.japansociety.org. —Kathleen Dalton
Seventh Sense by Chieh-hua Hsieh. Photo by Shou-Cheng Lin, Courtesy Japan Society.