The Accidental Choreographer
Pinkleton (in glasses) rehearsing Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 at ART. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.
Sam Pinkleton has never danced in a Broadway musical. He's never assisted a Broadway choreographer or made a piece of concert dance. He's never even been much of a dancer—“enthusiastic," he says, but “not terribly skilled." Nevertheless, with four big-deal credits coming this season, his career as a Broadway choreographer is thriving: He's doing two musicals, the immersive off-Broadway hit The Great Comet and the more traditional, film-based Amélie; and two straight plays, Heisenberg, the two-character romance by Tony winner Simon Stephens, and Significant Other, Joshua Harmon's comedy about a gay New Yorker looking for love.
“I sort of very accidentally became a choreographer," Pinkleton says. He discovered theater early on, growing up just outside of Richmond, Virginia, and always danced. “There was never a moment where I considered myself a serious dancer," he says. Still, “people let me do things"—things like choreographing his high school show choir. But he saw his path in musical theater rather than dance, and he went to New York University “with big starry-eyed dreams of being a chorus boy." But he quickly abandoned those dreams, realizing that it felt “like a very strange use of how I think and how I look at the world and how I wanted to be spending my time." His change of heart was affirmed when his NYU teachers, many of them former Broadway dancers, told him, “Sam, you're gonna be successful because you have a lot of personality and you work really hard—you'll be fine, just as long as it doesn't involve dancing."
He loved dance, but, he says, “What drew me to it was what happens when your body hears music and nobody's watching—when you let yourself go." He switched tracks, leaving “chorus-boy camp" in favor of NYU's directing program. “I felt an immediate attachment to leading a room and to collaborating," he recalls. He especially liked that “my voice and ideas are made more interesting when complicated by someone else's." And he was lucky, he says, to have flexible collaborators who were open to his movement ideas.
Working on projects downtown and off-Broadway, he amassed both directing and choreography credits. “I started choreographing based on intuition and based on my love for jumping around," he says, “and really not any technique at all. I don't know any of those French words." In 2012, his name first appeared in a Broadway Playbill, as assistant director of The Lyons, Nicky Silver's dark family comedy. In 2014, still in his 20s, he earned his first choreography credit on Broadway, for the mechanical, expressionistic movement in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Sophie Treadwell's brooding 1928 melodrama, Machinal. But he's a choreographer without portfolio. “I love the dance world," he says, “but I can't claim to be a part of it. When people ask me, 'What's your style like?' I have absolutely no idea. Because I work in theater, and it's entirely based on the conversation between me and the material, and me and the director."
He may not have a “style," but he does have a take. He apologizes for sounding “lofty" as he says, “The joy of dance, my way into dance, is about regular human beings—what they can do, and finding the virtuosity in that." Whether choreographing a play or a musical, for a proscenium stage or an offbeat space, he wants spectators to feel one thing: “I am a human being in an audience, whether sitting, standing or hanging upside down. And that is another human being, over there, doing something utterly remarkable." And, he adds, and Broadway will find out, “ 'remarkable' could mean any number of things."
The Great Comet
Dave Malloy's pop opera The Great Comet, coming to the Imperial Theatre October 18, began life in 2012 as Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Based on War and Peace, directed at the 99-seat Ars Nova by Rachel Chavkin, the show garnered rave reviews, including one from Sam Pinkleton, who knew Chavkin and Malloy from “the same downtown circles." The immersive show put the audience in a faux Russian nightclub as Tolstoy's characters surrounded them singing about their passions. “I loved it so much," says Pinkleton. “And I enjoyed the free vodka and sent them love letters and went on with my life." But when he next ran into Chavkin, she told Pinkleton that the nightclub was going to be re-created in a tent in 2013, and that the show was growing to fit the larger space. “She said, 'I need some help moving bodies around,' " Pinkleton recalls. “Neither of us knew exactly what that was going to mean." There had been only minimal dance at Ars Nova, in the ballroom scenes. With six additional cast members, movement “began to take on its own level of value," Pinkleton says. With more rave reviews, Natasha, Pierre then moved to American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We had a cast of 24 and 500 seats and we were doing it in a proscenium," Pinkleton continues. “With so much ground to cover, and so many people, I realized, Oh my god, this is a dance show now." Pinkleton says one of his favorite things is that the audience is “surrounded by the action, and they can't see everything. I had this necessity to make people really dance, and to make sure that, wherever you look, there's something that maybe you've never seen before."
Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:
"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...
Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...
Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...
Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."
Happy National Tap Dance Day!
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.
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
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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Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.