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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."
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.
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.
"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.
When most people think of dance students, they imagine lithe children and teenagers waltzing around classrooms with their legs lifted to their ears. It doesn't often cross our minds that dance training can involve an older woman trying to build strength in her body to ward off balance issues, or a middle-aged man who didn't have the confidence to take a dance class as a boy for fear of bullying.
Anybody can begin to learn dance at any age. But it takes a particular type of teacher to share our art form with dancers who have few prospects beyond fun and fitness a few nights a week.
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."
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).
José Greco popularized Spanish dance in 1950s and '60s America through his work onstage and on screen. Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater's American Spanish Dance & Music Festival is honoring the icon in recognition of what would have been his 100th birthday. As part of the tribute, Greco's three dancing children are reuniting to perform together for the first time since their father's death in 2000. Also on the program is the premiere of contemporary flamenco choreographer Carlos Rodriguez's Mar de Fuego (Sea of Fire). June 15–17, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. ensembleespanol.org.
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Christopher McDaniel and Crystal Serrano were working on Nacho Duato's Coming Together in rehearsal when McDaniel's foot hit a slippery spot on the marley. As they attempted a swinging lift, both dancers went tumbling, injuring Serrano as they fell. She ended up being out for a week with a badly bruised knee.
"I immediately felt, This is my fault," says McDaniel. "I broke my friend."
What's on the minds of college students today?
I recently had the honor of adjudicating at the American College Dance Association's National College Dance Festival, along with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and former National Endowment for the Arts dance specialist Douglas C. Sonntag. We chose three winners—one for Outstanding Choreography and two for Outstanding Performance—from 30 pieces representing schools throughout the country. It was a great opportunity to see what college dance students are up to—from the issues they care about to the kinds movement they're interested in exploring.
Here were the biggest trends and takeaways:
It's summer festival season! If you're feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying array of offerings, never fear: We've combed through the usual suspects to highlight the shows we most want to catch.
Subscription box services have quickly gained a dedicated following among the fashion and fitness set. And while we'd never say no to a box with new jewelry or workout wear to try, we've been waiting for the subscription model to make its way to the dance world.
Enter barre + bag, a new service that sends a curated set of items to your door each season. Created by Faye Morrow Bell and her daughter Tyler, a student in the pre-professional ballet program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this just-launched service offers dance, lifestyle and wellness finds in four themed bags each year: Spring Performance, Summer Study, Back-to-Studio and Nutcracker. Since all the products are specifically made for dancers, everything barre + bag sends you is something you'll actually use, (Plus, it all comes in a bag instead of a box—because what dancer can ever have enough bags?).
barre + bag's Summer Collection