What’s a Jellicle Cat? Backstage at the Broadway Revival
CATS holds a sacred place in many dancers' hearts. Tackling T.S. Eliot's alternate, feline universe offers a chance to be part of a legacy, and cast members speak reverentially of the show's whimsy and technical demands. Now, in the current revival on Broadway, a new litter is exploring Andy Blankenbuehler's movement layered in with Gillian Lynne's original choreography.
Pazcoguin runs through her solo 30 minutes before curtain. PC Jim Lafferty.
Georgina Pazcoguin: Victoria
Backstory: Also a New York City Ballet soloist, Georgina Pazcoguin is known for exploring unorthodox roles. But although she was always drawn to CATS' theatricality, she never thought she'd perform it. Now she's donning a white unitard as Victoria, the balletic kitten coming of age.
Committing: “CATS is a weird show, so you must be fully committed. That's why we do our own makeup and spend so much time crawling around finding our own cat."
Solo Work: Victoria's iconic solo is filled with endless développés punctuated by twitches and swerves, ending in a Pilates-teaser–like seat. Pazcoguin first learned it from Lynne for a performance with American Dance Machine for the 21st Century last year. “Gillian, an 89-year-old woman, schooled me! I was sore for days. The tempo and control are difficult, and at the same time, Victoria's exploring her own body. The second I start, I think of a waterfall flowing off my body."
Hanes channels his Fosse felinity as Rum Tum Tugger. PC Matthew Murphy, Courtesy CATS.
Tyler Hanes: Rum Tum Tugger
Working With Andy Blankenbuehler: “Andy's brain is always going. He takes this show to a different level. He understands a dancer's body and knows what looks good."
Becoming Tugger: “Since my background is Fosse, with that slink and felinity to it, I'm giving myself permission to be free in that vein. But also, I feel like the character has a mind of its own. Before, I felt like I was trying to emulate Andy to be 'correct.' Now, the movement is coming from a place of character. It's more fun. Tugger dancing is not Tyler trying to dance like Andy!"
Body Prep: Because of the snug costume, Hanes had a clear
vision of what he wanted the character to look like: Adam
Levine. So, he hired a trainer who's helped him to build strength, not bulk, through basic strength-training moves like squats and
Shonica Gooden: Rumpleteazer
Ubeda (left) and Gooden (right). PC Jim Lafferty.
Backstory: Gooden had never seen CATS, but she wanted to work with Blankenbuehler again after performing in Hamilton. “When I watched the video, I thought, What did I get myself into?!" Now, she's fallen in love with the show's themes of forgiveness and community.
Becoming Rumpleteazer: Gooden and Blankenbuehler worked together to make her Rumpleteazer sassier than other versions. “I made her unapologetically part of my culture: Being a black woman, that sass and attitude was naturally coming out. I didn't want to suppress it."
Two-Person Cartwheels: To tackle the tricky double cartwheels with Mungojerrie, danced by Jess LeProtto, the two initially practiced daily during the lift call preshow. “I learned to place my hands on his thighs exactly the same every day. If you hesitate, it's not happening!"
Feline Features: “If I'm relaxed, I keep my fingers closed for a calm paw. But when Grizabella comes on, I open up my fingers for claws and my shoulders tense up."
The Naming of Cats: The cast often calls each other by their cat names. But, there are variations. “Georgina is so spicy in the show, and she has so much attitude. So I said, 'Your name is Lakisha.' It stuck."
Ricky Ubeda: Mister Mistoffelees
Backstory: Ubeda wore out his VHS copy of the London production as a kid. “I cried for three days when I got this part."
Making Mister Mistoffelees: While Mister Mistoffelees is traditionally pulled up and über-clean, Ubeda and Blankenbuehler agreed theirs would be a cooler, more personable cat. “He loves to get the party started, and I have this theory that he teaches the other cats to dance."
Rough Rake: “In rehearsal I had found my flow, but then I got to the rake and cried. Now, I've gotten to the point where I don't fight the rake. If it's throwing me, I just go with it."
Fauré as Demeter. PC Jim Lafferty.
Kim Fauré: Demeter
Backstory: This show was one of the reasons Fauré started dancing. “It was my plan to be in a ballet company for a few years—and then CATS for the rest of my life."
Feline Features: To keep her sophisticated character intact even when she's not dancing, Fauré lies on her stomach, paws crossed and one leg bent.
Body Prep: To handle the demands of the show, Fauré cut out sugar to avoid inflammation and upped her potassium, vitamin B, calcium and magnesium to keep her muscles pliable.
Fame: Tons of fans wait outside to meet the cast, and Fauré thinks it's because everyone can find a cat they connect with. “You can see yourself in the cats."
Corey John Snide and Emily Tate: Coricopat and Tantomile
Tate (left) and Snide (right) danced together at Juilliard before joining the show. PC Jim Lafferty.
Backstory: Pre-Broadway, the two danced together at Juilliard. Now, they play twin cats.
Twin Tales: The twins are clairvoyant, and Blankenbuehler allowed Tate and Snide a large role in creating their movement. “During one moment when the whole stage goes into slow motion, he said, 'I want the intuition to come from your head,' " says Tate. “We created a movement where we take our hands next to our ears as if a thought bubble is popping out."
Bloopers: Since the pair works so closely, snags are unavoidable. Snide says, “One day, my unitard got stuck on her tail, I ripped my arm away and it went flying!"
Duo Details: The whole cast improvises certain sections. But for their version of improv, Tate and Snide have to maintain almost identical movement. Snide says, “The details, the position of our legs and contraction of our backs, are essential to creating the look."
Blankenbuehler updated the choreography, but kept its sensual felinity. PC Jim Lafferty.
Layers of Choreography
When CATS first opened on Broadway in 1982, Gillian Lynne's choreography earned much of the accolades. Infused with jazzy ballet lines, her now-iconic movement struck spectacularly odd shapes to depict energetic, sensual felinity.
For the revival, the team brought in man of the moment, Tony Award–winner Andy Blankenbuehler to add his take. Fresh off Hamilton, he integrated his blend of gestural hip hop and cool jazz into the framework. Fans still find Lynne's trademark portions. But audiences looking for a modern stamp now enjoy details like a techno-fab Mister Mistoffelees nailing tilts in an LED-light jacket. “We don't move the way they did in the '80s," says Ricky Ubeda. “But it's great training to dive into that style and then be balanced by Andy's storytelling choreography."
For the dancers, this combination meant double benefits—and double challenges. To ensure Lynne's portions were tackled correctly, one of her associates oversaw rehearsals. “She'd explain the heart and the direction of those sections," says Kim Fauré. “Then, we could approach the layers of Gillian's and Andy's work more easily."
San Francisco Ballet just announced some major news: longtime Boston Ballet star Misa Kuranaga will be joining the company as a principal dancer for the 2019-20 season, while Dutch National Ballet principal Sasha Mukhamedov will join as a soloist. They join a slew of newly promoted SFB principals and soloists, announced earlier this year.
Akram Khan loves to dive into genres he is unfamiliar with. While his own movement vocabulary is a hybrid of kathak and contemporary dance, he has choreographed a new Giselle for English National Ballet, collaborated with flamenco artist Israel Galván and made a dance theater duet with film star Juliette Binoche. Now, in between touring Xenos, his final full-length solo, and several other projects, he's found time to tackle kung fu. Khan is part of the collaborative team behind Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a blockbuster musical based on themes of migration and the fight for survival, running June 22–July 27. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and featuring a score that remixes songs by Sia, it's part of the inaugural season of The Shed,
a new venue in New York City.