Looking for Morality? These Days, Try Broadway Musicals
What do you go to a musical for? The singing and dancing, a great story, and charismatic performers, right? But this season a clutch of new musicals are flaunting something else: a moral compass—and compassion. A colleague of mine suggests that our increased awareness of this has to do with our post-election state of mind, and, in a time when compassion seems scarce, some of this season's new musicals are coming to the rescue.
In Bandstand, the story accumulates a sense of compassion about the six World War II vets who try to start a band together. The turning point is when Julia, who lost her husband in the war, writes a song that tries to understand and commiserate with these guys and what they've been through—even though she herself is wracked with grief. Titled "Welcome Home," the song describes the personal hell each vet endures in the wake of their war experiences. The song turns out to be the hit that the band needs to succeed.
Anastasia with Derek Klena and Christy Altomare, photo Matthew Murphy
Anastasia, set in St. Petersburg during the Russian revolution, tells us about Dmitry and Vlad, two down-and-out guys who cook up a scam to train a street sweeper to pose as the missing Anastasia of the royal family (shades of My Fair Lady). But it ends with generosity on the part of both the once-powerful Dowager Empress, who grants Anastasia her freedom, and Dmitry, who foregoes the cash prize in favor of his respect for Anastasia (and, well, he falls in love with her).
Christy Altomare and Derek Klena in Anastasia. Photo Matthew Murphy
The engine of Come From Away is the goodwill of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, triggered by the plight of thousands of people diverted there during 9/11. With no hesitation at all, the tiny town jumped into action when 38 passenger planes arrived, full of 7,000 tired, needy and frightened people. With understated heroics, they disrupted their own lives to provide for people in need. And all were changed by the experience.
Come From Away, Rodney Hicks, center, photo by Matthew Murphy
Only one of these is a big dance show (Bandstand, directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler), but all three linger in the memory for the compassion that shone out like a light from the stage. It has often been said that aggression is a natural human instinct. But kindness and compassion are equally part of our DNA. And it takes a moral compass to corral those feelings and apply them to life's decisions. For my eyes, that kind of sincerity brings a certain luminousness to the stage.
Yvonne Rainer's Parts of Some Sextets (AKA "the mattress dance") hasn't been revived since it premiered in 1965. Nor has Rainer had any wish to do it again, to ask performers to heave 10 mattresses around while carrying out 31 tasks that changed every 30 seconds. It was an unwieldy, difficult dance. (Even the title is unwieldy.) But Emily Coates, who has danced in Rainer's work for 20 years, became curious about this piece and was determined to see it again—and to dance in it. She will get her wish November 15–17, when the mattress dance will be performed as part of the Performa 19 Biennial.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.