Playwright Choreographers

Photo of The Drowsy Chaperone by Lawrence Peart, University of Texas at Austin, December 2017, Directed by Nick Mayo.

 

By Annette Thornton

Burn the Floor opened for a limited engagement on July 25, 2009 at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway. This Broadway debut was late in coming, since Burn the Floor had been touring internationally since its creation in 1997. (The show, or some form of it, continues to run both in theaters in Australia and Japan, and on cruise ships.)

Prominently displayed on the show’s official website were the words “Ballroom. Reinvented.” as well as a picture of one of the show's producers, Carrie Ann Inaba, one of the original judges on the reality television show, “Dancing with the Stars.” The choreographer for Burn the Floor was (and still is) Jason Gilkison, who was also the guest choreographer on the fourth season of “So You Think You Can Dance” (SYTYCD), a reality-television competition dance show. The 2009 official website offered the following description:

Burn the Floor is a breathtaking blend of Latin and Ballroom dance. . . . It takes audiences on a journey through the passionate drama of dance. The elegance of the Viennese Waltz, the exuberance of Jive, the intensity of the Paso Doble—audiences experience them all, as well as the Tango, Samba, Mambo, Quickstep and Swing. It's Ballroom dance with a sexy 21st century edge. 


When positioned as theatre, this kind of dance-travanganza, featuring dancers and choreographers from the world of reality-show competition, distorts our work in musical theatre dance training. It blurs our students’ thinking about musical theatre dance and choreography. 

The rise of competitive dance studios in hometowns as well as the popularity of reality television programs such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” (hereafter DWTS and SYTYCD) create a range of challenges for many students who matriculate into our musical theatre programs. Trophy-winning freshmen who have excelled in one area, such as lyrical, hip-hop, or even ballroom, may be confused when asked to bring acting choices to their dancing. Although familiar with the ways in which flash, tricks, and skin are used by DWTS and SYTYCD to "wow" an audience, some students may not yet have been exposed to the subtleties of dance as a powerful storytelling medium. While I do not subscribe to museum theatre, my position in this article is that choreographers must reclaim their positions as contributing "writers" of the musical: we must re-embrace the importance of storytelling through choreography, in the historic tradition of Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins as well as the new work of choreographers like Bill T. Jones, Kathleen Marshall, and Steven Hoggett. 

 

Background

Beginning in 1943, with her ground breaking work on Oklahoma!, Agnes de Mille introduced a gestural vocabulary that made dancing an integral part of the dramatic action. In 1957, Jerome Robbins brought Stanislavski’s method to his approach as director/choreographer on West Side Story, and the triple threat performer—one who must sing, act, and dance, all equally well—was born. The next decade was filled with shows that required this kind of performer, from Sweet Charity to Fiddler on the Roof. The demand of this triple threat performer changed in 1967 with the production of Hair. 

In an interview at the Public Theatre, Hair’s co-author James Rado described how the creative team was looking for a special type of person who was “natural” and who had a wonderful voice—long hair a plus. The grueling audition process (several thousand auditioned over a two-month period) was necessary because co-authors Rado and Jerome Ragni and director Tom O’Horgan wanted to create a reality onstage that was parallel to what they saw on the streets and in parks. They identified ‘types’ that did not work: actors that were more legitimate and "real Broadway dancers" because of the way they moved their bodies (Rado 2008). Hair is an important benchmark because the production also ushered in a type of natural movement onstage that swung the choreographic pendulum in the opposite direction of de Mille’s gestural storytelling. The natural movement style in Hair paralleled a more ‘pedestrian’ movement aesthetic that could also be found in the mainstream dance world with choreographers such as Twyla Tharp and Bill T. Jones—and even the late Merce Cunningham. 

More recent choreographic approaches fall in between the two extremes above. What I call a gestural phrase appeared in two productions: Spring Awakening (2006), choreographed by Bill T. Jones, and Once (2012), with movement by Steven Hoggett. A gestural phrase is a series of movements stemming from the characters’ inner thoughts, desires, conflicts, and/or expressive emotion. In Spring Awakening, the adolescents repeat a phrase that includes gestures such as both hands caressing the sides of the face, circling both breasts, crossing over the abdomen, outlining the hips, and finally extending forward and down. This gestural phrase is introduced by Wendla in “Mama Who Bore Me,” then later repeated by other characters during “The Bitch of Living” at an accelerated tempo so that it took on a frenzied feeling. 

In Once, Hoggett created a movement score for the workers in the bank when She and He go to ask for a loan. Three workers are seated at desks, and they begin a gestural phrase that includes reaching movements that are restricted by their confined seated positions. There is a feeling of being trapped at their desks, unable to leave. The reaching goes nowhere, but folds back in on itself and repeats, as if to convey futility in trying. This stagnancy is juxtaposed with He and She's request for a loan in order to record his musical compositions. Unlike the bank workers, He and She are successful in breaking out of their situation. 

Both Jones and Hoggett used gestures to expand upon the narrative aspects of the respective libretto and illuminate the characters’ emotions. In this way, they extend the legacies of de Mille and Robbins by allowing narrative and character to drive the movement choices.

Jones created the movement and choreography for Spring Awakening organically—by asking the performers to say words from the libretto and move their bodies in ways that responded to the word, both in sound and meaning. Jones’s explained his approach: “Dancers don’t question why they do something. But actors need to understand motivation for gesture and movement. For Spring Awakening, I was trying to find a language of rebellion” (qtd. in Sulcas). Jones’s choreographic storytelling was noted by New York Times theatre critic Roslyn Sulcas: 

Mr. Jones’s choreography for Spring Awakening creates a seamlessly integrated, vivid gestural vocabulary that gives force and life to the repressed physical urges of its teenage characters. Only their bodies, it suggests, can express those feelings, for which they have no words. In some ways, it’s a perfect fit for a choreographer concerned with storytelling, the power of gesture and sexual identity. 

 

Hoggett, a member of the British theatre company Frantic Assembly, is more of a movement artist than a dancer. After seeing the play, Black Watch—with Hoggett's movement-driven storytelling of Scottish soldiers in Iraq—director Michael Mayer said he knew that Hoggett was “the person he needed to achieve the kind of non-dance he envisioned for [American Idiot’s] non-stop music” (Gold). Hoggett explained his approach to choreographing American Idiot: “I knew I couldn’t make a show that had MTV-style choreography in it. If you’re going to tackle a Green Day show, you have to stay true to the spirit that made that work. Lines of dancers would have ruined it. . . . Push the story forward. . . . That is what I am about" (qtd. in Gold). Hoggett's work in Once included moments of breath and of stillness, which were a welcome contrast to the spectacle of the other shows (Bring it On, Mathilda, Kinky Boots) running at that time.

 

Challenges for College Training 

My colleague and retired director of the dance program at Central Michigan University, Yvette Birs Crandall, has identified a shift in young dancers’ work habits, which she attributes to the rise in competitive dance studios. As a dance studio owner/teacher in the late 1970s to the early 1990s, I myself felt an increasing pressure to become a competitive studio, an identity that I did not embrace. Although I no longer have a dance studio, I always feel at home in one. However, more and more often what greets me when I enter a studio is not the smell of rosin and sweat, but the sight of a display case stuffed full of ribbons and trophies. 

There are differences between dancers who come out of competitive studios versus those who do not, most notably in the amount of time spent on technique. Competitive studios must, because of time constraints, spend more time rehearsing for performance (improving the dance) and less time developing and perfecting technique (improving the dancer). Instructors may begin the year with a few weeks of technique, but soon classes shift so that, after a warm-up, the teacher's focus is on the specific moves—turn or jumps. Classes become repetitions of the dance for the remainder of the year. 

This primary focus on perfecting the routine creates several problems for students in their artistic development. First, because the dancers spend an entire year rehearsing a single dance, they do not develop the ability to quickly pick up nuanced and character-driven details in choreography. This can result in generalities of movement, and will later harm them in their career when this skill is required for an audition. 

A second issue is work ethic and work habits. Students in competitive studios know that they are going to rehearse the dance each week, so they do not work outside of class. Crandall counters this by expecting dancers to work outside of rehearsal as well as when they are waiting for their time to be onstage. A third issue is this: because many competitive dances are group numbers where all the dancers move in unison, better dancers are often placed front and center to give a better overall impression. Lesser dancers will therefore always have someone more skilled to follow, which reduces their need to fully learn choreography. The tendency to "follow" may also create behavior that is robotic or thoughtless. To counter this, Crandall treats group pieces as solos and requires all dancers to perform the choreography on their own, thus revealing deficiencies in execution or understanding. Finally, the last and perhaps most important issue for the purposes of this article, is that dancers often do not really know what they are trying to express with their movement. Influenced in part by SYTYCD, dancers mostly want to impress with tricks and very athletic movement. Unfortunately, many young dancers have not learned how to translate the idea of the dance into the body and then express the story and the character’s objective through movement. 

Many of the above problems can be fixed with careful guidance, but there is a larger issue facing our young choreographers, who begin their lives as dancers influenced by the aforementioned dance-travaganzas, competitions, and reality TV. Increasingly for them, at this stage in their development, the music and lyrics often drive the movement. Student choreographers have difficulty creating movement that is in contrast to the music. You can see this in SYTYCD, where a "sad" song elicits "sad" movement. As a result, they create movement that is parallel to the rhythm and intensity of the music. Therefore, the expressive and emotional content resides in the music, causing the dancers to follow the music’s rhythms rather than to lead with a strong dramatic purpose. The movement lacks depth. As so beautifully expressed by Crandall in an interview: “Music is the sister art that cradles the movement. When there is nothing in the movement, the music covers the movement and the dance becomes accompaniment.” Implicit in Crandall’s comment is the danger of dance losing its communicative power. In many contemporary dances, if the music is taken away the dance cannot stand on its own. Young choreographers may be obsessed with an image of the movement as opposed to connecting with the inner impulses and sequences of the movement as language or as a communicative tool, techniques which are so vital for creating musical theatre dance. 

Even though families and friends may applaud the extensions and multiple pirouettes of the students, these skills do not automatically translate to a career in musical theatre performance. The critical response was not favorable for Burn the Floor's choreographer, Jason Gilkison. Critic Michael Dale, reviewing for Broadway World, said: 

[I]t's Gilkison's choreography, relentless in its determination to heat up the night with splits, tight clinches, gyrations and hip-swaying that quickly turns the evening into a dull affair. His staging of group numbers—and the show is dominated by group numbers—lacks texture. Routines tend to stay on the same level of aggressive athleticism serving more as skill demonstrations than expressions of artistry. 

Critic David Rooney of Variety, agreed: 

[I]f you're going to invade the turf of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett, you need to bring something beyond adrenaline and aggressive sizzle. Something like grace, style or wit. While there's only about 15 ounces of collective body fat onstage, there's also about 15 ounces of imagination.

Like Cirque Du Soleil's 2017 production of Paramour, the producers of Burn the Floor opened in a Broadway house and invited Broadway theatre critics to review, thus signaling their desire to be regarded as legitimate theatre and not just "dancesport" or circus. But as critics noted, an over-dependence on tricks does not equate to—or replace—storytelling.

 

Playwright
Choreographers

Music theatre historian and critic Mark Grant identifies both de Mille and Robbins as “playwriting choreographers” whose work enhanced the book, rather than the production values. De Mille, according to Grant, is “the person singularly responsible for elevating the role of choreographer in a musical to an authorial level” (260). She understood the need for dancers to embrace the art of the actor, and even offered acting classes. Her onetime dance partner Joseph Anthony said: ‘She was interested in much more than just the steps; they were a means of revealing the person’s character and the quality of their life" (qtd. in Grant 264).

Like de Mille, Jerome Robbins understood the importance of acting. He studied at the Actors Studio. As a director/choreographer, Robbins demanded that each actor support the words, song, and movements with the appropriate subtext of emotion. Like de Mille and her dream ballet in Oklahoma!, Robbins understood the power of movement and dance to express what words alone cannot. The brilliance of Robbins’ work as a playwriting choreographer is revealed in his “Small House of Uncle Thomas” in The King and I. Hammerstein’s original conception was to have a play-within-a-play, much like the dumb show in Hamlet. According to Grant, Robbins stepped into the role of playwright choreographer, transforming Hammerstein’s original idea of a production number into “an ethnologically authentic dance that, through understated Asiatic gestures, paradoxically heightened the emotion” (273). 

Kathleen Marshall stated that she seldom puts triple pirouettes in her auditions because she is really looking for a “brightness” in the dancer:

I look for dancers who are vivid, dancers who are present. Of course, I want strong technique; that goes without saying. But I think many dancers that have strong technique don’t focus on anything else. You want people who are alive, bright-eyed, focused, and energized. I think dancers must be able to adapt to style very fast. I think many times there are dancers who can kick their leg quite high, they can execute triple turns, and leap and jump, but they can’t absorb that style you’re looking for. And I think that’s a very unique talent. 
(qtd. in Cramer 130)

Many of our current students grew up singing songs and dancing dances from Wicked, Disney musicals, and Mathilda. The spectacle of these shows induces an excitement that is palpable to the audience and also calculated by the producers. For example, when little girls dressed in princess costumes go to a performance of Beauty and the Beast, roses are sold in the theater lobby. Even Burn The Floor sells dancewear, DVDs, and accessories. We need to readjust our students’ expectation of what constitutes “magic” in the theatre. Is it just glitter? Or is it the emotional heart of the narrative?

Our second challenge is that we must help dancers become actors and choreographers (who frequently begin their career as dancers) become playwrights. In the text Thinking Like a Director, Michael Bloom introduces a list of key questions for approaching a play: e.g., “What is the story being told? What is the central conflict? What is the present-day significance of the play? Why do you want to direct it?” (80). These questions can be translated to dance and choreography: What is the story being told? What is the idea being expressed? What is the conflict, or tension? What is the release? What does this dance mean to us now? Why do you want to choreograph it? Even if a dance is intended for pure entertainment one must ask, what is the progression of ideas, rhythms, phrases, and shapes? And finally, what do you want to communicate? By embracing and valuing the contributions of playwright choreographers such as de Mille, Robbins, Marshall, Hoggett, and Jones, we can show students what is possible in musical theatre dance. 

Works Cited

  • Cramer, Lyn. Creating Musical Theatre: Conversations with Broadway Directors and Choreographers. Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • Crandall, Yvette Birs. Personal interview. 5 June 2009.
  • Bloom, Michael. Thinking Like a Director: A Practical Handbook. Faber and Faber, 2001.
  • Floor. Burn the Floor official website. http://burnthefloor.com/broadway/faq.html Accessed 5 July 2009.
  • Dale, Michael. Rev. “Burn the Floor: So You Think You Can Sit Through This.” Broadway World. http://www.broadwayworld.com/showtime/. Accessed 10 July 2009.
  • Gold, Sylviane. “Steven Hoggett is the anti-dance choreographer.” Special to The Los Angeles Times, 10 April 2012. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/10/entertainment/ la-et-steven-hoggett-20120410. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017. 
  • Grant, Mark N. The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical. Northeastern University Press, 2004.
  • Isherwood, Charles. “Sex and Rock? What Would the Kaiser Think?” Review of Spring Awakening. The New York Times, 18 Jan. 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/11/ theater/e&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article. Accessed 30 Sept. 2017. 
  • Kisselgoff, Anna. “Dance Review of Still/Here. Bill T. Jones’s Lyrical Look at Survivors.” The New York Times, 2 December 1994. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/02/ arts/dance-review-bill-t-jones-s-lyrical-look-at-survivors.

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