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An alert iReporter caught this tractor square dance in Maria Stein, Ohio on tape. Not only is the sight of multiple John Deeres do-si-doing around each other all kinds of awesome, but also note how each one and its driver are decked out like superheroes. My vote goes to Wonder Woman.
…this evening at the Kennedy Center. It was fantastic. Tonight was all excerps from many different Ailey-choreographed workds and all of Revelations. I don’t know how they manage to keep Revelations to fresh after so many performances (I think they perform it at every single show), but it is always amazing.
It is always a pleasure to watch the Ailey dancers, and not only for the quality of their movement!
More thoughts to come (I promise– it’s written out on paper, I just have to type it up!).
I had such high hopes for NBC’s new show, Superstars of Dance, but in the end it was a disappointment. There were a few nice moments, but ultimately, I turned the TV off before the show ended.
Superstars of Dance is billed as an international dance competition, with categories for solos, couples, and groups. It is hosted by Michael Flatley (aka The Lord of the Dance) and Miss USA Susie Castillo. The executive producer is Nigel Lythgoe, which explained why the whole thing felt like a sort of second-rate So You Think You Can Dance reunion.
Countries represented in the show are the USA, Russia, Argentina, China, South Africa, Ireland, Australia, and India. There is a judge from each of those countries, who must sit out on the voting when their own country performs. I was frustrated that not all the judges were introduced. I would have liked to know what their dance background was. A friend mentioned this morning that it felt like they were trying to make the show into a faux Olympics, complete with the conversation with the dancer and the “coach” afterwards.
A lot of the dancing was sort of ho-hum. Some of it was spectacular but more for a “wow” factor than for artistic quality. For example, a modern/hip hop group from Australia had fantastic tricks and rhythm but it wasn’t anything close to a revelation– more like pandering to people whose ideals of dance are formed by MTV and SYTYCD. Robert Mourain, the one-trick pony we saw doing contortionistic popping and locking on SYTYCD was back representing the US in the solo category; why? Also, talk about perpetuating sterotypes…why are Riverdance-type dances the only ones representing Ireland. Could it be because of Michael Flatley’s role in the show? It was so cheezy.
The two high points for me were the couple representing the US (Eric Luna and Georgia Ambarian) whose partnering skills I really admired, and the Argentine tango. Despite the horrible camera work and mediocre production format, they managed to keep it together and show viewers a peek into their art.
The low points were pretty much all in the solos. In particular, China. The woman danced with such long scarves it was hard to see any body movement. It was supposed to be a traditional folk dance, but it was set to a euro dance beat. The “Zulu” dancer representing South Africa looked more like a Rockette with all the high kicks than any African dance I’ve ever seen (feel free to call out my ignorance here if I am totally off the mark).
Too bad that another dance show has come up short. I’m glad to see so much dance on TV now, but we definitely need a quality increase. Some new faces would be good too. Nigel Lythgoe changed the face of TV with American Idol and SYTYCD, but it’s time for some fresh ideas. On the upside, my Monday nights are still free so I can go to dance class.
When Joshua Buscher speaks of Arthur Laurents, which he does frequently during our brief interview, it is with the reverent tone of a student quoting the teachers of a master. Which is exactly what Laurents is. At 90, he is very much the hands-on director of the legendary icon of American theater– West Side Story– the show he wrote over 50 years ago.
Since July, I have been trying to line up an interview with someone from the production of West Side Story’s revival. By now the play’s publicist and I have become virtual pen pals. After reading that the play would open for its pre-Broadway run right here in Washington D.C. (in the National Theater, the same venue it first opened at in 1957), I was determined to get the inside scoop on it. Through auditions, the New York rehearsals, and finally DC rehearsals, we continued our correspondence. Finally, just days before the opening of the first preview performance in mid-December, I am on the phone with cast member Buscher, who is enthusiastically describing his experience preparing for this historic revival.
What makes this revival of West Side Story so unique is language. Laurents’ late partner, Tom Hatcher, had seen the play staged entirely in Spanish in Colombia and found that it totally changed the dynamics– the Sharks became the heroes and the Jets the villains. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the two gangs somehow,” Laurents told the New York Times earlier this year, by having characters speaking amongst themselves in their native language.
Adding the Spanish into the show 100 percent makes it work,” says Buscher, “It helps so much with the energy of the show– what it does is makes that barrier of the Americans versus the Puerto Ricans even wider. Some of our audience can’t speak Spanish, so they get frustrated,” adding to the tension the audience will feel between the Sharks and the Jets. In case you’re one of those non-Spanish-speaking audience memeers, don’t worry– there will be supertitles. Although some scenes, such as the one preceding America, are mostly in Spanish, he is confident that the acting and dancing will transcend language.
One thing I was dying to know was if Robbins’ choreography would be altered at all for greater cultural authenticity. Would the Puerto Ricans be adding some bomba or plena sabor to the dance numbers? Then again, no reason mess with a good thing (no, make that an amazing thing — West Side Story is in my book, hands down, the best dance musical ever, and the best music musical, for that matter). So what if the choreography of America is more flamenco than salsa? Joey McKneely, the reproduction choreographer did change some of the blocking and spacing in the piece to underscore the culturally adversarial give and take between the homesick girls and the girls that are trying to become Americanized (which explains why Anita will at times break into English even with her compatriots). It will be more about that interaction than an “and now folks, here’s the big dance number” performance to the audience; but Robbins’ choreography will remain intact.
This will be Buscher’s Broadway debut. He is Diesel, the “meathead” of the Jets– a surprise not only to me– going by his angelic headshot and cheery voice– but also to his family and friends. “It was kind of a process for me to get into that because I’m not really a meathead,” says Buscher. “But he’s come to life and it’s great. When we do the rumble scene it’s awesome. It’s very empowering for me to jump on stage and be able to protect the guys that are behind me.” Late bloomers, take heart. Although Buscher was a gymnast in his youth, he didn’t start dancing until he got to college, realizing it was important to his development as an actor. The audition process for West Side Story, which was six months long, really improved his technique. That plus an hour-long barre class before each day’s practice and the encouragement of McKneely and his assistant. “It helps that [Diesel] is a fighter because he’s not the most balletic boy; they did a nice job of casting if I do say so myself,” he says with a laugh.
It is a young company, with many making their Broadway debut– with so much of the cast being made up of teenage gang members, that is a necessity. There are some seasoned veterans, of course, including Karen Olivo (Anita) who was most recently seen in In the Heights. Here’s another familiar face: Step It Up and Dance fans will recognize Cody Green in the role of Riff.
Six-month audition process aside, I want to know the nuts and bolts of getting a Broadway dance musical from studio to stage. “The first week of rehearsals was just dance, that’s all we did,” says Buscher. After a brief meeting with Laurents and the creative team, “literally an hour later we were on the floor learning Dance at the Gym.” Nary a libretto was cracked open for the first full week of practice as the dancers learned all the dance numbers. This allowed the choreography to become second nature so the dancers could focus on acting. Additionally, as lines, songs, acting and blocking were layered on, the choreography gained depth along with the process of character development.
Rehearsals started in New York City, going about six hours a day, six days a week for five weeks. The whole cast moved to DC for the final two weeks of rehearsal. After the dances were learned, important acting moments were added in, and vocal rehearsals. “The way Arthur and Joey McKneely work is they fill it up right in the beginning so you have time to grow,” says Buscher. Additional character development occurred after hours, as The Jets hung out together socially to get to know each other and figure out their relationships in the gang. Quoting Laurents again, he says, “He wants this to be an acting show. He says the dance number’s kind of nowhere if you’re not acting from somewhere.”
By the time the cast got to Washington they felt comfortable enough with what they had to do to start taking more artistic risks. The hard work “pays off when you get the show at a place where you’re allowed to try new things on stage because you’re so comfortable with what you’re doing. That is where a show should be.”
With just hours remaining before his big Broadway show debut, I ask Buscher what we can expect. I’ve been able to tell from the tone of his voice during our conversation that there is a great deal of excitement and satisfaction with the process and anticipation for what is to come.” There’s a very high bar for this show and all of this are taking it on with full force. We are young we are energized and we’re dancing the crap out of this show.”
West Side Story runs through January 17, 2009 at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. Tickets are on sale through Telecharge (800) 447-7400, www.telecharge.com) or at the National Theatre Box Office (202-628-6161 www.nationaltheatre.org. It will open on Broadway on February 23.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a dance video that was filmed in almost a single shot. Video choreography seems to cater so much to close-ups and rapid-fire angle and shot changes. I find the choreography in this video (Beyonce – Single Ladies) a little odd, but it is at least unabashedly so. It’s also quite refreshing not to have to watch yet another closeup of the singer mouthing the words to the song.
Kind of calls to mind this one…
Read the first two installments in this series:
- My First Musical, Part I: The audition
- My First Musical, Part II: In which I am cast, have to make a tough decision, and begin rehearsals
We finally started learning the choreography after a few weeks of vocal rehearsal. It was a very exciting day for me; after all, it was the whole reason I had embarked on this project. Of a cast of 36, five women and two men had been cast as dancers. All but one of the women were significantly younger than me (teens/early 20s), and I was the oldest, and also the only one who did not have years of ballet training under her belt. This became a source of apprehension when the choreography turned out to be largely ballet-based, rather than in a more familiar idiom to me such as jazz or salsa.
In the projects I’ve been involved in, I now realize I was spoon-fed the choreography. The sequences would be taught in small sections over the course of a month or more, going back over each section to make sure it was solid before embarking on the next. On the other hand, our big dance number for the show was taught to us in its entirety in the space of two hours. No doubt this is how the pros do it, but I’m most definitely an amateur and I quickly realized I was going to have to up my game.
We were basically expected to have learned the choreography in that one session. In the next practice, the singing and non-dancing parts were added in. We would come back to a few rough patches just a couple times more, but we never went through the piece more than twice in any subsequent rehearsal. Add to this my own personal paranoias about being too old, too inflexible, too slow to pick up choreography, and too weak ballet technique, I entered a several-week crisis of self esteem. At each practice I thought to myself that there must have been some mistake and they were probably regretting casting me as a dancer. One day, I misread a new version of the casting sheet that was handed out and thought they had replaced me on another dance number due to my poor progress on the first one. As it turns out, I had looked at the wrong line and I was still in there, but my deflated brain was playing tricks on me.
What did I do to address these insecurities and limitations I was mired in? In addition to practicing in any spare moment (at least the parts I could remember without help), I changed my dance class schedule. Rehearsal was four days a week, and on the other days I had the energy I attended basic ballet classes in an attempt to focus my technique and apply any new insights or knowledge to the choreography. I also took every opportunity to ask my fellow dancers questions about the choreography and technique in general. Finally, the assistant choreographer offered me the opportunity for a one-on-one hour in which to polish the combination, which made a huge difference. With just about two weeks to go to opening night, I finally felt comfortable with the choreography, and with just a few days to spare, was able to relax into it enough add my own personal style and be more aware of all that was going on around me.
Why was this such an emotionally trying process for me? Well, there was a lot of truth in my insecurities– it was harder for me than the younger, more experienced dancers. Also, I am a perfectionist by nature and I hold myself to a high standard. Even if my pay or job are not on the line (keeping in mind this is a volunteer, community production and I have no real career aspirations in this area), I always want to do the best possible job I can. I don’t want to let anyone down– not my fellow cast members, not the production staff, and not the people who come to see the show. I don’t want to let myself down either, thinking I could have practiced more or tried harder. That said, seeing myself rise above those barriers in the end made the whole undertaking extremely gratifying. While I’m not the best, I’m my best, and in the end I’m dancing for me, because I love doing it, period.
Stay tuned for more installments on putting all the elements of the show together and the performances.
I said in my last post that I’d be writing about a new challenge I’ve embarked on and the new experiences and lessons that have come with it. What is it you ask? Ok, the title of this post gives it away, but all I have to say, is: Broadway, get ready, ’cause I’m on my way! Not so fast, this is community theater.
A little while back, a coworker who’s heavily involved in community theater forwarded me an audition announcement. They were looking for dancers. The musical, only one of my favorites of all time, was one that I knew backwards and forwards, having listened to the soundtrack a bazillion times with my sister when we were younger.
It was an opportunity I’d sort of been waiting for in the back of my mind. Unless you count being in the orchestra pit in high school way back in the day, I’d never done theater before. A lot of musicals have some amazing dancing, and they look like so much fun. More fun than some of the dance performances I’ve been involved with, dare I say…I figured the dancing in it would be latin-ish, so I might have something to bring to the table. The one catch was that I would have to sing, but my coworker assured me I just needed to be able to carry a tune. That I can do, though I can’t speak to the quality.
Bottom line: I had nothing to lose and figured the audition process would be a fun experience that would fortify me for the future. I had absolutely no expectation of making the cut. In the end, I think this gave me the ability to be relaxed and to be myself.
First, I had to pick a song. I’ve got a low range, so I went with Big Spender from Sweet Charity. Another good choice, as it allowed me to show my sassy side. I downloaded the sheet music and the song and sang along with it a bunch of times by way of practicing.
When I got to the audition I had to fill out a form stating availability, experience, part auditioning for (dancer, of course), and some other stuff including my “age range,” basically the ages I felt I could convincingly portray. I asked about this and was advised to go ten years younger and ten older. As I waited to be called I asked the other auditioners if they had any advice, since it was my first time. “Be charismatic” seemed to be the main tip.
I’d asked my friend if I should dress the part, and she told me not to as you don’t know what they have in mind, so it’s best to be a blank slate. When I got there, all the women seemed to be wearing red dresses (going with the latin-ish theme). Though I was dressed to dance, I was also funnily enough wearing a red shirt with black pants.
We were brought into the audition room in a group of five. I was to go last. As each person finished their audition, they left the room, so I actually auditioned in front of the judges only. I’m not sure if that helped my nerves or not, but I focused on charisma, and tried to move as naturally as I could while singing, despite having noticed the others stood still while they sang. Then again, none of the others seemed to be trying for a dancing part. A couple sashays and arm flourishes actually elicited a couple saucy “oohs” from the judges so I think that tactic worked. After the singing, the judges were most concerned about rehearsal and performance conflicts. One girl immediately got cut because she would be in Greece for a month during rehearsals (duh). After that was verified, each person was asked to do a chaine. Except for me– they said since I was a dancer I obviously knew how to do chaines and I could do choreography during callbacks.
I was a little miffed that I was all dressed to dance and couldn’t even do a chaine, but also a little psyched because it seemed I was making callbacks. Sure enough, the call came pretty soon that I was to attend callbacks a few days later. That’s when I started getting nervous. I hadn’t actually planned on making it that far!
At the callback, all those trying out for lead and dance parts had to learn a combination. It was moderately challenging and technical and took me a couple times to learn fully. Definitely more ballet than latin. I thanked my lucky stars I’ve been going to ballet class lately. Thinking back to the advice I got, I tried to focus on charisma, and on really nailing the moves that felt natural to me. It was impossible to tell what was going on– there were a number of expressionless judges and they kept assigning people to different places in the lines and moving the lines back and front. I have no idea how they kept track of anything, nobody even appeared to be taking notes. They may have been but it almost seemed they were going on memory alone.
I should note that there were tons of women that auditioned and not so many men. The dancing of the men left, for the most part, much to be desired. It was clear that as usual, the fiercest competition in dance is among women.
After the dancing portion, everyone else was brought into the room and we had to sing an excerpt from one of the show’s big choral numbers. No harmonizing was required, and the director moved rather quickly through the room to see how each person was blending with the group. Again, no visible note taking. I have no idea how they did that with so many people trying out. It was eerie.
At that point the audition was over. . .I honestly had very few expectations for myself. Not because I thought I did a bad job, but because I’ve never done theater before, and there were so many people auditioning I didn’t know if I’d stood out or would meet their casting guidelines. Still, I felt hopeful to have the opportunity for a new experience, and for a musical I love so much on top of that.
Stay tuned for the next installment to see if I got the part!
The First Season of Step It Up and Dance concluded last night. I was very impressed by all four of the final contestants. Each one truly had their own unique style and I enjoyed everyone’s choreography.
Cody won, and I definitely wasn’t surprised. He has been the most consistent throughout the season technique-wise and in handling all the challenges. His solo was stunning. He moves like a cat– very fluid– and at times looked like he was flying.
At the same time, he was the most predictable winner. Miguel takes the most risks both artistically and generally (as evidenced in the flawless job he did on the sprained ankle). His style is unique and entertainment/tv-wise he has something really interesting to offer. I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing him on tv again soon.
I enjoyed Mochi and Nick’s solos a lot– nothing bad to say and lots of good things to say– but this wasn’t their night. Perhaps, even though they took a lot of personal risks, they were too safe in the end. Mochi got an awesome consolation prize of winning a spot in Akon’s next music video. Nick would be completely at home on Broadway.
I enjoyed this show moderately and I hope they do it again, with some of the issues ironed out. For example, winning and elimination groups have got to go– everyone, save possibly whoever is immune– needs to be up for elimination every time. Also, less pressure has got to be put on the contestants in terms of choreography. Bring in more guest choreographers– and hopefully not some of the usual suspects. Get some people from the art world that would benefit from the exposure and educate the public about good choreography. Finally, there need to be more opportunities for standard technique to shine in the first episodes.
What are your thoughts on the show– in terms of both the overall show and the winner?
I am very much a visual learner, and very much not an auditory learner. When I’m driving, the navigator must point– “left” and “right” are completely lost on me when split second action is required. The same goes for choreography; the typical ballet class practice of verbally listing the sequence in a combination rather than actually demonstrating it inevitably ends in a train wreck for me.
My learning style requires me to rely on copying, which I can do virtually simultaneously. I try to stand as close to the instructor/choreographer as possible for this reason.
I have never been able to do fouette turns (or even a single one). The other day when I was mindlessly copying the choreographer in a rehearsal, I realized that I had just perfectly executed one. For the record, I have since been able to reproduce it, so it wasn’t a fluke. It seems that my body needed to get the feel of it once, and now I’ve internalized it. Yay for harnessing my learning style!
If you’re not sure what your learning style is I found a simple quiz online that will help you figure it out. It did confirm that I am a visual learner.
And, for the benefit of my family and others who may not appreciate how cool it is I can now do a fouette turn, here is what it looks like:
I’ve been hoping to get a little more insight on his work, so I was thrilled when Helanius Wilkins, Founder and Artistic Director of Edgeworks Dance Theater, the DC-based all male dance company, agreed to answer a few of my questions. He’s been busy preparing for this weekend’s performance at the American Dance Institute, so he took my questions via email.
Maria: Let’s get the cliched question out of the way: influences. In past conversation you’ve mentioned Horton, Ailey, Bill T Jones, and martial arts as either influences or training grounds. Have you been dancing all your life? What motivates and inspires you?
Helanius J. Wilkins: While I have not been dancing all of my life, dance has always been a part of me. I do not feel that I chose dance, it chose me. It is a calling – and my career is the result of something far deeper than simply making the choice to dance. Life motivates me to dance. What I do is about life experiences, observations, and a quest to know and understand more in order to contribute to the shaping of a more socially just world.
M: In Cold Case, you faced head-on some of the brutal realities of race and racism in America. Can we expect the same frank treatment of sexuality and spirituality in [your newest work,] the determining factor? Where does this honesty come from?
HJW: Absolutely, I have no issues with addressing some of today’s most difficult issues. I believe that we are in a national crisis on so many fronts. Unless we become proactive about confronting these issues, things will never change. … The honesty comes from not being afraid to take risks – not being afraid to ask questions.
M: Community involvement was part of the foundation for the determining factor. How did that part of the process go and did it take you in any unexpected places?
HJW: Yes, the determining factor is in part the result of community collaboration. This collaboration was very enlightening, humbling, and exciting all at the same time. I have walked away with so much…And the journey is just beginning. Yes, unexpected places were a constant in the process. This made for a truly moving and wisdom filled experience.
M: In addition to the acclaim you have received for your work as an artist, it seems that you have attracted recognition from funders as well (your website has a long list of funding, recognition, and honors), including your recent feature of the Catalog of Philanthropy. Nonprofit management skills are key to making the jump from artistic genius to recognition and success. How have you balanced your choreography, teaching, and management responsibilities? What advice would you give to nascent dance companies looking build themselves as an organization?
HJW: Keeping my art first, staying connected to my passion for what I do, and being strategic about everything has been/is the key to the balancing of my responsibilities. These very things are the things I would also share with an emerging organization/artist.
M: You’re about to make your NYC debut (as a headliner) and have already had success touring domestically and internationally. What do you feel sets EDT apart to garner the attention it has, and what do you want the world to know about your work and your dancing? What are your plans for the future?
HJW: There are many things that I believe sets EDT apart from other companies. From being DC’s 1st all male contemporary dance company of predominately Black men to being the second in the nation of its kind to being a company focused on the often misunderstood voice of the african-american male. As much as our work is serious and honest it is entertaining and it reflects the stories and feelings of real people – real lives. Plans for the future: One step at a time.
You can see Helanius Wilkins and Edgeworks Dance Theater in a preview performance of the determining factor this weekend, May 2-3 @ 8pm at the American Dance Institute in Rockville, MD.
For tickets, go to www.americandance.org
I was finally able to catch Bravo’s new dance show, Step It Up and Dance, tonight during its first showing. The nice thing about Bravo is that they rerun shows a lot, so I’ve been able to watch the first two episodes as well.
This show is definitely starting to grow on me and I really enjoyed this third episode.
SIUAD (as I shall hereafter call it…pretty ugly acronym if you ask me but the whole title is too long to type) follows the tried and true Bravo reality competition show formula that started with Project Runway. The host is a model/actress type, there is a middle-aged male mentor, and several judges– 2 fixed the others rotating. There is generally some sort of fast challenge in the first part of the show which will determine things such as teams and immunity for the second, longer elimination challenge. Someone is eliminated each week, but not before the show’s proprietary goodbye catchphrase and final instructions by the hostess. Project Runway and Top Chef have pretty utilitarian final instructions to the effect of “now go pack up your shit (i.e., knives/sewing supplies) and leave.” SIUAD’s is the painfully contrived, “It’s time for your last dance.”
SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN EPISODE THREE AND DO NOT WISH TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED OR WHO WAS ELIMINATED