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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.
In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t blogged at all about this season’s So You Think You Can Dance. At first I was feeling bad that I was letting my readers down, but this is my blog, not yours, and let it be known that I am taking a break from TV right now. It’s not so much an intentional thing, but a time issue. I am in either rehearsal or class pretty much every night and weekend day. When I’m not dancing, I’m spending time with the real life human beings that I care about– my husband, my family, my friends. Real life rocks and I’m enjoying every minute of it. Given the choice, I’d rather be dancing (or at least participating in the dance of life) than watching it on a little screen.
Philosophizing aside, maybe the excitement of these shows has worn off for me. After so many years where dance was not the thing to do on TV, it was so thrilling to have shows like SYTYCD that brought dance back to the awareness of the public. Now we have almost reached a saturation point where there is a dance show on pretty much every network and channel, of varying quality and target demographic. I think it is great. There used to be just one or two nights where I could watch the one show on TV where people danced. That’s why it was so sacred to me not to miss it. In some ways, it also inspired me to want to dance more and dance better. It also in some measure inspired me to seek out real life dance watching opportunities, to delve into the distinctions and overlaps between art and entertainment.
We are now in the fourth year of this era of dance on TV. The public is now more educated about dance, and hopefully that will translate into inspiration to dance and see dance in real life as well. Judging from the number of blogs and blog posts that have exploded on this topic in the last year, the dialogue is alive and well.
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?
Ok, I’m four days late, but better late than ever
First things first. By consensus of my readers, the mysterious circle-worshiping necklaces are apparently wireless microphones. It’s a sneaky way to do it and explains why there was some creative accessorizing with scarves this week to try to disguise them. Yes, the viewers have caught on. Seriously, half my traffic this week was driven by folks googling “step it up and dance circle necklace.”
My assessment of Step It Up and Dance‘s episode 4 was summed up by Nick this week, when he said “twenty years of ballet class down the drain.” Read the rest of this entry »
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
….just not in a blogging mood lately. I sometimes have phases where I’d just rather be dancing than writing about dancing. If I didn’t feel like doing either one, then I’d be worried. Did anyone see Step it up and dancelast week? I’m hoping to catch it tonight and I’m hoping it will be awesome.