C’est Le Ballet: Dance in Contemporary Musical Theatre
The last few years have been an interesting time for dance in contemporary musical theatre. Are ballet and the dance-focused musical coming back in style? Christopher Wheeldon’s An American In Paris comes to mind most immediately for its Best Choreography Tony this past season, but does it point towards a bigger trend? Sure, musical theatre dance and tap are always around (I shouldn’t have to point anyone to Sutton’s Anything Goes Tony performance, but just in case, click here), but there was a time when ballet, modern, and other forms of dance held a place in shows not just in the middle of group numbers, but to be taken as a piece of the narrative. Not that there’s anything wrong with tap or musical theatre dance – I got swept up in the Newsies craze too – but there’s something interesting about both classical and modern styles having a place on Broadway.
Only 15 years ago, Susan Stroman’s stunning 3-act “dance-play,” Contact, stole the Tony for Best Musical, raising both complaints and support and ultimately resulting in the creation of the (now retired) Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. And of course it was Balanchine (yes, before founding the NYC Ballet, he did musicals) who, while working with Rodgers and Hart, brought the term “Choreographer” into musical theatre, replacing the title of “Dance Director.” Agnes DeMille’s inclusion of a ballet in Act 2 of Oklahoma! completely changed the way dance was used in musicals for the longest time. In the famous dream ballet in Oklahoma!, dance actually acts as a narrative device as opposed to eye candy. Shows like The King and I, Seven Brides (the production at Regents Park in London this summer made great use of contemporary movement), and Carousel all use large movement sequences to show shifts in character or make poignant statements. The use of dance in that way seemed to go away in musical theatre post A Chorus Line, but it seems like it’s coming back.
Last year, for instance, while An American in Paris was already well into performances, Ahrens and Flaherty (Ragtime, Once On This Island) were at the Kennedy Center working on Little Dancer, a show that tells the story of the little girl who modeled for Degas’s famous sculpture. The production starred Tiler Peck, a dancer with NYC Ballet, and was riddled with beautiful and expressive classical dance, again choreographed by Stroman (check out the opener).
Or on the other end of the spectrum, the recent off-Broadway musical Here Lies Love not only utilizes the disco genre as an aesthetic, but is also staged as if in a disco – the action happens amongst the mosh. We don’t exactly think of the original production of Spring Awakening, which won the Tony for Best Choreography, as a “dance” show, but the intricate modern movement (a la “Mirror Blue Night”) and the staging of microphones and concert performance used movement as something more powerful than most musicals of the ’00s. And of course, Mia Michaels of So You Think You Can Dance fame choreographed the contemporary dance of Finding Neverland, working with one of SYTYCD’s winners, Melanie Moore, who is now playing Chava in Fiddler on the Roof – what I would do to see the “Little Bird” ballet with her dancing!
With shows like On The Town, Little Dancer, Cats in London (I know, I know, it’s Cats, but go listen to Kerry Ellis slay “Memory”), and even Hamilton incorporating modern, visceral, and hip hop inspired movement, it looks like dance is coming back as something more integral to the plot than a throwaway tap number. Whether you prefer to park-and-bark or if you have a killer switch-center, one has to appreciate the blending of art forms into something special. There’s a certain kind of agency in a character who narrates in motion; “When Words Fail,” if you will, sometimes only the most primal of expressions will suffice. The modern dance community has no doubt grown and experienced a boost from the internet age and the ability to see others’ work; is this perhaps the root of this resurgence of ballet and movement-based narrative? Regardless, I will gladly watch 2009’s Tony performance of “Dance at the Gym” on repeat until the next big movement comes along.
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