Where do you begin when choreographing a show?
Every choreographer has their own style, their own process of creating choreographing and becoming inspired which, is unique to them. Even if they were mentored by another choreographer, you find your own voice and process pretty quickly when venturing out on your own. For me, when beginning with a new show, I always dive into the text first. I'm a story driven choreographer so personally, I really want to be informed by the script, time period, surroundings, and given circumstances. I research the time period to study the dance culture, vocations of the time era and the specific location where the musical takes place. I study video (if available) and pictures to understand mannerisms, clothing, common articles and everyday objects of the time…even hairstyles. For me, it is critical my choreography advances the plot of the story. Otherwise, there is no point. When working on choreography, I am always wearing my directors hat as well, to make sure my story meshes with the director's vision for the show. Once I have a clear understanding for myself of the story we want told, I finally begin listening to the music. However, again for me, listening to the music is even technical when beginning. I make cuts, edits, count my eights, and create my story board. I get all of my technical work out of the way, then I can sit back, relax and daydream from an educated and informed point of view. Finally, I get up on my feet and begin piecing together my story and playing with choreography. A lot of times I even invite my dancers into my final pre-production process at this point, to try things out with them. I love this collaborative process as well, it really helps to inform them as well as me.
Having worked on several classic musicals from Oklahoma to West Side Story, how do you handle such iconic choreography while making it your own?
It really depends on whether or not I have to recreate original choreography, do a mixture of the original and my own, or if I am not required to do the original choreography and I am able to start from scratch.
If I am required to recreate the original, I have to find a way to see the choreography and staging as though it were my very own choreography. The estate will send you a "Bible" of the choreography and staging mapped and written out. Really, it is just words, arrows, and lines on a page. It is my job to pull it from the page and breath life into it. It can be tricky, but for me, I find when I do the same research I always do when creating my own original choreography, it helps me to create passion for the work I am recreating, as though it were my own. Even if I know the choreographer's legacy well, I still research and watch videos of them working, speaking, dancing or being interviewed. To hopefully get into their head and to get a sense of the passion that drove them to create the work. It really is my favorite part of the process.
If I am doing a mix, it is the same but then I have to decide with the director's vision and guidance, how much of the work will be original and how much will be mine. Is it 70/30, 50/50, 30/70, 20/80...? And which iconic moments do we agree need to be recreated and which reinvented. Once I am in the world of the original choreography, I create my new original work in a style so as the two mesh and hopefully it is very difficult for the audience to know where one ends and another begins. I actually had someone come up to me, after a recent version of West Side Story I choreographed, which we used a 30/70 split with 70% of my own choreography. This person was saying how much they loved the use of the original choreography, and pointed out specific moments they "remembered" loving from the original. I didn't have the heart to tell him those were my original moments and not original choreography. However, that is when I feel I have done justice to everyone's vision or expectations; the director, mine, the audience's and the the legacy of the original choreographer's work.
Again, when I am given free reign, I can delve into my own process and envision a new and exciting world for our show with my own choreography, while collaborating with my director's overall vision.
Where do you draw your inspiration for a show like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? Can you give us a tease on what audiences should expect for the dance numbers of this show?
Inspiration comes from my research; time period from hair and clothes to vocations and landscape...period dances of the time, mannerisms. This will be a rough and tumble, exuberant romp...I mean, 7 brothers? Can you imagine? The energy on that stage! But I can't wait because it will be really fun to also explore the brothers' developing a gentle side, as the women begin to influence their sensibilities and love begins to blossom. It's gonna be a show you won't want to miss!