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Category — Dance

How Do Dancers Recreate the Cotton Club?

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (center) and co-stars

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and co-stars

Inside the lives of two After Midnight stars

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

Since previews began last October, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards has danced and sung her way through almost 250 performances of After Midnight, the Jazz Age revue at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre that celebrates the legendary Cotton Club. Whether she’s tap dancing on a set of rotating stairs or belting the apartment-life blues in “Raisin’ the Rent,” she’s channeling the essence of the iconic Harlem nightspot.

But it takes serious work to conjure that spirit. For one thing, Sumbry-Edwards isn’t often asked to deliver the same show eight times a week. “In my line of work, a lot is improvised,” she says. “When I go tap dance [at] places, I very rarely have a set routine. I sometimes don’t even go in for a sound check. ‘I don’t want to see the band. I don’t even want to know what kind of band it is. Let me just go and feel it out.’ But this is not that kind of party.”

Instead, After Midnight, whose seven Tony nominations include a nod for Best Musical, is a consciously sculpted tribute. The setlist zips from classic songs (“Stormy Weather,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) to splashy dance numbers to spoken excerpts of Langston Hughes poems, and the onstage band (better known as the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars) serves every riff like polished pros.

That’s not to say the show feels stodgy—quite the opposite, in fact—but it does feel precise. It’s clear we’re watching a crafted event, not a free-form improvisation.

“But it’s wonderful to be able to work this way, too,” Sumbry-Edwards says. “We’ve settled into the characters and the storytelling, and of course the camaraderie that we have with each other is growing.”

Desmond Richardson echoes that idea. Another of the show’s featured dancers, he solos during a seductive ballet set to Duke Ellingston’s “The Mooche,” and when the band performs a ditty called “Peckin’,” he’s part of a fully synchronized quintet. It’s hypnotic to watch the five men move in unison with each other and also in time with the music, and it’s no wonder Richardson’s connection with his fellow performers has grown so intense. “It’s so spontaneous and so real,” he says. “We tend to listen to the band, and they listen to us. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. When they’re up there with you, you can find the energy you need.” [Read more →]

May 29, 2014   1 Comment

Who Is Balanchine in the 21st Century?

Ashley Bouder & Amar Ramasar

Ashley Bouder & Amar Ramasar

New York City Ballet dancers reflect on their co-founder’s legacy

This week, New York City Ballet opens its spring season with a dozen ballets by 11 different 21st-century choreographers. That’s an impressively diverse collection of artists, but the modern focus means that dances by George Balanchine, the company’s co-founder, will spend a few days off the roster.

Granted, no one is questioning Balanchine’s stature as one of the most important 20th-century choreographers, and NYCB will present a substantial number of his works later in May. But as the company’s repertory has diversified in recent decades, one wonders: How do current NYCB dancers view their progenitor’s contributions?

For an answer, consider Ashley Bouder and Amar Ramasar. Both are highly contemporary dancers, often chosen by visiting choreographers who create works on the company. However, they are very clear about why they wanted to be part of this troupe.

“The majority of us still come into the company wanting that Balanchine and [Jerome] Robbins repertory,” says Bouder, a principal dancer since 2005 and one of NYCB’s most fearless technicians. “I think his ballets—and the way we approach them—are very current. Choreographers today are still massively copying that kind of energy and movement, and things that Balanchine invented. I think this company has a very strong sense of its history, so we know how old the ballets are. But then when you dance them, they certainly don’t feel old-fashioned at all.” [Read more →]

May 1, 2014   3 Comments

Stephen Petronio Dances on the Cutting Edge

Stephen Petronio Company dancers

Stephen Petronio Company dancers

For its 30th season, Stephen Petronio Company looks forward and backward at the same time

Stephen Petronio’s choreography intermingles discipline and wildness, with an underlying structure that gives his dances heft. In landscapes where danger lurks amid beauty, there’s always something significant at stake.

What’s more, these stakes always feel immediate. Petronio’s dances resonate with the moment in which they are created—reacting, responding, and commenting in fascinating ways. A cutting-edge group of collaborators, including visual artists like Cindy Sherman and composers like Laurie Anderson and Rufus Wainright, also helps his work speak to our time.

To that end, Stephen Petronio Company’s 30th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater (April 8 – 13) will careen forward even as it engages with the past. The major premiere on the program, Locomotor, explores the idea of “traveling forward and backward through space and through time.” He’s also made a new solo for himself, Stripped, that investigates the specific possibilities of a mature male body. [Read more →]

April 4, 2014   No Comments

Five Decades of Dance in Just Three Weeks


Michelle Fleet & Robert Kleinendorst

Inside Paul Taylor Dance Company’s ambitious new season

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches—the generous collection of 23 dances the Paul Taylor Dance Company is performing during its season at the David H, Koch Theater. Created by Taylor over a span of 53 years, they include the world premiere Marathon Cadenzas, as well as as Fibers, a 1961 work that has not been performed for half a century.

For the audience convening at Lincoln Center through March 30, this extensive array of Taylor pieces demands careful scheduling. For the company’s dancers, it means three weeks of quick costume changes, shifts between celestial loveliness and maniacal ferocity, and intensely physical performing that they can’t get enough of.

“He’s got such a great sense of musicality,” says Robert Kleinendorst, who’s been with the company for 14 years. “What I really appreciate about Paul is that he’s not a slave to the music. He lets the movement do a duet with it. You’re dancing with the music; the music and the choreography are partners in the best sense. Not one or the other is in control. It’s so freeing to dance that way.”

Majoring in musical theatre, Kleinendorst initially took dance classes with that in mind, but his focus quickly shifted. As a graduation gift, his parents paid for a Paul Taylor summer intensive, after his dance professor suggested he had the right build for the company. “After the first day, I knew that was all I wanted to do. I’d only seen his choreography on video, but once I felt it on my body, I knew,” he says.

He made his way to New York, took classes at the Taylor School, danced with Taylor 2, and then joined the main company. His robust energy, invigorating spontaneity, and natural comic skills will be on view in the numerous works he dances this season.

Heather McGinley came to five company auditions before she was hired in 2011. She wanted to dance Taylor’s choreography from the first time she saw it performed, as a high-school senior studying ballet in St. Louis. “I felt completely transported into the world that Paul made,” she says. “What always kept me coming back to the next audition was how I felt doing Taylor’s movement. It’s very full-bodied and satisfying. I always feel like there’s something to really sink your teeth into.” [Read more →]

March 13, 2014   No Comments

When Boxers Dance (and Dancers Box)


Terence Archie & Andy Karl

How fighting and dance combine in Broadway’s Rocky

The new musical Rocky, now on Broadway at the Winter Garden, incorporates everything you’d expect from the classic film about a down-on-his-luck Philadelphia fighter who boxes his way to glory. The iconic run up the stairs, the climactic battle between Rocky and Apollo Creed, and even snippets of “Gonna Fly Now”—they’re all present and accounted for.

But it’s the movement of the boxers—a fascinating blend of dance and fighting—that reminds us we’re in the theatre, not the cinema.

Behind all the punches (and the groovy 70s numbers) sits an unpredictable team of Broadway choreographers: Kelly Devine and Steven Hoggett. Devine, of Rock of Ages fame, has a knack for high-energy sequences that pop with sass and pyrotechnic kicks and turns. Hoggett, whose diverse projects include Once and Peter and the Starcatcher, crafts phrases built largely on pedestrian movements that evolve into transcendent gestures.

Once this partnership was in place, the duo searched for performers who could maintain their agile dancers’ minds and move like authentic boxers. The choreographers say that while both dancers and boxers have intrinsic body awareness and an ability to memorize movement, the similarities end there. “We had to find dancers who could flip a switch to go from choreography to boxer movement that’s more about shifting weight than pretty shapes,” Devine says.

This proved challenging both in group numbers and when working with principals. “We’ve had this ongoing creative process where our two leads have to learn the choreography, then unlearn it and do it as boxing, and then find the middle ground between the dance and the fight,” says Hoggett. “It can’t be too heavily in the boxing arena because that increases the risk of injury. But if it looks like solid choreography, we’ve lost the battle, too.” [Read more →]

March 12, 2014   No Comments