Dallas — Michele Lynch, the choreographer of the tour of the musical Dirty Dancing, based on the 1987 hit film, talks to TheaterJones about translating the movie's iconic dancing to the stage. The tour is currently at the Music Hall at Fair Park, courtesy Dallas Summer Musicals, through July 5; and opens at Bass Hall in Fort Worth to run July 7-12.
Theaterjones: How did you come to be involved with this production of Dirty Dancing?
Michele Lynch: The production has been around for 10 years with a choreographer from Australia, Kate Champion. She has her own company in Australia and was unable to keep working on this. The producers looked for someone who was sort of experienced with new shows, and they brought me in. It was exciting! I’m such a fan of the movie.
What were your first impressions of Dirty Dancing the movie? How did it influence you as a dancer and choreographer?
I loved it so much. It spoke so deeply to me, which I think it does to a lot of people. It allows people to express physically their love and their desire. I think we’re all human beings who have those feelings, and that [movie] just made it comfortable and okay to do it. I think a lot of people responded to that, and the choreography in the movie is just spot on because it’s based in truth. It enhances the storytelling. So I definitely think it is both for the choreographer and dancer.
And how did you respond to the characters?
I think there’s a little bit of Baby in me, a little bit of Johnny in me, a little bit of Penny in me, and I can relate to all of them and their points of view of the story. I think other people tend to respond the same way. That’s what makes it such a brilliant story.
It came out in the ’80s about a story in the ’60s, and it’s still timely now. It deals with race issues, it deals with a different kind of love because Baby was young for Johnny. That’s what love should look like.
It’s interesting that you find elements of those characters in you because in other shows, you’ve talked about how you can have your own voice. Also, while you can’t really do that with Dirty Dancing, you don’t mind that.
I still am amazed by my love for it. Usually I come into a job, and I want to put my stuff into it, and do what I do best, is what my choreography is. And yet with this, I have to honor the story first and foremost because it’s already been done and people know what to expect. You can’t change that iconic list. You can’t change a lot of the stuff that works best. Doing it that way, taking you out 100 percent, allows you to create in a different way. It’s sort of freeing not to make it about me. It’s really just honoring the story, honoring the characters, honoring the writers. I’ve really loved it.
How do you inject your own voice in other projects?
I think we all see the world differently, through our own eyes and our own experiences. There are 20 ways to tell a story, if not more. So when I work on other projects, it’s my interpretation of how I see the story being told out. I think that’s what makes it unique to me. Some people’s personalities are bold and out there, and the choreography matches that. Maybe someone more introspective, I think [their dancing] tends to be more quirky and introspective, subtle. I tend to get projects that look like that.
What is your approach to choreography?
I usually do it in musicals, and it’s based in storytelling and the characters. I think the first thing I do is get myself familiar with the story, really figure out who these characters are and what their point of view is in the show, and then I listen to the music so that the rhythms are in my body. This show was easy because I knew all the songs. That’s usually my process, and when I start choreographing, it’s already been infused so deeply in me that the movement will come out of a place hopefully that conducive to the characters, the story, and the music.
And back to Dirty Dancing, can you comment on the juxtaposition between the upstairs and downstairs dancing?
Especially in the ’60s, people didn’t dance really close, with their bodies touching each other. It was much more formal, and the ’50s was that start of sort of the free dancing. The upstairs is the ballroom, it’s the cha-cha, it’s the mambo, it’s the merengue, it’s the tango. Those are very formal based on dances that came in the ‘20s, and [they had a] very specific style, and the hips don’t move a lot with each other.
Then downstairs, the dancers and the staff kids would put on the music and unbutton their [shirts], take out their ties and let their hair down, and just express themselves so freely with the music. Think how people look when they’re free and abandoned. Downstairs has this sort of sensual, sexual vibe going on, and people just expressing themselves. It reminded me of when I was a dancer and we would have our staff parties, and that’s how we would dance. We expressed ourselves physically, very easily. Most of this stuff was taboo for the outside world, but I think everyone has that dancer in them, that dirty dancer. That’s why crowds go wild and want to go home and try it. It awakens that part of us. I think dance is part of all of our beings, and I think our culture is lacking in. I think this show allows people, part of them, to do that and express themselves that way.
It’s 2015, and maybe some of the themes and events in Dirty Dancing are less taboo, but what issues does it still address?
I think it still comments on the issue that [sexual taboo] should be kept behind closed doors, and expressing yourself physically shouldn’t be allowed that way [in public]. And yet you go to clubs or you go to parties, you go to weddings, and people see some of the dirty dancing. I think what’s great is that this movie has given society permission to express themselves this way in this day and age. Again, you can find this at the club, but you don’t find it in mainstream.
What has been your favorite part of the whole process?
I think working with the dancers in all the different styles, because I’ve been in this business now for 30 years and I performed for a long time in all different styles and I choreographed in those styles. In none of them have I had the chance to do this many styles and dance this freely, and choreograph around it. That’s a huge treat, because I just have such a love of dance and the show feeds that love for me in such a deep way.
This show is touring across the country. What subtle things change and stay the same in each performance?
What stays the same are the key moments in the show that everyone loves, “Nobody puts baby in a corner,” The Lift. What’s great is this musical has some new moments that aren’t in the movie, and I think audiences get a thrill from that. What does change is the overall energy of the city. Some cities have rowdier audiences than others, some are quieter. It’s such a joy.
What are you most looking forward to as the tour comes to Dallas and Fort Worth?
I hope that people, especially summer-coming people, come see this, and allow that inner dancer out. Then, they can take this out into the rest of the summer and enjoy themselves a little more than maybe they would have if they hadn’t seen this show. It’s very special. Everyone should go see it. I think it’s special. Especially people who love the movie get their satisfaction from seeing it live. People who don’t know it and are experiencing it for the first time I think have a great time. You always see people leaving the theater, humming the songs, dancing. That’s satisfying. I’ve never been involved with a show like this that has such a huge audience fan base. I think everyone has an inner dancer in them. The show awakens it.