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Where Credit is Due

Why aren't choreographers of musical theater given enough credit for their contributions?



published Friday, March 22, 2019

 

Dallas — While watching FOX’s Rent Live! this year, I kept commenting on the blocking and choreography and how instrumental it was in keeping the actors’ energy alive while also moving the show forward. There are many aspects of the televised version that are debatable, but the point of this article is not to contribute to that, instead, it is to highlight the work of a member who was not easily identified. When you view a musical, you can probably name the director, or are at least given that information quickly, but can you name the music director, set designer, lighting designer, or choreographer? More than likely not. With Rent Live! for example, I had no idea who was responsible for the choreography. I had to Google the answer—which was Sonya Tayeh—and that got me thinking about how we forget how many people are working on a show and what their roles include. 

Regarding Rent Live!, Tayeh’s choreography for stage and camera were some of the strongest elements in the show. She created work that made the actors look good while dancing and her ensemble (which she was allowed to handpick and something that very rarely happens) proved the essential nature of having professional dancers involved in a musical. They gave committed, physical, and emotional performances that elevated the show’s key songs and anthems. Tayeh managed to stay true to the iconic nature of the show while adding a new layer of honest, raw, and gritty movement. As the choreographer, Tayeh’s role was to maintain the intimacy behind the story and the depth of the characters, but also to make new connections between songs and intertwine physical storylines to create exciting dance numbers—a task that is extremely difficult and sometimes undefinable and underrepresented.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Danielle Georgiou

Which brings me to the question at the basis of this article: what is the role of the choreographer for stage and in the rehearsal room? In my experience, the job revolves around helping the director achieve their vision for a scene or sequence. The choreographer can start to become the director’s subconscious, able to predict what they want to happen next and how they want to accomplish an acting moment. They develop a vocabulary of movement specific for the work, allowing them to build cohesively the energy of the scenes.

Many times, the dance corps (if there is one) are professionals who can pick up material quickly, but in smaller markets, choreographers work with actors with limited movement training. The job then becomes part teacher, part artist. You have to design movement that fulfills the director’s requests, elevates the narrative, and can be performed with confidence by the actors. You have to walk into the room prepared to meet them where they are, put them at ease and gain their faith in your ability to make them look good. Once this happens, you can then create movement scores utilizing their natural skills. This has to be done quickly and accurately because there is rarely time for intense rehearsal, technique training, and editing. Many theater seasons are structured with the same amount of rehearsal time for a musical as there is for a play, and so choreographers are expected to be prepared with a final product, and to quickly pull out fresh, original movement in a variety of styles while also positively coaching the actors toward their best performance.

It is a challenging position and one in which it can be difficult to continue to find joy in the exhausting nature of the work. It wears on the body, mind, and soul. Choreographers are commonly thought to be the person in the background, slipping notes in when they can, and asking the dancers and the actors to accomplish physically challenging feats. However, what you do not usually see is all the preparation goes into creating a 10-second transition, a short fight, or a 3-minute-long dance number that could get cut at any time. The inner monologue becomes one that is full of questions: Is the work good enough? Am I good enough?

Maybe it’s just me, but the subjective quality of choreographing for musical theater is a minefield of stress. This stress can become crushing—as it can for anyone in the performing arts world. It is difficult to remember that your work is not precious and that a cut to a show is not personal. As most artists can attest to, there is a high expectation of perfectionism you can’t turn off, and when cuts or notes come, it’s hard to remember that is not about you, and it becomes easy to slip into the shadows and fall into periods of doubt. At times, maybe that’s the mindset of all theater positions – wading through the doubt of subjective failure. Fortunately, theater is simultaneously full of people pushing to make life better!

Over the last couple of years, there have been an abundance of new conversations about the mental health of dancers, and our industry is recognizing the effects of the historically silent nature of dance. “Dancers are more vulnerable to mental health issues than non-dancers,” according to a study published by Psychology of Music. They experience high levels of psychological inflexibility because of the high physical demand, inherent body image issues, and perfectionism associated with the genre. They also retreat into a non-verbal feedback loop which contributes to apprehension about failure. This can connect to anxiety and depressive symptoms. While more research on how the rigorous study of dance affects the mental health of children, adolescents, and adults is occurring, there less research available on the mental stability of choreographers. The fear of failure, the need to “get it right the first time,” and the unrealistic standards that choreographers set for themselves can bruise their self-confidence. The solemn atmosphere and rivalries within the field can lead to avoidance, dismissing thoughts, maladaptive perfectionism, or having unhealthy amounts of self-criticism. Again, theater makers are paying attention to these symptoms, and finding new solutions.

Dancers are starting to find their voices and to state when they need to take breaks, and how they require opportunities to embrace their emotions instead of repressing them. For establishing and demanding these new practices, it is time to celebrate our modern choreographers.

While we can name some of the most notable choreographers in stage history—Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille, Twyla Tharp—in the past, you would have needed to love the history of musical theatre and dance to be able to name a choreographer. As the dance world changes, theatres are moving toward better recognition for their movement coaches. This is huge, as it encourages more and more people to think about choreography as a mandatory element for their productions.

This production of Rent Live! is a perfect example of how dance can inspire the audience to think and engage in a conversation with the work. Dance can add elements that the words cannot express; moving bodies create meaningful experiences and generate alternative knowledge. By utilizing the interdisciplinary nature of dance, what develops is an embodied sense of knowledge. Giving the audience a deeper theatrical experience, dance creates a new way to approach theatre for the actors and other collaborators.

Choreographers bring new insight and perspectives into the rehearsal room and onto the stage and like they say in Rent, there’s “no day but today” to start appreciating a new way to approach dance on stage. Choreographic contributions are “good enough” for today’s stages, and you, my fellow choreographer, are better than good. You are great.

 


» Sixth Position now appears on the fourth Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com.

» Danielle Georgiou, Ph.D., is a dance educator, critic, and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) whose work focuses on ensemble-building, devised work. She is a professional dancer and choreographer working in contemporary dance and theatre. 

 

 

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Where Credit is Due
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