Superb choreography stars in Broadway shows


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"Come and meet those dancing feet," warbled the cast of "42nd Street." But dance fans have been doing that for decades, experiencing the high-bounding energy that drove Broadway musicals in production numbers, ballets and featured solos.

It was a familiar scenario in the pre-Internet, pre-"So You Think You Can Dance" years. Even this Pittsburgh dance fan periodically got her fix growing up with frequent visits to the Great White Way. And right now there has been an unparalleled collection of musicals with a heavy-duty crossover between Broadway and "serious" concert dance from a trio of great American choreographers who made their reputations by setting experimental trends but who easily made the leap (or grand jete) to the Broadway arena.

It will not last much longer -- Twyla Tharp's "Come Fly Away" closed Sunday and will set out on a national tour by next March; Bill T. Jones' "Fela!" heads for London in November and will close on Broadway in January to begin its touring; and Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story" will begin touring (with a stop in Pittsburgh next March) while sustaining an open-ended Broadway run.

Notice that all three director/choreographers are listed here with their names above the titles and deservedly so. There was a time when the choreography was regarded as entertaining filler, composed by "dance directors." Ironically it was a step up when those artists began to be regarded as choreographers, although Julian Mitchell, a member of the Ziegfeld Follies organization, was arguably the first in a line of director/choreographers in the early 1900s.

Neo-classic ballet choreographer George Balanchine might have "only" choreographed "On Your Toes (1936)," but in constructing the signature "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet and other dances within the show, he elevated the dance to a new level by connecting to the direction and the musical score in a sophisticated way. Gradually choreography came to aid the dramatic progression of the plot in the 1940s, most notably in "Oklahoma!," choreographed by Agnes de Mille.

But it was Mr. Robbins, a ballet choreographer convinced that whoever controlled the movement controlled the musical, who first proposed "West Side Story." He set the table for other director/choreographers like Bob Fosse, Gower Champion and Michael Bennett.

This trio of musicals offers an unparalleled perspective of an American art form and what these three acknowledged geniuses can offer the Broadway stage. What did Mr. Jones, Mr. Robbins and Ms. Tharp bring from the concert stage to a much wider audience? And did it change their collective creative processes?

"West Side Story"

"Fancy Free," a ballet about three sailors on leave in New York City, was Mr. Robbins' first attempt at choreography. He was a member of Ballet Theatre (forerunner of the American Ballet Theatre), a young company that championed American subjects for a European art form. It was a huge success and inspired his first Broadway attempt, "On the Town," the next year.

He would go on to alternate between Broadway and the ballet before joining New York City Ballet. He exhibited great range in ballets like the zen-influenced "Watermill" and "The Cage," a scary little ballet described as "a man-killing bunch of spidery females" by Robbins' biographer Deborah Jowitt. However, a large chunk of his ballets were abstract ("Dances at a Gathering," "The Goldberg Variations"), although laced with the kind of congenial camaraderie found in "Fancy Free."

Despite his long and varied career, some consider "West Side Story" to be Mr. Robbins' pinnacle of success. This iconic musical has had several Broadway revivals, along with numerous regional and high school productions. It is regarded as one of the most difficult musicals, given the technical complexities to be found in the dance, music and drama and the delicate balance between the three.

So how does the choreography hold up after more than 50 years?

In the original, a 1957 twist on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" that replaced the Montagues and Capulets with two warring New York gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, Mr. Robbins was reportedly very excited to tackle Latino rhythms. Those numbers at the gym and in "America" held up best at the performance I attended in August.

Mr. Robbins' structural choreographic talents also captured the sweep of the city and the passion and energy of youth in the segments between the gangs at the beginning and during the rumble. Only the Jets seemed to be going through their paces in "Officer Krupke" and "Cool."

He went on to craft a highly popular "West Side Story Suite" for the New York City Ballet, further blurring the lines between Broadway and ballet. For his uncanny ability to do that, Mr. Robbins stands alone among American choreographers, and "West Side Story" is a must-see for its historical value.

"Come Fly With Me"

Ms. Tharp was regarded as an experimental choreographer at the start of her career, turning loose-limbed squiggles into beautifully composed modern dance. But imagine everyone's surprise when she was hired by The Joffrey Ballet for "Deuce Coupe," set to music by the Beach Boys. As it turned out, she had a real feel for the American landscape, able to elevate a pop art sense to a true art form.

The opinionated choreographer stuck to her guns, only venturing into fame via a celebrity partnership with ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. And when she did take on Broadway with the Billy Joel-inspired "Movin' Out" in 2002, it wasn't much of a surprise at all.

Like Mr. Robbins, she retained artistic control by shaping the story, directing and choreographing. Her loose-limbed squiggles were still there but enhanced with broad-based swirls and athletic dance maneuvers to appeal to that wider audience.

"Come Fly With Me" isn't in quite the same choreographic category as "Movin' Out." It doesn't have the dramatic sweep or rhythmic punch created by Joel's surging music. After all, Frank Sinatra can render an uptempo tune or caress a ballad, but his sophistication can also have a soothing effect.

"Come Fly With Me" was also more impressionistic as it followed several couples and their developing relationships. It was no coincidence that she assembled this particular cast, many of them accomplished veterans of ballet (John Selya, ABT; Keith Roberts, ABT, Matthew Stockwell Dibble, Britain's Royal Ballet) and modern dance (Karine Plantadit, Alvin Ailey; Holley Farmer, Merce Cunningham Dance Company).

They brought perspective and maturity, both hallmarks of Sinatra's singing. And it was obvious that she wanted to plumb the depths of Mr. Sinatra's style further, for Ms. Tharp ventured into that territory on several occasions -- "Once More Frank" (1976, partnered with Mr. Baryshnikov) and "Nine Sinatra Songs (1982)," performed by various couples (seen at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 2006) or condensed for one couple (1984).

While it was designed as an exploration of ballroom styles, it seems that this time Ms. Tharp literally used "That's Life," almost an Apache dance and the dramatic highlight of "Nine Sinatra Songs," as a starting point, a reason to delve into the psyches of these couples.

She began with facial masks, the kind people present in social situations, and began to strip away the emotional layers along with some of the clothing. Ms. Plantadit's tattered solo to "One For My Baby," in which she crawled across the floor, along with her duet with Mr. Roberts in "That's Life" probably earned her that Tony nomination this year.

The dances held up as a technical display full of bravado and could be enjoyed by many on that level, but the emotional material, which could have led to a more satisfying experience, didn't always provide a substantive tissue.

Still, this was another dancers' dream concocted by Ms. Tharp and worth seeing for some great dancing.

"Fela!"

Mr. Jones is the newcomer in this trio, having made his debut as choreographer and Tony winner for the seamless naturalism of "Spring Awakening" in 2009 and backing that up with a Tony for choreography in "Fela!" in 2010.

He has always had a dramatic sensibility about his choreography and never shied away from political statements in works like "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/Promised Land," about racism, faith and represson, "Still/Here," based on terminal illness, and "Blind Date," inspired by the Iraqi war.

But Mr. Jones was never considered a "black" choreographer -- He drew from life itself, tackling difficult topics to which we all could relate. Yet, like Mr. Robbins, he chose to conceive "Fela!," probably attracted by the political and musical nature of the material. It is based on a legendary Nigerian singer who pioneered Afrobeat, and through that, he became a political activist.

The musical, produced by the likes of Jay Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, is set in Fela Anikulapo Kuti's nightclub, where Fela, played by Kevin Mambo at the performance I attended, is backed by a band (the wonderfully gritty Antibalas) and attended by a bevy of strong and beautiful women called the Queens.

Although the story touched on issues of race, sexuality and gender that clouded Fela's life, the movement and music were the heartbeat. The cast came alive with undulating bodies weaving a rich fabric of the West African dance style.

While call and response (clapping, singing, imitating movement) are part and parcel of African performance, Mr. Jones created a truly interactive evening in which the audience felt that this was happening in real time.

Because he employed a narrative sense without a direct story line, "Fela!" was a completely new package, a sensational show that will inspire others to a new way of thinking. And Mr. Jones is only getting started. Apparently he has shown an interest in Broadway projects based on the cult film "Black Orpheus," Motown's Berry Gordy, the camp film "Superfly" and the Indian film, "Monsoon Wedding."


Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net . She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.


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