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Agnes de Mille. Jerome Robbins. Susan Stroman. Andy Blankenbuehler. From the early years of the musical theatre, dance has served to enhance, shape and further the storyline on stage. Choreographers like Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins paved the way for some of the current powerhouses like Susan Stroman and Andy Blankenbuehler to create stunning and exciting new dance for musical theatre. Why, then, does musical theatre dance at competition often end up being a throw away category, usually one of the smallest and unfortunately, one of the weakest? It takes ingenuity, intelligence and a willingness to do some extra work to create a winning musical theatre routine. IDA judges, teachers and musical theatre performers in their own right, Jessica Ice and Ashley Marinelli, share their tips and tricks of the trade to choreographing an award-worthy musical theatre dance number for competition.
First and foremost, musical theatre dance should be focused on the story. Jessica Ice, who can be seen performing at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera this summer, says, “Musical theatre dance is when the performer tells a story through dance. I am looking for a story with a strong beginning, middle, and end where the performer has a clear focus to who they are telling the story to and why that story is important to tell. When I teach musical theatre classes, I tell my students that they are dancing to tell a story because words and songs are no longer enough to get their point across. That heightened reality of storytelling is when musical theatre dance is at its best.” Often at competition, most judges will know what musical your song is from, however when conceptualizing your piece, consider that much of the audience might not have a clue who the character is, where in time and space the piece is set, or what the goal of the character is. The choreography should serve to clear up any of this confusion and tell a specific story. Ashley Marinelli, who is currently working as Associate Choreographer at Ogunquit Playhouse, expands on this idea, saying, “I am looking, first and foremost, for a point of view. I want to know not simply what is happening, story-wise, but what your character feels about what is happening. For example, if your character has just broken up with her boyfriend, it is not enough for you to explain to me that the relationship has ended - I need to know how your character feels about it. Is she happy? Overjoyed? Sad? Angry? Satisfied but also a bit hurt? A good musical theater dancer will show me point of view, through both acting and physicality. When you add details of style and technique on top of that, it makes a winning musical theater number in my book.” Whether you are choreographing a solo or a group number, always be sure to make clear to your dancer(s) who they are and what their perspective is.
Just like with most styles of dance, audiences and judges alike want to feel connected to what you’re presenting on stage. In musical theatre dance especially, this can be easy to do when you start with the right direction. Ashley suggests that “to help flesh out a character, have the dancer write a diary entry as their character. Decide what the character’s favorite food is, whether they have brothers or sisters, what a typical day is like for them, how they move/how they dance (hint: it may be different than the way you/they move/dance) and make sure the style matches the story they’re telling (a.k.a. if your character is talking about being shy, maybe a big expressive style is not the right choice). Please avoid leaps, jumps, kicks or turns unless they help develop their character’s personality.” Nothing is more jarring than when an otherwise appropriately choreographed musical theatre number is taken over by seemingly arbitrary à la seconde turns. Fight the urge to put in tricks or highly technical choreography if it doesn’t serve the storyline. Ashley continues, “Make sure you can go through your dance and identify why your character is doing each step. Does this leap indicate your character’s joy? Does this fall to the floor indicate your character’s frustration? If you come across a step that has no meaning other than “I wanted to do a turn sequence here”, get rid of it and do a step that helps tell the story instead. I think that, in a musical theatre solo, there is no need to do “tricks” or be “flashy” unless that’s part of your character’s personality. In short: make sure your choreography matches the story you’re telling (in style as well).”
Musical theatre dance has a specific style, no matter if we’re talking about “Hamilton” or “Hairspray”. Today is perhaps the best time to be alive in terms of being able to explore different styles. “Study the musical theater greats!” insists Ashley. “Watch Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, and the people choreographing on Broadway now! Style is super important, and useful for characterization, and you learn style by watching. YouTube is a fantastic tool, and not something my generation had growing up, so thank your lucky stars and go watch!” Musical theatre is, of course, best when you experience it live in the theatre, and Jessica says, “SEE MUSICALS THAT COME TO YOUR CITY. Touring shows play all over the country and can be accessible to a lot of dancers and dance educators. Could there be a more fun way to do research than seeing a live show?” Additionally, many touring shows work with companies that source the cast out to teach at studios in each city. Students and teachers can benefit from learning choreography from the show from the people performing it each night.
It’s safe to say that many competition judges have the same pet peeve about musical theatre dance - lip syncing. As in, they don’t like it. Now, this is not across the board, but Ashley and Jessica agree, lip syncing can be distracting and unnecessary. Ashley makes a good point, saying that “it is really hard to be convincing in your characterization when the singing is clearly not coming from your vocal cords, and you often end up relying on the choices the singer has made, rather than allowing yourself the freedom to make your own choices. I think that you should either act without mouthing the words or, better yet - actually sing!!!! Even if you’re not a singer, I give points when I see a dancer dancing and singing at the same time. It’s hard, yes, but that is what all musical theater performers have to do in the real world. Why not develop those skills now?” At some events, there is a Song and Dance category in addition to Musical Theatre, which is an excellent option for dancers who are also training vocally. There are very few “dancer only” tracks in the musical theatre world, so adding singing into your musical theatre training might put you ahead of the game if you choose to pursue musical theatre dance as a career. Jessica says, “In true musical theatre performances, you would not be lip syncing but actually singing. But if you are going to lip sync, every word music be lip synced. It’s funny to me how many times I am watching a dancer lip sync their song and then go into a difficult jump, turn, kick, or gymnastics trick and stop lip syncing completely. I often tell dancers to pretend like their voices are coming out of the speakers and to imagine if they stopped lip syncing, the music would stop, too.” Whether you choose to lip sync or not, consistency is a must! And just for fun, if you do have a number that’s choreographed to be lip synced, give it a try without it. Challenge yourself to add something else to bring the character to life without relying on mouthing the words.
The musical theatre dance category at competition is always a breath of fresh air for the judges. When done well, a musical theatre number can be exciting, smart, fun for the audience and a stand out during the day. Take the time to search out less well known musicals, do your research, and at the end of the day, have fun telling your story, because that’s what it’s all about!
Photos provided by Diva Dance Competition
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