Tulsa Theatre Scene Discussion Panel: Reproducing Iconic Choreography

Tulsa Theatre Scene Discussion Panel: Reproducing Iconic Choreography

On May 1st, 2018, Tulsa Theatre Scene asked: “What are your thoughts on iconic choreography (such as Bob Fosse’s “The Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity or Michael Bennett’s “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line, or even classics such as “The Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake”) and its re-use in other productions? When is it appropriate to use existing choreography, and where do choreographers have freedom to stray from established or expected choreography?”

These are the responses for some of Tulsa’s top choreographers:

Pete Brennan, independent choreographer:

“When I worked with Andy Blankenbuehler, he used to lament that a choreographer’s work is the easiest to steal, and sometimes the most underappreciated creative form in musical theatre.

There have been instances where regional theatres get busted for copying Broadway choreography, but it’s extremely hard to police that sort of thing and choreography rarely gets formally copyrighted. Then you have the shows that require you to use the original choreo. Professional productions of Fiddler and WSS come with a choreography guide because the staging by Jerome Robbins is considered integral the show itself, and not a separate entity. I think the same goes for Chorus Line. If it’s professional theatre, those canon dance musicals may require the original choreography. And I believe there’s an art to recreating staging/choreo.

For me though, I do as much as I possibly can to cleanse my mind of any other productions I’ve seen (or done) when I’m choreographing a show, so it’s as original as I can possibly make it. However, sometimes there are elements of choreography and/or design, that are so iconic it would be silly to dismiss them (the bentwood chairs in Mein Herr for example). I strive for a balance of honoring (or paying homage to) the original choreographic intention, and making it my own art. And not including jazz squares or grapevines…

Before every dance audition I do in Tulsa, I say “This is more of an assessment for me to see what choreography would look best for you, the people dancing it. So don’t be nervous, because I’m not judging your dance ability. I’m figuring out how to make you all look the best you can doing my choreography.”

Jen Alden, Portico Dance Theatre:

“…I would add that with this kind of choreography specifically with musicals, it also depends on the direction of the show and specifically the director. Some directors want it to be exactly as written as perhaps it’s so iconic, and some make the choice not to follow the guide, and some like a mix. For me, personally, I prefer not to do as written: I like creating my own movement as I think that doing as written is more “teaching” the choreography of others rather than “creating” choreography but in many instances where you have a visual that is so iconic you just need to make sure that is highlighted even if you create differing movement around it. When you are talking about rich man frug though that is not to be touched it must be done as first created because there is in my opinion no reason to change it and in that case I say or announce in rehearsal I’m not the choreographer of the movement I’m merely teaching or staging the original. So in summary: it all depends.”

Sara Phoenix, Theatre Tulsa:

“…There is very little in life more rewarding than seeing your own original choreo – that you created over hours and hours in your living room or studio – unfold vibrantly on a stage full of dancers. Sometimes contracts dictate or allow original choreo and it is necessary to the show. But the real joy is in watching your own creation flourish and inspire others. It’s really an other-worldly experience that I’d wish anyone would have the opportunity to experience sometime in their life. Same with directing, for me! And to Christy’s point – I’ve found experience is everything in understanding how movement should serve the story and how the dance fits with the vocal aspects of a song. Sometimes it takes a few tries for choreographers to get that. And, in general, the skill set to be a choreographer is very different than the one required for a dancer. So, finding a trained dancer with the ability to choreograph appropriately is like finding a diamond! And, for some shows (ahem Newsies), there is no getting around the need for “pit singers.” 10 minute dance breaks and extremely difficult vocal requirements almost mandate that.”

Kara Staiger, independent choreographer:

“It’s a mixed bag. There are expectations for some specific numbers to have iconic movement and an audience may recognize if it is not what they were expecting. There are also songs choreographed for specific movement –the thing that comes to mind is Will Rogers Follies. When choreographing the show, I tried to mix in what was expected with something new. I had people comment both ways: ‘Why didn’t you try something new and be original?’ and ‘What was wrong with the original choreography and staging?’ I think it’s about seeing something you know and feeling safe and seeing something new or a variation. Both have their merits.”

David Rickel, independent choreographer:

“I think it is important that all choreography should be created for the people performing it. That is to say within their abilities. Nothing looks worse that non-dancers trying to reproduce professional dance choreography.”

Ari Christopher, Tulsa Modern Movement:

“Working in the style of the original choreographer would be expected if the overall interpretation of the show is similar to the original, but stealing the choreo is a “no-no”. Trying to reproduce the Broadway recording would probably be counter-productive because it’s not likely that the local movers will be able to reproduce the Broadway choreography well enough to be watchable. It’s more likely that the local choreographer will make dance that highlights the skills of their cast when they make something new.”

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