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AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
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BWW Blog: Caitlin Abraham of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS - Romance in Paris

We were searching for a way to make the romance and the joy feel more potent coming from this place of darkness," he said. "Even the cast moving all of the pieces in and out, building scenes, gives you a sense of the people of Paris rebuilding their city. So then it was about, how do we do that but make it move seamlessly and beautifully and feel like the city itself is waltzing in and out, off the stage?" - Christopher Wheeldon, CBS News, March 15, 2015

One of the most unique aspects of An American in Paris is its human-powered transitions. This is as much a technical achievement as it is an artistic one. Aside from a few fly pieces, every building, set piece and stitch of furniture is danced on and cleared by actors. There are 59 of these transitions in our show, where cast members move everything from pianos and window units to gramophones and cocktail carts -- all musically, safely and in the spirit of the moment. Our backstage choreography is nearly as specific and intricate as what happens onstage.

All of An American in Paris's pieces themselves were designed and built by Theatre du Chatelet in France, and since arriving at the Palace Theater, our New York crew has refined a few aspects (like the hydraulic system on the counters and shaving a few precious inches off the piano). Pieces are mounted on 360 degree swivel wheels or Teflon gliders. Onstage, a confetti sprinkling of tiny colored spike tape (we had over 400 marks at the Chatelet) tag where the actors need to place their pieces. The audience can't see the spikes, but actors must be very accurate while placing their pieces so that lighting cues and projections work properly.

That's a mouthful of mechanics, but ask how and we uncover the magic. Going back to rehearsals, when a transition came up, Christopher Wheeldon would assign a set piece - let's say a café table - to an actor. Chris would then map out the wing the table comes from, the destination and how many counts the actor had to accomplish the move. Then he'd ask for "a swirl." Every actor would acquaint themselves with their new "partner," finding curves and turns. It's all efficient movement; often you're on and off in only two counts of eight. But to disguise and embellish the move, we'd find moments low to the floor or lofting up into the air; perhaps we show off a high leg or some back extension.

The transitions in our show have become completely their own vocabulary. If you recall the opening scene in the film, and the gracious fluid familiarity Gene Kelly had with all the objects in his tiny Parisian apartment -- well, I'd say our cast's process of discovery was very much in the same spirit. After a few experimental runs, Chris would codify the improvisation, and that "swirl" became the transition into the scene.

My favorite transition is a spooky swirl connecting the end of Lise's "The Man I Love" to her scene with Jerry at the Seine. In between the two scenes, Adam comments on how "you had to love her," and an underscore trickles in. He reveals his hopes and designs, and then concludes, "She'd have to love me." His thought is left to hang in the air; slightly off the mark of ideal love. Dancers swirl in from nowhere with an underwater feeling as the Seine begins to shimmer on the backdrop. The dancers whisk away all anchoring and mention of place in curves and adagio cartwheels, spinning and wrapping every set piece until the scene is completely gone. We are now along the Seine where Jerry is waiting on a park bench. This is Chris's accomplishment; our eyes are hypnotized as Adam's line resounds in our ears; we are deep within the beauty of place, but catch the whiff of a deeper theme: Can love be earned; can it bloom out of a duty to kindness?


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From This Author Guest Blogger: Caitlin Abraham

Broadway: An American in Paris (ensemble); La Cage aux Folles (Anne u/s, ensemble, Assistant Dance Captain). National Tour: Chicago (Liz). Regional: An American in Paris (read more...)