Kicking Into High Gear: American Dance Machine's NEXT LOOK: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF MUSICAL THEATRE DANCE
Veteran performer and choreographer Lee Theodore originally founded the American Dance Machine back in 1978 as a sort of "living archive" of Broadway theater dance. Nikki Feirt Atkins, the current executive director, revived the company after Theodore's death in 1987. Atkins envisions ADM:21 "as a leading resource for the preservation, presentation, and education of classic and current notable musical theater choreography from stage and film and to perpetuate its excellence into the twenty-first century."
On Monday, November 11th the American Dance Machine for the 21st Century performed "Next Look," an exclusive benefit showing in preparation for the company's full-length New York City debut at The Joyce Theater next year. The benefit performance included reconstructed works from show-stopping musicals such as Contact, A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, and Promises Promises. Company member, Ariel Shepley, commented, "American Dance Machine is creating an amazing opportunity for both dancers and spectators. It is an honor to learn original choreography from Broadway legends and recreate amazing pieces of art that should be shared with the current broadway community. ADM21's mission is so important to the future generation! We, as performers, need to hear and learn from the past generations, and then they get to pass on their hard-earned stories, advice and love of dance to us!"
As I flipped through the program, my only question was "Why these pieces?" The musicals seemed unrelated thematically, chronologically, and choreographically. I understand that this was a small benefit - just a "taste" of what's to come for the company. But going into ADM's upcoming engagement at the Joyce, I do hope to see more cohesion and explanation behind both the specific works that are picked to be reconstructed and in regards to the coaches who are chosen to fulfill this responsibility of reconstructing the works with their original intent and caliber.
The benefit showing began with "Simply Irresistible" from the musical Contact. Through Contact, choreographer Susan Stroman created one of the first dance-based musicals, or "dancicals" (later to be followed by shows like Movin' Out and Come Fly Away). Naomi Kakuk, who performed the as the girl in a yellow dress, commented, "Stroman's choreography in Contact is some of my favorite. She is so brilliant at letting the story and the music shape her dances. It makes them so easy to act. No one element overpowers the scene or detracts from the story being told." Tomé Cousin and Leanna Smith restaged the swing-dance ensemble number. In a video clip of the rehearsal process, Cousins instructed the dancers to "look like non-dancers." And that comment clicked. The dancers partnered with joy and ease...and then surprised the audience with an overhead lift or a spread-eagle pose.
Next up was "Music and the Mirror" from Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line. Jessica Lee Goldyn performed the role of Cassie, commanding the stage for her nearly seven-minute solo with her amazing technique and effervescent passion for dance. Donna McKechnie, who originated the role of Cassie on Broadway, coached Goldyn through the physical and emotional marathon that is "Music and the Mirror." "There are no words to express how grateful I am to Donna McKechnie for everything she gave me through this unique and humbling experience with American Dance Machine," says Goldyn. "Donna helped me allow myself to be completely exposed and vulnerable on stage; that is something I will take with me for the rest of my career." We've all seen the "Cassie dance" numerous times. But Goldyn's performance illustrated the mission and magic of American Dance Machine. There is something simply breathtaking that happens when an original choreographer or dancer (or in this case, the original muse for the character, Cassie) teaches a piece of choreography - and, in a sense, entrusts the new dancer with the original intention behind the work. Needless to say, Goldyn's brilliant and sincere performance ended in the first standing ovation of the night.
Randy Skinner, who was one of the original company members of ADM, restaged 42nd Street's "Go Into Your Dance." Skinner assisted the original Broadway production choreographed by his mentor, Gower Champion. Twelve years later, Skinner choreographed the Tony Award-winning revival. While it was difficult to make out the sounds of the rhythmic tapping on the muffled Marley floor, the performance of "Go Into Your Dance" exemplified why the revival was such a hit. Skinner's signature style - a relaxed, almost pedestrian upper body juxtaposed with fast and syncopated taps - is timeless. Despite this, I wondered why Gower Champion's original choreography of 42nd Street was not reconstructed for this benefit.
Next, Robert La Fosse restaged "Mr. Monotony," a delightful trio from Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Three dancers from the New York City Ballet, Gina Pazcoguin, Amar Ramasar, and Daniel Ulbricht, danced with the technical grace and virtuosity that was so central to Robbins' ballet-based choreography. "Mr. Monotony" is perhaps one of the greatest trios ever choreographed. The love triangle is so dynamic and Robbins' staging, style, and musicality bring storytelling-through-dance to another level.
And to end the evening, ADM finished with the highly anticipated performance of "Turkey Lurkey Time," the famous Act I finale number from Michael Bennett's Promises Promises. Baayork Lee, Donna McKechnie, and Margo Sappington (who originated the lead trio on Broadway) restaged the piece for Rosie Lani Fiedelman, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Mara Davi, and a talented ensemble. Through hours of rehearsal, Lee, McKechnie, and Sappington were able to teach more than just the "steps" of "Turkey Lurkey Time." Bennett's choreography had a sense of freedom and soul that epitomized the dancing of the 1960s. The company of American Dance Machine had this "Hullabaloo" feel - and it was not at all contrived or unnatural. The whole audience was transported back to the 60s and wanted to jump on stage and "Turkey Lurkey," too.
When I returned home Monday evening I immediately sat at my computer and watched as many YouTube videos as I could of not only these five numbers, but also others their respective musicals. And as I watched, amazed by every "Turkey Lurkey" head whip and tap "stop time," I realized that I had become infected with the American Dance Machine "bug." I felt empowered as a dancer, reinvigorated by the choreography of Susan Stroman, Michael Bennett, Randy Skinner, and Jerome Robbins. The mission of ADM:21 is essentially to breathe life back into some of the greatest choreography Broadway has ever seen, bringing it back - live - for audiences of the 21st century. So stay tuned for a formal announcement of American Dance Machine's debut at the Joyce Theater in 2014.
**Photo credit: Christopher Duggan