A black dancer and an Irish woman compete in a dance competition in 19th-century New York. They take turns trying to outdo the other with unique and unbeatable steps and rhythms. It is hostile but also collegial, as the premise both assumes and encourages commonality, the kind of back-and-forth that breeds hybrids. This is a primal scene of American dance, and a version of it is now on Broadway.
Whether it’s revivals, jukebox musicals, or reimagining some distant history, much of the dance on Broadway today is dance of the past. It’s theater, so the goal is less historical fidelity than persuasion. The choreography should represent how people used to move in a way that makes sense to people now. But that limitation holds a possibility: when we look at artists of the present who embody the dance of the past, we can feel in our own bodies how the present and the past are connected.
That opportunity was there for all five Tony Awards nominated shows in choreography this year. The subject matter of each is historical in a sense. But the one that covers dance history most directly is “Paradise Square.” It’s a musical about the black and Irish residents of the Five Points district in the 1860s. In the decades before that, this neighborhood was a pivotal place for interracial exchange and invention, a nursery not only for tap dance, but for American theater dance in in general – the kind that would characterize Broadway musicals for a long time.
The story mainly takes place in the kind of tavern where a lot of cultural exchange took place and seems to make dance central and consistent. No one knows exactly what the dancing in the Five Points looked like or sounded like, so Bill T. Jones, who leads a team of choreographers, is free to cast off some ideas from the black and African side (Juba dance, scream). against some ideas of the Irish (the fast-walking acquaintance of “Riverdance”). But this choreography is only subtle and inventive compared to the absence of those qualities in the score and the book. It’s not convincing.
The Irish dance, attributed to Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman, is served a little better, partly because the Irish clichés in the music support it. Two of what the show calls “Irish Dancers” (Coleman and Colin Barkell), with little part in the plot, get equally impressive in bursts of footwork. But even as the story builds up to that Black vs. Irish dance-off, the dancing doesn’t make us feel how and why black and Irish dance mixed, the similarities and differences that drew the cultures together.
It’s a missed opportunity. “Paradise Square” could have staged a shocking, exciting return to resources, especially the black ones. Instead, in a very flawed show, it offers the kind of choreography that gives rise to comments like “But wasn’t the dancing good?” Not good enough.
A revival of “The Music Man”, a tried and true classic, is a much simpler choreographic assignment. Warren Carlyle does the job just fine. He has an adequate, nostalgic understanding of the historical flavor, the ‘new steps’ of the 1910s. The origins of these movements – in places like the Five Points before they spread to places like Iowa, the setting of the musical and to the white stages of Broadway – not part of the story. This allows Carlyle to focus on arranging a large cast of skilled dancers. If it’s all a little tentative and disappointing, so is the rest of the production.
Carlyle offers a professional, if uninspired, Broadway choreography as it used to be. “Six” is much more current, despite being about Henry VIII’s wives. The conceit of the show is to give them a voice by casting them as contemporary pop divas, inspired by Beyoncé, Rihanna and the like. It is a singing competition and we expect to see certain types of dancing. These are dancing singers, and while each queen takes her turn, the others serve as the backup each pop diva commands at a concert.
This is the dance of the present, and Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, the choreographer, is aware of the genre and its variations – the proportions of sassy and sex and empowerment moves, even the required absence of Adele-style dance heartbreak . She keeps the action both tight and flowing, allowing the performers to hold enough breath for all their belts. Like the clever, catchy pastiche songs, the choreography identifies its sources without directly quoting. It gives the pleasure of finding what we already know in a context where we might not expect it.
A show about Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, and one of the great dancing singers, may seem to call for a similar approach. But “MJ”, as in so many other ways, is a different beast. It’s a jukebox musical, so it’s about hearing the songs you know and love. But many of these songs already have their choreography inextricably linked: that of Jackson’s hugely influential music videos from the 1980s. This is not just a style of that era that can generally be reproduced. Many people who know the words and melodies also know all the steps.
What should Christopher Wheeldon, the choreographer of ‘MJ’, do? For the parts of the show that span Jackson’s early life, the Motown and Soul Train years, Wheeldon can work idiomatically, borrowing the styles to tell the story. When the timeline reaches the arrival of MTV, however, he hesitates, with dancers teasing part of “Thriller”‘s zombie boogie at the back of the stage, looking away.
It is true that the second act begins with an almost literal reproduction of Jackson’s groundbreaking ‘Motown 25’ rendition of ‘Billie Jean’. And Myles Frost, who plays the adult Jackson, is an amazing impersonator. (He dances that “Billie Jean” a little better than Jackson did.) But elsewhere, Wheeldon continues to replace the original choreography with his own, and I kept feeling my heart sink, both as a lifelong Jackson fan and dance critic.
Tony Awards: The Best New Musical Nominees
The nominees for 2022. The race for best new musical at the Tony Awards – traditionally the most financially advantageous award – this year is a broad six-way competition. Here’s a closer look at each nominee:
An effective replacement should be an improvement. And while Wheeldon is an expert at crowd control and transitions (and an extraordinarily skilled ballet choreographer), he has little sense of what Jackson calls “stinky jelly” on the show — funk, swing, or whatever the dancers of the real Five Points called it. . Despite the help of Rich and Tone Talauega, who worked with Jackson, Wheeldon continues to deviate from that core, straightening out the rhythmic complexity of Jackson’s dance along with its strangeness.
The most telling moment is the scene of the dancers who inspired Jackson. The images of the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire show no understanding of what Jackson saw in them (rhythm and attack dating back to the Five Points), and so the production cannot fully communicate how this great impersonator forged a style that has been imitated endlessly. The only pastor who understands “MJ” is Bob Fosse, whose own easy-to-imitate style sets the boundaries of Broadway dance within which “MJ” keeps retreating.
A good director might have pointed this out. But the director of “MJ” is Wheeldon (who, admittedly, had a lot of other Jackson-related issues to deal with). There is a strong Broadway precedent for combining those roles, one established by Jerome Robbins. But of this year’s Tony nominees, Wheeldon isn’t the best example of how that can benefit a show.
It’s Camille A. Brown. “For girls of color who have considered suicide / When the rainbow is up.” is what the dance poet author, Ntozake Shange, called a “choreopoem.” Although the show was a Broadway hit in 1976, the form did not become common even when the lyrics became canonical. Brown directs and choreographs this revival, becoming one of the extraordinarily few black women ever to have played both roles for a Broadway show. (The last thing that comes to mind is Katherine Dunham, in 1955.) That fact matters, but also how she uses the combined force: she restores the work as an expression of a culture centered on dance.
The seven women of the cast recite poems, and they always dance, of sorrow and joy. They dance in girl games that become adult games part of Shange’s original concept. But Brown adds American Sign Language to it, making the interweaving of language and movement even more visible. Like the cast of ‘Six’, these women support each other in dance. But in Brown’s view, you can also feel their connections in the way a revealing monologue by one, about abortion or abuse or self-discovery, reverberates in the still bodies of the others.
This is not what we know and expect from Broadway choreography. But unlike ‘Paradise Square’ it is a powerful return to a source. Dance, Shange once wrote, “is how we remember what cannot be said.” Brown reminds us.