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By Sylviane Gold
Casey Nicholaw’s witty choreography underscored The Book of Mormon’s satire. Joan Marcus, Courtesy Book of Mormon.
For most of the country, voting is a November activity. But on Broadway, elections arrive in late spring, at the end of the theater season. At press time, voters are busy sifting through nominations and marking ballots that will decide who and what will win Tony Awards, Fred and Adele Astaire Awards, and Drama Desk Awards for the 2010–11 season. And if they’re anything like me—I vote on the Astaires—they are having a tough time with the choreography category.
The standard take on these competitions—“It’s an honor just to be nominated”—implies that all nominees are equally worthy. But the dirty little secret of awards season is that often only a few are truly first-rate. The rest were nominated because there wasn’t enough high-quality work to choose from. This year, that is manifestly not the case.
Nine separate Broadway choreographers were nominated for this season’s theater awards, and for the most part they deserved the recognition—it has been a remarkably gratifying season for dance on Broadway. The highlight reel would have to include, in alphabetical order, Rob Ashford’s acrobatic dynamism in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Marguerite Derricks’ marvelously eclectic numbers for Wonderland, Kathleen Marshall’s deliciously retro choreography for Anything Goes, Jerry Mitchell’s gloriously high-kicking work in Catch Me If You Can, Casey Nicholaw’s witty send-ups in The Book of Mormon, Toby Sedgwick’s magical beasts in War Horse, and Susan Stroman’s double-edged minstrel moves for The Scottsboro Boys. And the outstanding musical staging work from Anthony Van Laast and Danny Mefford in Sister Act and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson also got nods.
Setting aside the less dancey entries, we are left with seven choreographers—not one of them an interloper from the concert-dance world—who contributed to Broadway dance in a major way. And when you consider the absentees—Andy Blankenbuehler’s clever solutions to the problem of how to get dance into a musical about the Holocaust, in The People in the Picture, showed up too late for the Astaires; and accomplished dancemakers like Sergio Trujillo and Dan Knechtges didn’t have new shows this season—you have to marvel at the current depth of Broadway’s choreographic bench.
It represents a remarkable rebound after the 1980s punched a big hole in the talent pool. First came the British Invasion, which brought so many London hits to Broadway that it crowded out home-grown choreographers. More devastating by far was the AIDS crisis—in 1987, the year Michael Bennett died, nearly 10,000 other New Yorkers were felled. Many were theater dancers, and we will never know how many potential Broadway choreographers were lost. We do know that while Bennett was the most prominent choreographer who died, he was not the only one. Two years after his 1987 Tony nomination for Rags, Ron Field was dead. Three years after his Astaire for the 1992 Guys and Dolls, Christopher Chadman was dead.
The loss to musical theater went beyond the choreography that would never be created. Broadway dance inhabits a distinct ecological niche that requires very specific skills. For decades, this know-how was passed along via the dancer-assistant-associate-choreographer chain, a chain shattered by the AIDS epidemic. The broad, deep lineup of current choreographers suggests that those crucial links are in place once again.
Van Laast is a Londoner, and Derricks and Mefford have worked mainly away from Broadway, she in California and he in regional theater and off-Broadway. But the significance of Broadway’s apprenticeship chain is clear from the careers of the other choreographers in question.
Stroman, the veteran of the group, is in her late 50s. She began dancing on Broadway in 1979, and in 1980 was assisting Rudy Tronto on the short-lived flop Musical Chairs. Tronto, meanwhile, had performed in Ballroom for Bennett (who had danced for Michael Kidd and Peter Gennaro and assisted Ron Field). The local choreographers coming up behind her are in their early 50s, 40s, and 30s. Not surprisingly, several of them began their careers dancing in her shows and absorbing the same lessons.
It’s also worth noting that the overwhelming majority of musicals on Broadway now are heavily laced with real dance requiring real dancers. That’s another change since the ponderous British musicals of the 1980s, and it’s likely to continue. So barring any more cataclysmic events, we can expect many more years of strong choreography on Broadway—and many more years of end-of-the-season ballots with difficult choices. To which dilemma let us say, Amen.
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.