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By Lauren Kay
Three savvy ensemble dancers share their experiences.
From left: Paloma Garcia-Lee, Sarrah Strimel, and Bahiyah Hibah
Photo by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine
During the iconic “One” at the end of A Chorus Line, the entire ensemble creates a huge circle, each link essential, no star brighter than the next. This image of a true ensemble captures the pride of being one part of a whole.
Over the years, though, some people have come to devalue the ensemble, the word itself often suggesting a less appreciated, nameless chorus versus star principals. One Broadway veteran even recalls a young girl rejecting her autograph after finding out she was “just in the ensemble.” But despite the sometimes negative connotations, the ensemble is the undeniable hero of any Broadway show. Not only do they create the show’s world, but many times, it’s the ensemble performers who are doing the hardest work onstage, too: In the Rob Ashford–choreographed revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the ensemble swung through Ashford’s difficult partnering and created a slew of characters who drummed up the onstage office business. Memphis opens on a club scene with an ensemble slinking and flying through Sergio Trujillo’s gorgeously intricate moves, heating up the show’s Southern atmosphere.
Thriving at the heart of live theater, the ensemble is a true representation of a team effort. Without it, the show wouldn’t go on. Dance Magazine spoke with Sarrah Strimel, Paloma Garcia-Lee, and Bahiyah Hibah to investigate the crucial work of ensemble women.
With legs that just won’t quit and a sassy style all her own, Sarrah Strimel is beginning her fifth Broadway show. “Throughout my career, the most challenging part has been dancing uniformly,” says Strimel with a laugh. “I love dancing so much that sometimes it’s hard reining it in. But the older and more experienced I am, the more I’m celebrated for it.”
Strimel, 31, trained at Rosalene Kenneth Professional Dance Studio (owned by fellow Broadway veteran Rachelle Rak’s mother), was cast in the Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s production of Crazy for You at 14, and earned her equity card at 18. She nabbed the tour of The Producers before moving on to Broadway. “When I first started working as a teenager, I remember looking around at the beautiful, tall women working together to achieve art and thinking it was so magical,” recalls Strimel.
Strimel’s unique dynamism has proved challenging in casting: She often doesn’t blend in. (She was even let go from a pre-Broadway workshop for “pulling focus.”) But this quality has also earned a step outside of the ensemble: Now, she has snagged the featured part of Girl in the Water in Susan Stroman’s Big Fish.
Her time in the ensemble has been instrumental to this step. “In the ensemble, you’re the heart of the piece,” she says. “There’s an unspoken bond between chorus girls. It teaches you humility and hard work; it also teaches you how to create a variety of characters within one show—from a baker to a cheerleader to a mermaid. I’m using that now!”
While her style is undoubtedly personal, in auditions for ensemble tracks, Strimel (who was an “On the Rise” in April 2008) advises honoring the choreography given. “Complete the choreography the way they show it,” she says. “They want to see if you can adapt to the style. That being said, bring your own essence, your joy of dancing.
Respect, for yourself and teammates, transfers to your “backstage show,” where the team effort comes first. “It’s not all about you: You might have a quick change but someone might have a quicker one!” Strimel says. “Keep a 360 degree view that the ensemble is your family.”
When the work might become difficult, Strimel relies on a simple hypothetical situation to keep her invigorated: “I always honor that family that saves up money and comes from Iowa perhaps with a daughter that dances,” she says. “They pay $100 a ticket to see the show—to see you. If you don’t give 100 percent for her, you haven’t done your job. Do it for that little girl who is watching you in the line, thinking, ‘Wow, I want to do that!’”
• Be protective of each other as women: You’re family.
• Include cross training in your routine. Doing the same thing eight times a week without balancing it with other types of exercise leads to injuries.
• Find choreographers who believe in you and fortify those relationships.
• Try yoga for not only physical strength, but also spiritual support to handle grueling, eight-show weeks. Calming your center will help you focus—and re-focus—for fresh shows each night.
At age 22, Paloma Garcia-Lee already has two Broadway shows under her belt: Phantom of the Opera and Nice Work If You Can Get It. The fawn-like stunner with wild extensions and a subtle attack trained at her mother’s dance school in Pennsylvania. She found an early connection to the ensemble when she played Graziella in the North Carolina School of the Arts’ production of West Side Story. “I fell in love with the collaboration with other dancers,” she says. “You have a dance partner you truly get to know and girls who become family. It’s beautiful to see how you’re individuals but creating an entire vibe. When people ask you what part you are, if you say ensemble, sometimes they scoff. But they don’t understand that it takes the strongest group of individuals to come together to create a show.”
Growing up with serious ballet training (honed at the North Carolina School of the Arts, as well as at summer programs with American Ballet Theatre, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and Kaatsbaan) Garcia-Lee learned about dancing in a corps early on. This came in handy at age 17 when she booked Phantom of the Opera—in the gigantic ensemble. “I learned how to dance in true unison,” she remembers. “The note we always got was simply to ‘breathe together.’ ”
Sometimes, though, this strictly uniform dancing made Garcia-Lee feel like “moving scenery.” To combat this, “I always challenge myself to be a better performer, to point my feet harder, set small challenges in each performance, and not go on auto-pilot…ever,” she says.
In Nice Work If You Can Get It, Garcia-Lee had the opportunity to explore the other side of ensemble work: individual choices, as encouraged by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall. “Each ensemble woman had her own character and storyline throughout the show,” explains Garcia-Lee. “I learned how to be myself onstage while still being part of the group.”
Garcia-Lee feels a humble, positive attitude is an ensemble essential. “My mother, a Broadway ensemble dancer, taught me it’s important to be easy to work with, friendly, and kind,” she says. “So much of casting an ensemble is thinking ‘Who are the most talented people who can work easily in a group?’”
• If you’re on tour with a large ensemble and there are problems, confront them immediately. And leave all personal issues outside of the theater.
• When you enter the dressing room, observe where everyone is that day before launching into your own stories.
• Don’t overstretch. Try active stretching before a show to ensure quick reaction time of your muscles.
• Always keep moving in small ways throughout the show to stay warm backstage.
• Find the foods that work best for your body: Don’t compare to what others eat or do.
A Juilliard graduate, Bahiyah Hibah danced with Ballett Frankfurt and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater before shifting her focus to Broadway. Her time in those troupes has helped her navigate communication in a large group, as well as how to read the energy and different personalities in either arena. “It’s usually best to sit back, be quiet, and first take account of the situation,” she says. “See who is in control, who is respected, and who has a difficult personality before you figure out where you fit in.”
Hibah, a 2003 “25 to Watch” and cast member of Warren Carlyle’s upcoming After Midnight, is careful to note, though, that this approach should not be confused with timidity. “You can be assertive, ask questions, and know that you bring your unique essence to the project,” she explains. “You can also show people who you are without talking: For example, I’m warming up long before most others. The director and stage manager see that—they see I’m dedicated and smart. Be prepared and let your work shine for itself. Even in a group, it will be noticed.”
Being part of an ensemble provides a training ground for principal work, too. “Get the book of songs and scenes and take it upon yourself to learn parts that you think you’re right for,” she says. “Many great leads on the stage came out of the ensemble.” (Case in point: Hibah earned the lead role of Velma in Chicago on Broadway in 2011.)
While in the ensemble of The Color Purple, Hibah spent time learning the part of Nettie. Then, in a “put-in rehearsal” (when a new cast member is put into the show) lacking a Nettie, “I was able to say ‘I know it,’” Gaines says. “It was appropriate because I was needed; I wasn’t trying to shove forward. Or if you know they’re looking for a replacement, it’s completely fine to ask to be seen. But take the time to find those right moments.”
When all of these aspects gel, Hibah says she finds serious satisfaction in being part of an ensemble. “When you’re part of a tight ensemble that is highly present in a show, like in A Color Purple, it’s strengthening,” she says. “When there’s no weak link, it’s like a finely tuned machine.”
• Develop good relationships with your partners. Those interactions keep things fresh onstage.
• Remember that everyone has the same goal: Despite issues in rehearsal, once you get to tech and dress you all want to put on the best show.
• Enjoy the offstage and dressing room relationships you build with the cast.
Want more? Come behind the scenes of Dance Magazine's photo shoot with Strimel, Garcia-Lee, and Hibah—click here.
Lauren Kay is a musical theater performer and proud ensemble member based in NYC.
All photos by Jayme Thronton for Dance Magazine. Hair and makeup by Rob Harmon.