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From ballet to Broadway

Posted on August 28, 2018

I travelled to Asia for the first time this June to watch my partner perform in the production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh’s musical Cats that is currently in tour in China. My ten-day stay in Shanghai is a talking point in itself. Reading J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun as a teenager was my only reference point to the city, and whilst Shanghai does retain a shimmer of its smokey, opium-tinged past within the architecture of the Bund, it is an energetic, modern, outward-facing city. Oriental and Occidental move in and out of each other by a kind of cultural osmosis that presages a future age. This is not to be the topic of discussion this month, however. Instead I’m taking a glance at how ballet and musical theatre intersect.

One can’t talk about Cats without paying respect to choreographer Gillian Lynne who died on July 1. Lynne’s career was truly prolific and her choreography for the 1981 musical based on T S Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, along with 1986’s The Phantom of the Opera have become theatre legends. The movement in Cats sums up a whole era of theatre dance – technically rigorous but sinuous and sexy so that the spectator gets a sense of the stretch of Lycra across a body. It’s 1980s inflection is what enthralls. We know Lynne’s own feelings about the choreography made by Andy Blankenbuehler for Cats’ most recent Broadway iteration. Using her experience with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, Lynne put drama at the centre of her dance making. An image of a dramatically lit, windswept stage with one man struggling against the gust from a performance by Northern Ballet in Lynne’s A Simple Man, sticks in my mind from my very early ballet going. Lynne, along with Jerome Robbins, are responsible for making classical dance the keystone of many musicals.

In my March blog, I mused on Jerome Robbins’ work after seeing Miami City Ballet perform a programme commemorating his centenary year. The exuberant alchemy Robbins and Leonard Bernstein unleashed with Robbins’ first choreographic venture Fancy Free for American Ballet Theatre in 1944 was the starting point for the Broadway hit On the Town. Though we are charmed by the buoyancy of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave, why both ballet and musical endure is because they point to our pragmatism in the face of a darker unknown, be they the shadows cast by urban skyscrapers on boozy nights, or the threat of oblivion from world wide conflict. For me, Robbins suggested deeper truths behind the breezy ease of fluent steps; the choreographer was famed for saying: “Take it easy, baby”. In dance, softness and naturalness is always the hardest prize to win.

Scenes from The King and I at the London Palladium. Photographs: Matthew Murphy.

I don’t think I’ve met anyone who can resist 1957’s West Side Story. The musical boils like a New York summer, with moves as rhythmically diverse as the clatter of the L train, and moments of singing that shimmer like the sun on the Hudson River. Currently playing at the London Palladium until September 29 is the Lincoln Center production of The King and I, which many people may not realise was originally choreographed by Robbins. For this current incarnation, choreographer Christopher Gattelli uses Robbins’ steps as a basis for his own ideas. In 2016 another Robbins musical, Fiddler on the Roof received new choreography by Hofesh Shechter at the Broadway Theater in Manhatten. Schechter said in the New York Times that “for [his] taste, [the original choreography] was not energetic enough”, but that so many of Robbins’ shows are still bearing fruit in creative ways today places the choreographer in a special position. Robbins established an endowment for the New York Public Library’s video archive in 1964 with a percentage of the royalties from Fiddler on the Roof – this archive is one of the dance world’s most important and relevant resources. The reverence the industry has for Robbins is summed up in this video of the finale of Warren Carlyle’s Something to Dance About: Jerome Robbins, Broadway to Ballet.

Is the connection between ballet and Broadway still alive today? Justin Peck, resident choreographer, soloist and member of New York City Ballet’s interim artistic management team, has said he has been inspired by Robbins “sneaker” ballets and wants to explore this aesthetic. Peck recently won a Tony Award for his choreography for the revival of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Carousel currently playing at the Imperial Theater in New York. Kenneth Macmillan’s last – unfinished – choreographic work was for a National Theatre production of the musical in 1992, using Agnes de Mille’s original 1945 steps as inspiration. The Royal Ballet performed his Carousel pas de deux on their visit to New York in summer of 2015; Miami City Ballet danced it in 2017. Christopher Wheeldon enjoyed success with his An American in Paris, a short run of 1947’s Brigadoon in New York that left people wanting more, and will direct and choreograph a musical based on Michael Jackson’s hits, expected to open in 2020.

It might not be obvious what 19th century classical ballets have in common with musicals, but the sophisticated group choreography for shades and swans – themselves poetic distillations of ballet’s courtly beginnings – are early examples of moving dancers en masse. Indeed, Lloyd Webber wanted Gillian Lynne to choreograph Phantom of the Opera because he was confident her ballet background ensured she could move large groups of people around a stage creatively. The production currently touring North America has choreography by the late Scott Ambler, whom Lynne recommended for the task. There is a deeper quality ballet trades with musical theatre. The inhabitants of the shtetl in Fiddler on the Roof sing of “Tradition” and Jerome Robbins appropriated aspects of ballets inherent story-telling traditions for the musical stage. Having danced the eponymous roles in Mikhail Fokine’s Petrushka and George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, Robbins understood ballet’s use of the entire body to communicate what words fall short of. In musicals, a character uses song and dance because their emotions and thoughts have become too powerful for mere words. For this reason, there will always be something to dance about on musical theatre stages around the world.

Main photograph Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara in The King and I at the London Palladium. Photograph: Matthew Murphy.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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