Creating the Choreographers of Tomorrow for Musical Theater

By Burnette, Kelly | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview
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Creating the Choreographers of Tomorrow for Musical Theater

Burnette, Kelly, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance

With the popularity of musical theater today, many young people want to dance and to choreograph. Such opportunities may exist at a high school, church, or local community theater. While teaching at the middle, high school, and college levels for the past 15 years, I have mentored many young, budding choreographers in the same way that my teachers mentored me. And so I am pleased to be able to pass on what I know and love about choreographing musicals.

Student Choreographers Speak

Erica, an 11th grader who studies modern and musical-theater dance at Manatee School for the Arts (MSA) in Palmetto, Florida, was assigned by her Pizazz Show Chorus director to choreograph several show medleys, including Mama Mia. Erica believes that choreographers should be experienced dancers, willing to work with the cast to highlight their talents and to provide positive feedback. Working together is important. A few years ago, Erica danced as a fairy for MSA alumna and choreographer Sophie Harris-Fearon in Shakespeare's The Tem-pest. She pointed out that because all cast members respected one another and shared an objective--a well-rehearsed production with no personality clashes--everything went smoothly.


When choreographing musical theater, and indeed, anything else, "Know the piece, and know what is pleasing to the audience's eye," noted Erica. Because of the unique requirements of the stage, "No matter where you are or what you are doing on stage, people need to hear you and the dancers must breathe." In addition, Erica concluded, "You must consider what people can do. You must choreograph for everyone's abilities, not just your own."

Seth, another 11th grader, is also making his mark on choreography. He too started with solos and teaching younger students; he is now working with large groups in entire shows. However, Seth found that it could be hard directing friends, lamenting that it was sometimes difficult "to find that balance of being well organized or being a 'dictator.'" His advice is to be clear in communicating your vision, and to not get frustrated when dancers do not always understand, because good choreography is just as much about group dynamics as it is about making up steps!

These up-and-coming choreographers dealt with many of the same issues that professional choreographers do. There will always be time constraints, cast limitations, and technical problems, among other issues. But one is rewarded by the joy of the collaborative process; the challenge of creating movements appropriate to the style, time period, and characters; and that wonderful pride in seeing all of the pieces come together seamlessly in the completed product. Choreographers should immerse themselves in studying the script's particular genre. It is absolutely necessary for student choreographers to study the history of musical theater, which will help them to understand the important role that dance has in developing the characters and furthering the storyline in a "book show" (as choreography icon Agnes de Mille called a production based on a literary work).

Student choreographers need these real-world opportunities to develop their craft. Although it might be easier for the high school teacher to just "do it herself," it is a vital part of the learning process for students to create their own work and, in the process, make their own mistakes. They could begin in an apprenticeship as an assistant, dance captain, co-choreographer, and so on. Let them see the process "up close and personal," right from the auditions through to opening night. By gaining this firsthand knowledge at the seasoned choreographer's side, the students will be better equipped to fly solo. The mentor should step in only when really needed, letting the students find their own way as much as possible, with gentle and patient guidance. Having a private note session after the dancers leave rehearsal is an effective way for the mentor to offer some "words of wisdom" about what he or she noticed during the rehearsal.

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Creating the Choreographers of Tomorrow for Musical Theater


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