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3 TIPS FOR CHOREOGRAPHING A MUSICAL THEATRE PIECE (FROM A MUSICAL THEATRE PURIST)

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As someone who spent the majority of their professional performing career in the musical theatre genre and is passionate about the content and context for which it is taught in, I’ve been seeing this trend which has me a little disheartened. Call me old school, call me antiquated, but those of us setting musical theatre/theatre jazz pieces have a responsibility to our young dancers to do it justice and truly understand the genre for the piece we are setting.  The three tips below hopefully will offer a new perspective and help continue keeping the magic of classic musical theatre alive.

#1. DEMONSTRATE COMPLETE UNDERSTANDING: The challenge with setting a musical theatre piece, especially for competition is that you’re extrapolating a two and a half-three minute out of an entire show and expecting to get the message across. It is however, still possible. How? By ensuring you, as the choreographer and the teacher understand that choreography in the musical theatre genre is there to support and be supported by the book, score and lyrics. It has to work in tandem, otherwise the show is unsuccessful. There is a very specific formula to musical theatre and our most beloved musicals are examples of that. Even more contemporary musicals follow the formula even if they have found a way to turn it on its head and reinvent the wheel. It’s our responsibility then to ensure that we are not just giving our dancers movement for movement sake, but that they also understand the history and details of the show to which you are setting. This goes for any age and level. What is it about? Who are the characters? How do the characters relate to one another? What is the song about? Who was the original show choreographer? Who did the set design and costumes? What era was this musical set? When did it premiere? What is the style of the choreography? Etc. Teaching our students to understand the “why’s,” and not just the “what’s” is essential. Teaching them the historical references so they are familiar with the show will make their performances richer, more dynamic and better received by audiences and judges who are musical theatre experts and aficionados. Seasoned judges will recognize a choreographer and dancers who “get it” vs. those doing a “cute” dance to a musical theatre song.

#2 PRESENTATION COUNTS: I’ll be honest, I’m really not sure where this next trend has emerged from but it has to be one of my biggest pet peeves as a teacher, choreographer and judge. Remember that costumes are a HUGE part of any musical. They represent who these people in this world are and can signify everything from era, species to status. So, please, please, please if you are choreographing a musical theatre piece and it’s not to Lion King, Once on this Island, King and I, Aladdin, Aida, etc. then please don’t put your dancers in bare feet and costumes which have absolutely no relevance to the song they are dancing to. This doesn’t mean you have to seek out the most ridiculously expensive costumes out there but it does mean that no professional judge with a strong working knowledge in musical theatre wants to see dancers in a bra-lette and slitted skirt with briefs dancing bare legged and barefoot to Anything Goes. (Yes, I’ve seen it.) Give it some thought and while you may want to add a twist to costuming to reinvent the wheel, great! But please use the proper footwear. And if your dancers are not yet working in heels, a classic jazz shoe or Pedini will beautifully suffice to showcase leg line and feet.

#3 MUSIC SELECTION: Choosing a musical theatre song for a piece is challenging when you want to use something that is not overdone. It becomes even more challenging when you are trying to select something that makes sense for your specific dancers. There have been many, many times where I’ve seen choreographers select music which was too mature, too challenging, too overdone and just out of touch to any relatability for young dancers. Remembering that the best performances are ones in which your dancers can connect to the music and demonstrate a real understanding of what and why they are dancing is key. This also holds true for specific styles. Giving a 10 or 11 year old a provocative Fosse number may not be the best choice. Now is not the time to choreograph something you might have aspirations to dance to. Always remembering who your dancer is first. Some of the best musical theatre numbers I’ve seen and set myself were not always the most complicated ones technically or stylistically. They were the ones dancers could relate to and attach to. Give them time to grow into the more mature, advanced and sophisticated techniques as they develop. There’s plenty in the musical theatre library to go around. Select a successful piece you enjoy choreographing to, they enjoy dancing to and the audience enjoys watching!

Good luck!

See you in the dance studio,

Jess

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Author

Jessica Rizzo Stafford

Jessica Rizzo Stafford

Jessica Rizzo Stafford is a native New Yorker and graduate of NYU Steinhardt's Dance Education Master’s Program; with a PK-12 New York State Teaching Certification. Her double-concentration Master’s Degree includes PK-12 pedagogy and dance education within the higher-education discipline. She also holds a BFA in dance performance from the UMASS Amherst 5 College Dance Program where she was a Chancellor's Talent Award recipient. Jess now works extensively with children, adolescents and professionals as choreographer and teacher and conducts national and international master-classes specializing in the genres of modern, contemporary, musical theatre and choreography-composition. Jess’ national and international performance career includes works such as: The National Tour of Guys & Dolls, The European Tour of Grease, West Side Story, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, Salute to Dudley Moore at Carnegie Hall, guest-dancer with the World Famous Pontani Sisters and IMPULSE Modern Dance Company. Jess has been a faculty member for the Perichild Program & Peridance Youth Ensemble & taught contemporary and jazz at the historic New Dance Group and 92nd Street Y in NYC. She was Company Director at the historic Steffi Nossen School of Dance/Dance in Education Fund and in 2008 traveled to Uganda where she taught creative-movement to misplaced children. The experience culminated with Jess being selected as a featured instructor at the Queen's Kampala Ballet & Modern Dance School. She has conducted workshops for the cast of LA REVE at the Wynn, Las Vegas and recently taught at the 2011 IDS International Dance Teacher Conference at The Royal Ballet in London, UK. She is also on faculty for the annual Dance Teacher Web Conferences in Las Vegas, NV. Currently, Jess is a faculty member at the D'Valda & Sirico Dance & Music Centre and master teacher & adjudicator for various national and international dance competitions. Recently, she has finished her NYU Master’s thesis research on the choreographic process of technically advanced adolescent dancers and is the creator of “PROJECT C;” a choreography-composition curriculum for the private studio sector. Jess is also faculty member, contributing writer and presenter in the choreography and “how to” teaching segments on the celebrated danceteacherweb.com. For more info, visit her website at www.jrizzo.net.

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