Bob Fosse had Gwen Verdon—and more than a few others. George Balanchine had many muses too, as a Broadway choreographer and founder of the New York City Ballet, and (like Fosse and Verdon) even married some of them.
In 1938, Balanchine wed ballerina Vera Zorina after working with her in Hollywood on the film The Goldwyn Follies. That same year, he choreographed an indelible title role for her on Broadway in Rodgers and Hart’s I Married an Angel, which is being revived March 20–24 by Encores! at City Center. In a bit of muse-perfect symmetry, Zorina’s angel will be danced at Encores! by the New York City Ballet star Sara Mearns, as choreographed and directed by her husband, Joshua Bergasse.
“Sara is very much my muse,” Bergasse acknowledges. “Anything I choreograph on her looks so much better than I ever imagined it could. That inspires me to do more; to try new movements, new ideas. She’s also able to help me problem-solve. I’ll often ask her to look at a piece for me and help me fix something, and she’s able to instantly tell me how to make it better. I’ve dubbed her my ‘choreography consultant.’”
Beyond Balanchine and Fosse, Broadway has had many choreographers and muses: Agnes De Mille and James Mitchell, Michael Bennett and Donna McKechnie. We asked some of today’s top Broadway choreographers about their inspirations:
For Sergio Trujillo, choreographer of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, each new show generates its own muse. His five Temptations are, of course, his current inspiration, but in On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, Trujillo says Ana Villafañe, who played Estefan, was his muse. In Summer: The Donna Summer Musical it was Ariana DeBose, who received a Tony Award nomination as “Disco Donna,” one of the show’s multiple embodiments of its title character.
“Each of them is a true triple threat,” Trujilo explains, “which is a dying breed in our business. Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera were true triple threats. It is because of their ability to dance, sing, and act with virtuosity that I have been able to create thrilling dance numbers.”
Camille A. Brown, choreographer of Broadway’s Choir Boy and last season’s Tony-Award winning revival of Once on This Island, has one unwavering muse: Catherine Foster, who was also Brown’s assistant choreographer on that show. “Cat and I have known each other since we were 15 years-old and students at The Ailey School,” Brown says. “She embodies all of the qualities I look for in an artist: incredibly well versed in every dance genre imaginable, a fierce and distinguishable style of movement that is all her own, an ability to tackle character-driven work, a willingness to be vulnerable in a creative space, someone who lives for the danger in discovering something new, and an enormous, generous spirit. Plus,” Brown adds, “she’s hilarious!”
Warren Carlyle, choreographer of the just-opened revival of Kiss Me, Kate, also has one constant muse: Karine Plantadit, another former-Ailey-ite, who pranced in the original cast of The Lion King, received a Tony nomination for Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away, and danced for Carlyle in After Midnight. “Easy answer for me,” Carlyle says simply. “I even have a sculpture of her in my house!!!!”
Rob Ashford, choreographer of Frozen, favors Megan Sikora, who has danced for him in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Curtains, Promises, Promises (as one of the “Turkey Lurkey” girls), and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. “I’m always in awe of a dancer like Megan, who can act the inspiration of the steps as well as execute them perfectly,” Ashford says. “I look forward to the next time!”
Christopher Gattelli, choreographer for the current My Fair Lady and The Cher Show, confesses to having no name-able muse at all. “I don’t have a singular person,” he admits. “There are so many incredible dancers past and present that inspire me, it would be hard to pick just one. But, gosh, that’s a great question. I’m curious to hear the other responses!”