Gotta Dance! Professional Hoofers Who Have Made the Leap to Broadway

News   Gotta Dance! Professional Hoofers Who Have Made the Leap to Broadway With Misty Copeland poised to join the cast of On the Town, Playbill.com looks back at professional dancers who have made the leap to Broadway.

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The world of the Broadway musical and the world of professional dance have many things in common. They are an art form that relies on expression with the body, they both involve movement that is shaped by music, and they even share a certain overlap in audiences. This all being the case, the two worlds mostly run parallel to each other, rather than intersecting. Broadway has its hoofers, dancers that also hone their acting and singing, while dance companies, due to the emphasis of the form, tend to have members who concentrate predominantly on ballet, jazz, modern, tap or a combination of these genres. Once and a while, however, an artist from the world of dance makes the leap to Broadway, just as Misty Copeland is about to do when she enters the current revival of On the Town.

Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland, the first African-American dancer to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, is now poised to join On the Town in the role of Miss Turnstiles (also known as Ivy Smith) the love interest of the sailor Gabey who dances his way around New York City to find her. On the Town is a dance-heavy show that grew out of the 1944 Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, and it's logical that a professional ballet dancer would be coaxed into a role such as Ivy Smith. Ivy requires an artist who can handle the choreography challenges of a character whose story is mostly conveyed through movement. Copeland, who has a long list of experiences and accolades that truly make her a star in the world of dance, is ideal for the job. She joined the American Ballet Theatre's studio company in 2000, graduating to the main company in 2001. She became a solo dancer in 2007. In 2008, Copeland received the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Arts and was named National Youth of the Year Ambassador for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in 2013. President Obama appointed Copeland to the President's Council on Fitness, Sport and Nutrition in 2014. She continues to be a rising star of ballet.

What is interesting about the role of Ivy Smith is that this role almost always goes to a professional dancer of the ballet world. The original Ivy in the 1944 production of On the Town was Sono Osato, who got her start with the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo before taking up residence with the American Ballet Theatre. The 1998 revival of On the Town featured Tai Jimenez of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in the role of Ivy. Even the 1971 revival featured Donna McKechnie, a Tony-winning actress who has a strong foundation in dance shaped by her work with choreographer Michael Bennett, in the role.

Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild in <i>An American in Paris</i>
Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris Photo by Angela Sterling

What other stars of dance have graced the theatre with their talents? Over the years, many well-known performers from the world of ballet have made the transition to Broadway. Though it doesn't seem to happen as often as audiences might think, occasionally a theatre piece is made a touch more magical by the presence of a professional dancer from the world of ballet leaping across the footlights and taking up residence in a Broadway musical. One of the 2014-15 season's hottest tickets and artistically praised productions is An American in Paris. Director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, himself a former dancer for the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet, helmed the piece and drew from his resources in the world of dance to fill the leads. Leanne Cope, who studied at the Royal Ballet School, eventually achieved the status of First Artist for the Royal Ballet. She was employed for the role of the Parisian woman Lise in An American in Paris. Robert Fairchild, principal dancer for the New York City ballet, was brought in to play the role of Jerry Mulligan, the titular American who falls in love with Lise. Together, these dance professionals would execute the startling An American in Paris ballet. Jacques d'Amboise was a principal dancer for the New York City ballet, joining the company at age 15. He worked very closely with choreographer George Balanchine. His athletically graceful abilities were put to use in the film musicals "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954) and "Carousel" (1956). He would eventually go on to start the National Dance Institute in 1976. D'Amboise appeared in one Broadway musical, the short-lived Shinbone Alley (1957), based on a popular New York Tribute column about a poetic cockroach and a saucy alley cat. It was the only time he would make that leap. Tony Award-winning actress and dancer Charlotte d'Amboise (A Chorus Line, Pippin) is his daughter. His son Christopher was Tony-nominated for his performance in the musical Song & Dance, he himself having been a dancer for the New York City ballet.

In 1983, the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes was revived on Broadway with Russian-born dancer Natalia Makarova headlining the production. Makarova had studied dance at the Leningrad Choreographic School (formerly the Imperial Ballet School). In the 1960s, she worked her way up to position of prima ballerina for the Kirov Ballet. After defecting from the Soviet Union, she would work the Royal Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. On Your Toes gave her the opportunity to play a role with which she would be very comfortable: as the prima ballerina Vera Barnova. She would also get to dance, which is what audiences wanted to see. Natalia Makarova was an enormous success on Broadway, picking up a handful of awards for her work, including a Tony Award for Best Actress in Musical.

Sometimes famous dancers got their start in Hollywood, lighting up the silver screen with their physical prowess and exquisite grace. Cyd Charisse started dance lessons at an early age. Though she originally took up ballet as a way to help recover from polio, she eventually became a professional dancer, working in a small touring troupe before signing with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio where her talent for dance was exhausted in such movie musicals as "The Harvey Girls" (1946), "The Band Wagon" (1953), "Brigadoon" (1954), "Silk Stockings" (1957) and "Party Girl" (1958). In would not be until 1992, at the age of 70, that Charisse would finally make her Broadway debut, in a role that seemed tailor-made for a retired dancer. She would replace Liliane Montevecchi (a prima ballerina turned Broadway actress) as the aging ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya in Tommy Tune's musical of nonstop dance, Grand Hotel. Her presence in Grand Hotel helped to invigorate the waning box office. Grand Hotel would prove to be her only stint on Broadway. Cyd Charisse died in 2008 at the age of 86, remembered as one of cinema's greatest dancers who also braved Broadway.

Natalia Makarova
Natalia Makarova

Professional dancers taking on Broadway is not merely limited to musicals. The stage adaptation of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis in 1989 featured the inspired choice of employing dancer extraordinaire Mikhail Baryshnikov to portray a man who wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a dung beetle. The physical evolution of the character required Baryshnikov to call upon his roots in ballet as he morphed into a giant insect, first awkwardly inhabiting his new frame, but then loosening gracefully into a fluid, confident representation of nature. He was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. Born in Riga, Latvia, Baryshnikov had joined the New York City Ballet in his early career. He then began creating with the American Ballet Theatre in 1974, eventually working his way up to Artistic Director. Having also appeared in a handful of movies, Baryshnikov remains one of America's most well-known dancers and his fame carried enormous star power, aiding in his successful transition to the Broadway stage.

Ballet is an important component of the Broadway musical's heritage, an effective tool in telling story outside of music, lyrics, and book that has evolved throughout time. Broadway choreographers George Balanchine, Agnes DeMille, Jerome Robbins and Michael Kidd all hailed from the world of professional dance. They were pioneers in utilizing movement to elevate musical theatre dance to poetic storytelling, the human body the vessel through which they shaped their tales. Along the way, they would often bring in dancers from the great ballet companies to help with the storytelling. As Misty Copeland prepares herself to enter On the Town, it is appropriate to celebrate all of the dancers who have made the leap from professional dance companies to the Broadway stage, bringing with them an unparalleled artistry and beauty.

Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."

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