To say Sam Pinkleton’s process of choreographing Soft Power was unconventional would be an understatement. Then again, when has Pinkleton, a Tony nominee for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, ever been conventional? And yet, he packs the dance in the Public Theater’s new “play within a musical” with gobs of conventional musical theatre movement.
That’s because Soft Power is a subversive, ambitious new piece of theatre using American musical tradition to question cultural appropriation, the relationship between East and West, and democracy’s worth. The satire follows the fictional David Henry Hwang, who is writing the book to an American-style musical set to premiere in China, and the Chinese producing executive Xue Xíng, who wants him to make that musical more Chinese. When David is stabbed, he enters a dream state where he instead writes a musical about the run up to and immediate aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. We enter that musical world, a show in which Chinese newcomer Xue Xíng tries to teach Hillary Clinton about democracy (much like, say, Mrs. Anna teaches the King of Siam about ruling his East Asian kingdom).
“The show is: What if you were looking at American musical theatre from the outside and you were trying to appropriate an American form? Which is what American forms do to every other culture,” Pinkleton says. From a choreographic standpoint, Pinkleton says, “The basic pitch was: It’s a big Golden Age style musical that is told using the styles and forms that have made up a century of American musical theatre.”
So Pinkleton set to work gathering signature dance references to musical theatre and American popular dance. His research YouTube playlist for the show contains over 300 videos ranging from Tony performances, pop music videos, and movie musical clips, to Tai Chi. In his first dance lab for the show (a preparatory workshop phase just for choreography) back in 2017, he and his associate Sunny Hitt used the videos like a vision board. “We would watch music videos once and then I would say, ‘Recreate that music video,’” as he pushed play on a different pop song. The exercise was to force his dancers to pluck out “the bold, signifying impressions that people remember from dance numbers or dance moves.”
Then he and his dancers would set that movement to the music from the Oklahoma! dream ballet, trying to determine if it could be taken seriously.
Because while Pinkleton is the choreographer of this Off-Broadway Soft Power, in doing so, he plays the role of a choreographer in China trying to emulate an American musical—a form about which he knows very little. “[It’s as if] you were visiting American musical theatre and saying, ‘What are the things that define this?’ and then you went away and made your own show out of it.”
Pinkleton built a vocabulary with references to Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gower Champion, Agnes de Mille, Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliott, and Backstreet Boys. At all times, the movement served the story while nodding to the form, such as in numbers like the ballroom duet “It Just Takes Time,” Clinton’s showstopper “I’m With Her,” and Southern-flavored ensemble number “Good Guy With a Gun.” And crucial to his process was working with Asian-American dancers even before casting, because they “were the bodies that would ultimately have to inhabit the movement.”
Every gesture is executed with integrity and joy because Soft Power only succeeds if the musical within the play is a good musical and the audience can believe it would endure in China for 50 years. “Movement is paired with music in a way that is sometimes unexpected and really crunchy and really silly, but it’s not a punchline,” says Pinkleton. “That’s a huge thing the show is about: the delivery system of musical theatre makes you weep, even if the politics are complicated.”
Below, Pinkleton lets us in on the story and creation behind four key numbers and, in a choreographic feat, quotes the references to past musicals, music videos, and more captured in the production’s official montage.
1. “Welcome to America” – Xūe Xíng’s arrival in New York
“This is a moment that is about arriving at an airport in a foreign country and feeling like everything is hitting up against you. It feels fun to me if that’s as if he stepped into the middle of a televised dance crew. That’s what that sensation is, right? You get off at the airport at JFK and people elbow me in the face, but also they’re synchronized and you’re the only person who doesn’t know how to do it.”
2. “Fuxing Park” – David Henry Hwang’s memory of his childhood in China
“‘Fuxing Park’ is all about memory. It’s all about, ‘This is the impression this place made on me once’ as opposed to ‘We are visiting this land and recreating it perfectly.’ The ensemble watched all of these videos that Sunny and I had found of people dancing in Fuxing Park because there’s a very rich tradition of line dancing and group exercise in Fuxing Park. They made new phrases based on watching these videos and then we wove all of those together.”
3. “I’m With Her” – Hillary Clinton Campaigns at a Fundraiser
“We did a workshop that was basically all about Hillary that developed her solos, that developed how she moves and why she dances—which was the biggest question. Why on earth would Hillary Clinton dance? “[Director] Leigh Silverman was so fierce about taking Hillary very seriously, about loving her and also being as bold as possible in theatricalizing her hustle and both her willingness to do anything for people’s votes and her utter competence at every moment. In collaboration with John Clancy, the dance arranger, and my associate Sunny, and the dancers who I was working with, we were like, ‘What are the chapters that this woman will have to go through to feel like she’s speaking to everyone?’ The commands are: swing, hip-hop, strike a pose, tap, sexy, then she ends up riding a French fry around the stage. In previews, there was a section where she did Kung-Fu lifts and turning cartwheels, which I’m glad we cut. There’s a meta thing to that number of seeing Hillary ace everything, watching it get more and more humiliating and watching the performer, Alyse Alan Louis, ace it and also get totally exhausted by it. We, the audience—because it’s delightful—are cheering and also we’re cannibalizing her. It’s really sensitive. When that number gets a giant hand, the audience has completed the conversation.”
4. “Election Night” – The 2016 results are read
“Donald Trump is elected and there is a victory mob. In the first production, I was like, ‘Obviously, it’s a sinister boy band.’ The entire thing was a rebuff of NSync’s ‘I Want You Back.’ But that number was dismissable onstage because these people are really celebrating a victory and it’s a little scary, but they’re not trying to be scary. We go into a dance lab like, ‘Here’s five different ways the number could go.’ One was a marching band, straight up Music Man choreography with people playing fake trombones. One was cheerleading lifts with everybody throwing each other in the air in victory. One was no choreography at all and just people huddling and cheering based on victory dances. Most of the songs in the show have six fully existent versions that are stylistically opposite from each other. There’s a version of ‘Election Night’ that’s a tap number!”
Soft Power Montage
Pinkleton pulls out the individual references in each flash of the production’s montage, and provides the links from his custom YouTube playlist.
“The opening of our musical, lovingly called the ‘Underture,’ was conceived as a strange collision/fever dream of the Beijing Olympics and a sort of extreme fantasy of a golden age musical, like Pennies From Heaven. A window into the larger world of the show itself. There is also a blatant visual reference to Nixon in China for those following along closely.”
00:18 “It Just Takes Time”
“Beyond the broadly recognizable nod to The King and I here in the video, the climax of the dance and their introduction to each other, Xūe and Hillary's physical vocabulary in ‘It Just Takes Time’ was directly inspired by the classic Hollywood duets of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (and Cyd Charisse!) like ‘Let Yourself Go’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark.’”
00:21 “Welcome to America”
“In finding a language for how Xūe is welcomed into the exotic new land called America in ‘Welcome to America,’ we were inspired by the aggressive synchronicity of contemporary dance crews. And if you look very closely you may see a nod to Robbins' original King and I moves here.”
00:22 “Fuxing Park”
“All of this movement in ‘Fuxing Park’ was directly inspired by the daily life of, unsurprisingly, Fuxing Park. The dancers devised a vocabulary based on video of people in Shanghai exercising and dancing in a public space.”
00:24 “The New Silk Road”
“In ‘The New Silk Road’ we’re obsessed with official Propaganda Ballets created by China in the mid-20th century, and the angularity of communist imagery—all of the "rugged individualism" from ‘Good Guy With a Gun’ suddenly turned into clean lines.”
00:30 “I’m With Her”
“Hillary's strategy in ‘I’m With Her’ is straight out of The Music Man, reflected in the viral bouncing that she spreads through the number. This whole number pulls from a broad range of references, from Eleanor Powell tap dancing off an army of men with canes to peak Liza to Hillary herself learning to dab on Ellen. We also really loved this commercial for The Tap Dance Kid because in it nobody has EVER LOVED MUSICAL THEATRE MORE. Which is sort of the level of exuberance we were hoping for with this sequence.”
00:33 “Happy Enough”
“We knew Xūe and Hillary meeting on the Golden Gate Bridge had to be the most blatantly romantic thing in the whole show, and we turned to some iconic duets from Hollywood musicals for inspiration [see: ‘Everything I Have Is Yours’ and ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’]. We also loved the duet in the middle of the Oklahoma! dream ballet and were happy to jiggle with Rodgers and Hammerstein at any point...”
00:35 “Election Night”
“In ‘Election Night’ we were particularly excited about musical theater at its absolute most wholesome. After all, it's a group celebration of a system we can all agree on—the electoral college! We kept thinking about both Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and ‘The Farmer and The Cowman’ from Oklahoma!.”
00:43 “Good Guy With a Gun”
“‘Good Guy With a Gun’ pulls from the complicated references to what I think of as cliché Americana as it has been defined by white culture, from Agnes de Mille's ‘Rodeo’ to modern country line dancing and its many forms.”