Jon Rua may be one of the best known hip-hop dancers on Broadway, grinding it out in In The Heights and Hamilton, but Rua didn’t truly dance for the first time until he was 19 years old. “I started doing marching band in high school and that marching band director made us do musical theatre,” says Rua, who grew up playing—of all things—trombone. “Yes, I explored movement and theatre in high school, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t even tell you what a dance studio was.”
Now, Rua is one of the most in-demand dancers and choreographers in musical theatre—and it’s specifically because of his expertise in styles outside the traditional theatrical realm: hip-hop, house, funk, breakdancing, and his own style, which he calls T.H.E. Grit. Still, Rua didn’t cull his deep knowledge and singular movement in a dance studio. “I would just go to events where there was underground hip-hop dancing, house dancing. I would train on my own,” he says. “I didn’t go to dance studios. I didn’t go to dance classes. I never took ballet. I never took tap. I never took jazz. I never took any of it. I just socially danced.”
That’s changed. Once Rua started auditioning he learned on the job and added in classes in all disciplines of dance—which led him to success on Broadway in Hands on a Hard Body, Hamilton, and more.
But Rua is unquestionably a child—and champion—of hip-hop. “I stared from the roots,” he says. “I know the foundational styles of hip-hop; they’re called funk styles. There’s also disco styles. Breaking is a different thing than funk. House is another style of hip-hop [known as] housing. They’re all under the umbrella of hip-hop. And hip-hop has its own straight styles, too.”
Just as classical dances like ballet, jazz, contemporary, modern are based in technique and defined movement vocabularies, Rua is out to teach audiences the same about hip-hop. “[The style] is sort of celebrated and utilized as a very necessary tool in contemporary arts, but it’s not given its integrity,” the dancer-choreographer says. “There are a lot of people who just think they know what they’re doing because they look like non-classical dances, but they’re not doing hip-hop. They’re just moving around.”
Rua’s own movement style has come from his hip-hop roots and fused with his musical theatre experience. “Every movement I make is rooted in hip-hop and funk, but it has a lot of storytelling aspects,” he says of his choreography. “I call it T.H.E. Grit. It’s Trigggered Human Emotion and Grit is how I move. I’m gritty. I’m raw.”
Whether setting movement for a music video, choreographing a full musical like Jesus Christ Superstar or a number for SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, or freestyling on his Instagram Live, Rua seems to plug into the earth and emanate emotion with startling electricity.
“If you watch my movement, my goal isn’t that you’re just visually stimulated,” he continues. “My goal is that every single time you see it, you’re moved.”
Here, Rua takes us through the dance, emotion, and storytelling in five numbers he’s choreographed over his career thus far.
One For You
“I’ve been training Brianna [Mercado] for a while,” says Rua of his partner in this video, which was almost entirely improvised. “In the first minute and 45 seconds approximately you’re setting the intention of what’s going to happen after that and planting the seedlings of the movement vocabulary.” You can see “at the end when we dance together and she walks away, I was just directing her, literally with my hands telling her what to do. Her musicality is based off of momentum.” But most important to the video is Rua’s use of the mirror. “In the mirror you can see all angles of the movement, but, more importantly, you see they’re not just talking about one relationship. Every relationship has a different perspective.”
Watch the video above (sound on!) to hear Rua’s narration of his choreography and intention step by step.
An ensemble member of the original Off-Broadway and Broadway company of Hamilton (and the understudy for the titular role), Rua was excited to re-imagine the story of the love triangle between Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Schuyler, and Angelica Schuyler using the true character storylines, but shedding the constraints of the musical, which is why he set his Love Found to The Hamilton Mixtape recording of “Satisfied” by Sia, Miguel, and Queen Latifah. “For me, it was a clean slate. Because [choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler] has to honor ‘Helpless.’ In order for him to create ‘Satisfied’ he has to honor ‘Helpless.’ I don’t have to honor anything. I wasn’t trying to recreate pictures that existed in the number he did before. [In the musical], that’s what ‘Satisfied’ is doing, reverting back to ‘Helpless’ from Angelica’s perspective. All I’m doing is giving you an example of what the hell it feels like in her mind if we were to physicalize it.” At the same time, separating his story inside Angelica’s mind from the show was also a challenge. “How do I get people to invest in this without connecting to the Hamilton version?”
Watch the video above as Rua narrates the capture, staged in the round (“I don’t like just serving the front; a different story can be told from any angle,” he says), for fresh insight on the unearthed music video.
Jesus Christ Superstar
“Honestly, I’m in love with rock music,” Rua confesses. He choreographed the 2017 production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the St. Louis Muny—where he steps onto the stage as Rooster in the 2018 season’s Annie. “I think hip-hop is heavily informed by rock, too. The challenge [with this show] wasn’t creating movement. The challenge was making it simple. How do I create simplified movement that doesn’t look like unmotivated movement?” Rua recalls. “My favorite number is ‘Simon Zealots.’ I found a way to keep it exciting and yet simple and you can feel the yearning. You see like a Middle-Eastern gang, very community-based. They were excited; they were obsessed. When I created ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ and ‘What’s the Buzz?’ it was like creating sheer want in the physical body. I had an idea for ‘Heaven On Their Minds I never got to play out, where it’s like a cyclone of people and as it grows you start seeing that too much of this can go wrong and that’s what happens in the story. That’s why I wanted to take on the dance because I’m like, ‘You have to have an aggression to it.’ It can’t be picturesque.”
Dance With the Devil
Rua collaborated with musician Jackson Harris on “Dance With the Devil” at the same time he was appearing in Hamilton. “I would talk to Jackson and then I would go to the studio and create [the choreography] for about two, three hours and I’d go to the show or I’d have rehearsal as Hamilton. I went on for Hamilton my first time, [then] my second time and then a week later I shot this video—a 16-hour shoot—and then that week I was Hamilton again at the same time [as] doing a Magic Mike reading as an actor in it … and then [I] go back to choreographing.” But the opportunity to choreograph an official video was worth it to him. “I’ve always envisioned most of the stuff I do in an intimate setting. The camera allows small nuances to resonate in a pedestrian fashion or something that’s really heightened movement, I don’t know it’ll have a certain weight on camera and the way we utilize it in space. For me, to choreograph on camera, it took away the whole proscenium idea. There were less rules to obey, which allowed me to really have free reign and to create the world itself. The camera allowed me to take realistic to generic scenarios and take that heightened emotion into them and physicalize it.”
Dance at the Gym
Vintage Rua. The choreographer created this number, set to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” in 2013 as a comedic take on the iconic number from West Side Story. “I was tired of musical theatre trying to use hip-hop the wrong way and I thought, ‘Let me show you just playfully how hip-hop—in a very fast situation—can tell a very funny version of ‘Dance at the Gym,’” Rua says. “In this version, the Sharks and the Jets actually dance with each other. What would happen if they dance with each other? What happens if Tony doesn’t die and Maria and Tony kiss and everyone’s happily ever after?”
Watch the routine above to hear Rua walk through the choreography and storytelling of one of his earliest videos.