Think of West Side Story's "Cool." Did you immediately picture that moment when the Jets leap forward as a pack, legs tucked, fingers snapped? Pieces like "Cool," Oklahoma!'s famous "Dream Ballet," the opening sequence of A Chorus Line — they're all iconic. When you hear those trumpets blare, you know what to expect onstage. When it comes to musical theatre, there are some pieces always performed the same way with the original choreography.
The minds behind these works and others — Michael Bennett, Agnes De Mille, Bob Fosse, Peter Gennaro, and Jerome Robbins — are some of the most respected choreographers in musical theatre. They left behind revered works of choreography that audiences still see in performances today on stages around the world. What is it about the choreography that urges us to preserve them and never re-invent?
Liza Gennaro, assistant professor of musical theatre choreography at Indiana University (and Peter Gennaro's daughter), describes work like West Side Story as untouchable. Robbins placed narrative content in his choreography and "without the dances [the story] would not exist," says Gennaro. "I think that the style that was created, the juxtaposition of the two choreographers, creating the styles for the gangs — the Jets [from Robbins] and the Sharks [from Gennaro] — is an essential piece of the telling of that story," Gennaro continues. "When [Robbins] came up with West Side Story, in particular, he came up with a fairly original movement vocabulary, so I think that without it, the show would not have the same cohesive impact between book, text, music, lyrics, dance."
The same goes for de Mille's epic "Dream Ballet," a dance that changed the job of the choreographer forever. Musicals would no longer be solely songs and dance breaks — the dance had an accountability to the story. The pieces that emerged from this time in dance history changed the game.
Nikki Feirt Atkins agrees. In fact, she is so dedicated to the preservation of original choreography, she founded American Dance Machine for the 21st Century, a reboot of the dance company originally created by Lee Theodore to ensure these works survive for generations. This year's presentation by ADM21 featured "Cool," recreated by Robbins' long-time dancer Robert La Fosse.
Atkins witnessed La Fosse's firsthand knowledge of Robbins' work. "He really understands every single aspect, every single detail, every single nuance of why [Robbins] did each thing that he did," she says. "[LaFosse] spent the first rehearsal really talking about the finger snaps. How it has to be. It's subtle. Every little nuance to recreate the masterpiece, to pass this on. Otherwise it will be lost."
Aside from ADM21, original choreography often accompanies a Broadway revival, regional theatre mountings, even high school productions. "Why would someone want to redo their own version when it was a masterpiece to begin with?" asks Atikins. "It was an absolute masterpiece, so why not revive it with the original choreography?"
Gennaro also believes that when you're dealing with the level of choreographers like De Mille and Fosse, or Robbins, you can't touch their musicality, which made their work so transformative. "They were so musical. They were so specific in terms of how the music supported their marriage of the dance, that it's really difficult to stray from what they did because the music is screaming at you what to do based on what they did," says Gennaro. "That's a big issue I think. Probably the biggest issue."
The choreography from these shows is more than just movement; it's the intention behind the dance. Lori Ann Ferreri, a member of ADM21, has performed in shows choreographed by some of today's most respected choreographers, but for ADM21's recent show at the Joyce she danced "Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line, as well as "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Bennett's Promises, Promises.
In the studio with Donna McKechnie (Broadway's original Tony-winning Cassie), Ferreri learned from the woman who first brought "Music and the Mirror" to life. "When you get that close to the source of it, it's incredible because you're getting these really personal moments and stories that go along with choreography, as close to being there as physically possible," says Ferreri. "There were specific Michael Bennett things that had to be done. After that it was really focusing on the intention and then personalizing the intention because what she [McKechnie] had said, too, was that it's not just like a generic dance, 'Music and the Mirror,' but it really needs to come from the dancer's perspective. It's really more about the story."
Tony award-winner Jerry Mitchell has choreographed revivals of La Cage aux Folles, and Gypsy, the latter of which featured Jerome Robbins' original choreography. Mitchell had worked as an associate choreographer to both Bennett and Robbins early on in his career, and experienced their elements of style first hand.
Speaking highly of Bennett and Robbins, Mitchell remembers both as "so brilliant." They were two choreographers whose dances "are based on storytelling, and the choreographer is an author. Musical authors," says Mitchell. It's within this purpose of storytelling that today's choreographers have expanded. "I think that most choreographers today work in the paradigm established by Jerome Robbins, which is based in realism, time, place, situation, character," says Gennaro.
Aside from today's choreographers feeling compelled to return to the original movement, audiences today feel a connection to these tentpole works. They sense the timelessness in the stories and relate to the emotion onstage. The dances tell a story.