Choreographer and Broadway alum JoAnn M. Hunter doesn’t like being put in a box. When crafting new dance sequences for a musical, the creator thinks most about what will serve the piece, not what will make audiences go “oh yes, JoAnn did this.”
So while the pandemic was a challenge, it opened up new avenues to explore while working on her latest collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the new Cinderella musical, which opens on the West End July 20.
One example is Hunter's non-traditional staging of a big waltz scene. “We actually start back to back,” says the choreographer, who was able to workshop several sequences with a small group of dancers in Connecticut last summer but was still cognizant of keeping her ensemble comfortable. “I wanted to make sure the dancers felt good and safe, and when they left the studio, they weren't like ‘oh no I don’t like this, this makes me nervous.’ So in an odd way, I was creating in a way that I don't think you normally think about.”
This attitude applies to the musical as a whole, Hunter says. This is her third collaboration with Lloyd Webber and director Laurence Connor after School of Rock and the London revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which returned for a limited engagement July 12), and together with lyricist David Zippel and book writer Emerald Fennell, the quintet are not doing anything by the book.
“Our Cinderella has a little feist in her,” Hunter says. “She and the people of this village of this town both have a journey. She has a defense mechanism that makes her, for lack of a better word, just as much of a bully as the town….sometimes you’re bad because you want to fit in.”
With several delays, Hunter has had plenty of time to solidify her movement for the musical fairy tale, but it was still tricky. “I was one of those last people who did my homework or my science project, and I’d just stay up all night the night before.” Not that she’s slacking off. “I do homework, I do a lot of research, and I also want to be prepared, but it was also hard for me to get motivated.” With Zoom dance becoming de rigeuer, the choreographer was worried what it would be like getting back on stage. “I honestly was not nervous about traveling. I was more nervous about thinking ‘I don't know if I can do this anymore,’ I haven’t honed those skills as a choreographer and dancer lately.”
She was cognizant of the dancer’s experience with COVID-19, too. It’s one thing to be on your feet for eight hours a day during rehearsals but it’s not so easy to do while in lockdown. So, instead of jumping right in, Hunter slowly built up the performer’s endurance. “I didn’t want to baby them—I want my dancers full out with feeling all the time...but I was trying to be respectful and aware of their bodies as much as I couldn't be without me being ‘full out with feeling, let’s go!’”
It’s been a tough year for a lot of people for a lot of reasons, Hunter says, so she’s not too mad about the adjustments. “The fact that we’re able to do what we believe we should be doing or were meant to do and get paid for it ...I can't complain about anything, even though sometimes I’m tired….in the grand scheme of things we are so damn lucky.”
It makes sense that Hunter is a little exhausted—down the road at the London Palladium, she’s also making sure the return engagement of Joseph is running smoothly. “I have a great associate over there and a dance captain,” leaving Hunter to tweak a few things here and there and then be on her way, spending her mornings with one team and the afternoon and evening with another.
Despite the long hours, it’s worth it. “The company is just filled with such joy and are so happy to be in the room dancing and singing,” Hunter says of the Joseph cast. “It’s such a fun show...it's like being shot out of a cannon, there's one big number after another after another. When I go there in the mornings, I sometimes think ‘oh my heavens, I don't know if I have enough energy,’ and within a matter of 10 minutes I’m dancing myself because they come in with such energy.”
The choreographer is also feeling taxed because back in the states, the pandemic came with plenty of challenges not related to work. Hunter, who identifies as Japanese and Caucasian, spent plenty of time during the pandemic dealing with racism. Whether it’s the man in a grocery store calling coronavirus the “China virus” or the man at the dog park asking about her ethnicity, Hunter is experiencing a new side of what it means to be mixed race.
“I grew up being made fun of, but I never grew up being afraid of it or scared of it, and over the course of this past year, there is a little bit of fear in the back of my head, which I hate beyond hate.”
To cope, the choreographer is using her signature humor and direct approach. She’ll call out misbehavior if she sees it. “This is just my take, but I’m not going to dwell on things that have happened to me. I’m not gonna blame anybody, I’m not going to sink back, I’m just going to forge forward.”
That mantra has carried her through decades of work as a dancer and choreographer on Broadway. “People who know me now don't necessarily know that I danced before and I have a plethora of experience on stylistically different dance, so the chance to be able to do stylistically different things is always my goal. I don't ever want to be pigeonholed. As long as it inspires me and challenges me to the point where I’m like ‘shit I don't know if I can do this,’ that's all I want to do.”
As for what’s next, Hunter will take on SuperYou, which hopes to get an in-person staging in 2022.