For a dancer in New York City, life consists of audition after audition, performing a choreographer’s dance combos. Benjamin Rivera decided to change that.
“I kind of just took a step back for a moment when I was sitting around in New York and [thinking], ‘I’m surrounded by some of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life,’” says Rivera, “and all we do all day is sit in studios and auditions, and then we hope that somebody hires us to give us the chance to create something. Why not just take it into my own hands?”
Even at the young age of 24, Rivera didn’t want to wait for someone to hire him to dance—though there has been no shortage of work since he graduated Oklahoma City University. (Rivera immediately boarded the Disney Fantasy as the dance captain and swing, before joining the national tour of Anything Goes, then the national tour of Elf and, most recently, the national tour of Dirty Dancing.)
Still, at the height of audition season this past winter, Rivera felt the itch to choreograph. He fell in love with dance at the age of seven, when his gymnastics coach suggested he start dancing to help his flexibility. “I was instantly in love with it, and it kind of hasn’t stopped since,” says Rivera. Later on, Rivera assisted his choreographers for high school productions, and that “gave me that confidence to create.”
“You find a song and it does the majority of the work for you,” says Rivera. “You find a song and you’re like, ‘There’s no way this shouldn’t have dance to it.’” For Rivera, that music was Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance.” The catchiness of the tune is undeniable, but Rivera’s inspiration emerged from the lyrics.
“It had such a bright energy of hope and joy,” he says. “It creates a story in my head that was so vivid.” Inspired by the music, Rivera choreographed, directed and starred in what he calls a fairytale story. Rivera is hardly the first young dancer to choreograph his own work, but the professionalism and vision behind this video suggests he’s someone to watch.
In the video (filmed by Eric Mann), Rivera sees a girl across the dance floor who leaves the bar before he can talk to her, but on his way home—while still thinking about his missed connection—he sees her across the subway platform. “There was just this build of hope in the entire song for me,” he says. “What are the chances in a city as big as New York City that you’d run back into somebody like that?”
After landing on his story arc, Rivera needed to find his princess. He remembered a girl (the now co-star of his video, Lizz Picini) from dance class. “She had approached me and was like, ‘I kind of want to play and interact and not just do the choreo,’” he remembers. Rivera harnessed that fearlessness, freedom and playfulness in his video, and not just through the movement.
While the original music video takes place in one club, Rivera wanted to capture the life and excitement of New York City. His choreographic vision was about a journey, not one moment, and a full picture through movement, not just steps. “I wanted to create shapes and lines and with the train and with the bench… you can do so much with the environment if you interact with it slightly,” he says.
Rivera’s passion is palpable as he talks about the project. “There’s something in creating for me,” he says. “There’s some kind of high that I get from being able to not just perform a piece, but set something on people.”
The dancer hopes to parlay his extracurricular creativity into work as a choreographer. “I know that I wouldn’t just become a choreographer overnight, and I knew it took time, and it takes getting people to know you and know your work,” he says. “I know I’m young, but I [thought], ‘There’s no reason I shouldn’t start now.’ There’s no reason I shouldn’t start getting my name out there and putting in the time and the work.”
In the meantime, Rivera will next be working on Pirates of Penzance at Barrington Stage, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. As he continues to feed his first love, dance, he’s also excited to learn from Bergasse, absorbing his process, never losing site of the end goal.
“It’s because you get to put a piece of your heart in it,” says Rivera as to why choreographing is particulary meaningful. “You get to sit back and watch it come together.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.