Process : Choreographing Cabaret

I started preparing to choreograph Cabaret last April, right after my first meeting with Kenny Gannon, director of the Musical Theatre Department at Peace University.  I had done a little research to refresh myself on the story (I saw the Broadway revival in the spring of 2002 - it was my then-boyfriend’s idea to usher the show in exchange for free tickets, i.e. stair seating - but college freshman that I was, still finding my way in New York, still piecing together sense of the September 11th attacks, trying to act much older and cooler than I really was, and much much younger than I thought I was - I have completely forgotten the experience but that Molly Ringwald played the star, and that I preferred her teenage sweetness in Sixteen Candles to her awkward sexuality in Cabaret), and I felt both lucky and terrified at the notion of choreographing a musical as dark, complex, and mature as Cabaret.  Lucky for the opportunity, lucky that all my dancers would always show up to rehearsal (as students, they, or their parents, were paying me for the opportunity to rehearse, in exchange for a learning experience), lucky that the only thing I would have to do is choreograph - not produce, not curate, not publicize, not organize, not even dance.  Most of all, lucky that Cabaret is rich in substance and full of fascinating ideas to explore and investigate - sexuality so broken from its sensuality that it becomes grotesque; the beginning of the end of a society that had lost its identity in a world war; and the atomic combination of fear and willful oblivion that can sow the seeds of a terrifying political regime.  


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The old familiar fears sprang up (why did they hire me? what do I know about Weimar Germany circa 1931? I’m a modern dancer, how will I choreograph era-appropriate jazz choreography whilst paying respect to Fosse’s indelible stamp on it and staying genuine to my understanding of the show?), hence I began preparing to choreograph the show a full ten months before it went up, more hopeful that the process of preparing would equip me with what I felt I lacked, than trusting that it would.  I prepared in small and big ways, some direct and some indirect.  For one thing, I studied at the American Dance Festival last summer, and specifically signed up for a repertory class so I could gain experience working with a professional choreographer (see this blog post).  After ADF ended, I set myself about to sweeping out and moving into, literally, my living room, aka my dance room1, which, devoid of furniture, is large enough to hold one dancing body and one dog.  So I danced in there as often as possible, which inspired a solo (you can see that here), and transformed that space into my own private rehearsal studio.  I spent five days in New York taking jazz and theater classes at Broadway Dance Center to develop my warm-up routine and learn more about current jazz and theater trends.  Between Christmas and New Years, I participated in a Gaga2 Workshop (one day soon I hope to write a post about this experience) which ended only a week before rehearsals began3.  All the while, I listened to the Cabaret soundtrack.  When I reached the point that I could sing it in my sleep, I began to set movement to the music.  I documented each movement in three ways - first, I drew the spatial patterns of the dancers in my notebook (see here for a scan of some of the notes from the musical number Money).  Then I typed up the movements themselves (see here for the notes that correspond to the above scan from Money).  Finally, I videotaped myself doing the dances themselves (which will not be posted, as they all too often reveal embarassing episodes such as oops-I-fell-off-a-chair-while-trying-to-look-badass - but here’s a link to the performance video on youtube).  I prepared in every way I could think of.  But by the time the first rehearsal came about at 7pm on January 9th, all feelings of luck had become nervous anticipation, and all feelings of terror were still firmly in place.  But I walked in with hope for the best and ten months of preparation.  If I was going down, at least I knew I tried.

That first rehearsal came and went.  Whatever I was afraid of didn’t happen that night, didn’t happen any night.  The dancers, the production crew, the directors - everyone was nice.  Everyone respected the process by which I taught the dancers their movement, and everyone understood what a huge undertaking this was (seven dances, as well as several scenes with movement).  Most of all, everyone wanted the show to succeed.  And they didn’t just want it to be good - they wanted it to be awesome.  Cabaret is the first musical that Peace College has produced as a Musical Theatre department, and I’m sure that everyone felt the pressure to rock the show.  And rock it we did.  With an extremely talented and committed cast, crew, and director(s), the show went from non-existent to remarkable in only five and a half weeks.

Don’t get me wrong - I was pretty stressed for most of that month-and-a-half.  Stressed out, afraid, same thing: that the dances failed to capture the essence of the show; that everyone looked horrible despite what I thought; that everyone on board was so nice that they wouldn’t tell me the truth about the dances; and that, deepest of all, what I had to say wasn’t worthy of the show, wasn’t complimentary of the show, wasn’t, in a word, relevant.  I fought against these self-doubts with all the affirmations I could come up with (thank you, Julia Cameron, for the gift of personalized affirmations), and while I can still smell the smoke those fears left in their dust, late at night, I look back on the experience as a huge success for everyone involved, including myself (see this blog post here, which has a link to the review from The Independent Weekly newspaper).

When I began this blog post two months ago, I was fresh off the Cabaret boat, the memories from it reeling in my mind and body.  It’s been two months, two months since the last show, and I’ve lost some of the details of the experience.  I remember the preparation, cancelling dates with friends and family to spend time alone in my dance room; I remember the anticipation, my good friend Erin reassuring me the day before the first rehearsal that even if I threw up in front of everyone and then slipped and fell in the vomit, everything would be okay; I remember looking at the faces of the 18-year-old students and thinking, By God, I am no longer 18 years old at ALL, even though I still forget that sometimes; I remember trying to balance my roles of choreographer, authority figure, mentor, and student of this process; and I remember, perhaps most clearly, with my heart, how much affection I have for everyone who was involved in the show.  That’s what I’ll carry with me most as I go forward with choreography and creation, the experience of working together to create something amazing4.  Now I’m old enough, seasoned enough, to know that every show and experience will not succeed.  Some will fail, some have already failed, some of the growing will be painful.  But approaching the work with a spirit of hope and a hella lot of preparation, I set myself up for more success than I could have hoped for5.

1 Having moved into this apartment a full year before Cabaret came onto my radar, I hadn’t yet grown comfortable with the idea of a living room cum dance room, much less physically comfortable in the space itself.  I have no other studio to dance in, I told myself- and if I’m going to choreograph Cabaret in here I better get comfortable. 

2 gaga is the movement style of the Batsheva Dance Company of Israel.  The brain-and-body child of Ohad Naharin, Gaga sets you on movement tasks in the service of waking up all the layers of the body, from the cellular to the muscular levels, from the physical to the sensual planes.  It engages everything, is a new and different experience every time, and I found the experience to be one of perhaps the five most influential events in my life as a dancer so far.

3 In a sentence, the workshop deepened my own understanding of how movement feels in my body, thereby creating a smarter gage for choreography. 

4 oh yeah - I will also remember crawling into that very same creation the day of the first show, due to a dancer injury, and performing the show 8 nights in the next two weeks.  Stay tuned!

5 shout outs to everyone who made this such a positive experience - Kenny Gannon, Jason Dula, Jennifer Becker, Derrick Ivey, Jay Wright, and all the people who witnessed and supported this process.  Thank you!