Passing It On: A Conversation with American Dance Machine 21

April 3, 2015

The Steps Beyond Foundation supports artists in the dance community through educational programs, dance scholarships, performances, and outreach opportunities. Utilizing collaborative interactions with established artists and those emerging in the industry, the Artists Talk Series is a regular event featuring professional teachers, choreographers, dancers, and acclaimed industry veterans of the arts. Recent talks include “The Women of Fosse” (Diana Laurenson, Dana Moore, Mimi Quillin), and “Hear It From The Pros: A Conversation With Broadway Insiders” (Grover Dale, Donna McKechnie, Randy Skinner).

On March 22nd, “Passing It On: A Conversation With American Dance Machine 21” was presented by the foundation under the artistic direction of Diane Grumet, production manager Bradley Shelver, and special events producer and moderator Patricia R. Klausner. The panel was made up of American Dance Machine for the 21st Century founder and producing artistic director Nikki Feirt Atkins; artistic director and stager Margo Sappington; stagers Karin Baker, Tomé Cousin, Robert La Fosse, Lars Rosager; and dancers Georgina Pazcoguin, Amar Ramasar, and Ariel Shepley.

The panel opened with a brief history of American Dance Machine and its founder. Choreographer, dancer, director Lee Theodore founded American Dance Machine in 1976 with the mission of recreating and passing on the dances of musical theater. Realizing the songs and books of musicals have always been archived, her company recreated the dance numbers so that they would not be lost. The company disbanded in 1987 upon the passing of Ms. Theodore, and in 2012 American Dance Machine for the 21st Century was reborn to keep the legacy of her work alive and to pass it along to today’s dancers and those in the community. Even though the Performing Arts Library began filming Broadway shows in 1969, thereby capturing the dance, learning choreography strictly from videos mostly involves copying movement. The nuances, stylistic elements, and the intent of the choreographer are all lost when learning a number from a video. ADM21 is striving to bring back that artistry and respect for the art form in their recreations, and to teach the history of who the choreographers are, and what they were striving to achieve. As Tomé Cousin noted, “There’s a reason behind each movement, and just because one knows what something is, it doesn’t mean you can do it. “Dancers are hungry and will always be hungry, and need to be encouraged”.

The specific details of a piece are important in conveying what the choreographer was going for, and Ms. Sappington said it nicely when she mentioned that “to be spontaneous, it has to be specific. Specifically messy.” There is beauty even in the smallest detail. Dancers took their time to learn the movement and learn why each step mattered. Robert La Fosse noted that there is a different mindset in today’s dance world. The need to compete with others instead of only competing with oneself and finding the artistry behind each step.

Some artistry and beauty is lost in some of the work today as it isn’t always about simplicity, but the feeling that movement has to be about tricks and showing off what one can do. The history embedded in the dances and the connection between the steps or tricks is being lost. Archived footage shows how beautiful the simplicity can be. Margo Sappington said that “stillness is choreography, stillness is movement, stillness is beautiful.” Bringing back that choreography offers an opportunity to appreciate the works of those no longer with us, and to share it with today’s upcoming generation of dancers.

There are very few shows that still utilize the original choreography. A Chorus Line and West Side Story are two classics recognized for making use of their original choreography. They are iconic shows that have survived the changing times, without finding the need to be updated to fit today’s standards. We are fortunate to still have original members of these shows setting the work today. Robert La Fosse made a point that revivals are brought to life with different choreographers, and not with those who created the material. The choreographer’s responsibility is to find a balance between keeping the details of when it was first performed, and creating it on today’s dancers and keeping it updated and relevant.

The question was asked if while keeping the original choreography – should it stay the same, or be changed to make the dancer look good if it’s something that doesn’t suit their individuality? There’s a balance in recreating choreography exactly as it appeared in the archives, and in setting it on a dancer with a different level and style of technique, body type, and skill.

While we are so fortunate to have stagers who worked on the original shows and closely with the original choreographers, it was discussed how most choreographers do not have trusts that protect their work. Choreographers need help with how their work will live on. Stagers and historians have access to the archives, but there’s also a process in getting permission to use the numbers, and in maintaining the respect for the choreographer’s work.

ADM21 wants to make the works accessible to today’s dancers who may not have the opportunity to work on it otherwise, and their company works on making that possible through bringing in those who were in the original productions, and who are able to pass on their knowledge and expertise. Putting together a show is a process, and ADM21 is maintaining Lee Theodore’s motivation behind why the original American Dance Machine was created. They are offering us a glimpse into works we might not have the opportunity to see otherwise.

Never stop sharing what you know with others, and never stop appreciating and learning about the history behind what you’re working on. We have the resources at our fingertips, but don’t always make use of what we have. Especially in today’s society, it’s so easy to not look at the history behind what we study. Appreciate what we have within reach, and take advantage of all that we’re able to learn directly from those who were a part of original creations, and in what we can learn from researching the artists and their work.

By Anne-Allegra Bennett, (@aab_artiste)
Steps Administrative Assistant

Photo: C. Duggan, Woman in the Yellow Dress, Act III of Contact, choreography by Susan Stroman; courtesy of American Dance Machine 21

Passing It On: A Conversation with American Dance Machine 21