Are We Moving Away From Traditional Musical Theatre Dance?

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  •  Liz Chirico

Watching The Band’s Visit (first national tour) it became clear to me that something shifted within Broadway and musical theater. The Band’s Visit features poetic movements exquisitely choreographed by Patrick McCollum with Lee Sher overseeing movement. Movement? That’s something I’ve not seen called out except perhaps in a play. What’s movement? Isn’t all dance movement? Why the need for both a Choreographer and a… Movement-er? I believe it’s because musical theater choreography in the traditional sense is dead, or most definitely dying. In its place is movement. Graceful, poetic, stylized movement.

Over the last year I’ve seen several new musicals: Bright Star, Dear Evan Hanson, Come From Away and now The Band’s Visit. Not one features dancing in the traditional musical theater sense. (To me, traditional musical theater dancing includes small group and large ensemble numbers mainly in the jazz and/or tap style with the dance stemming from a vocal number.) Instead, all these shows featured what I’m calling choreographed movement. Some came from the vocal numbers as with the cast of Come From Away during “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere”. The closest thing that show has to a “traditional” dance number takes place during the “Screech-In” when the men and women sing their traditional Newfoundlander song to each other. And going off my definition of a musical theater dance number, even this doesn’t fit the bill.  

Bright Star was perhaps the first time I noticed choreographed movement. In that show the actors double as stage crew and so set movement is incorporated into the action on stage leaving little or no blackout between scenes. Instead, each actor’s movement is carefully choreographed to not just avoid crashes, but to seamlessly blend set and scene changes into the fabric of the show. It becomes a type of dance in and of itself. It was beautiful to watch; it added to the storyline, never detracting or taking you out of the moment.

I believe with shows premiering on/off Broadway in the past few years, there’s a firm dividing line between shows with traditional musical theater dances and those with choreographed movement. If the show is a revival(Kiss Me Kate), or the source material is older like(Tootsie) then it’s likely the show contains those big, splashy, jazzy/tap dance breaks. Otherwise get ready for stylized movement.

However, even shows featuring older source material don’t have as many big dance numbers as classic shows like Anything Goes, or West Side Story. I believe much has to do with not only the show and the source material but the world outside the theater. During Broadway’s heyday, the world was seemingly full of hope, where the generation to come would clearly inherit a better world than you (and the one you inherited wasn’t that bad). Now, with everything unclear, unsure, unknown large, splashy (read- happy) dance numbers are harder to justify and perhaps less palatable to audiences.

I’m not dissing the new dance break. Let me be clear- stylized movement is no less difficult, breathtaking or moving than the larger ensemble numbers I grew up watching. It’s different to be sure but fits with today’s shows and the world in which those shows inhabit. At no point in The Band’s Visit would it make sense to break out in a full, show stopping dance number (though that would be something!), yet when Dina mirrors Tewfiq as he conducts in “Itgara’a” it’s pure poetry in motion. And isn’t that the meaning of dance? To speak with the body, to connect through movement?