Sam Pinkleton on Choreographing The Great Comet

Pinkleton choreographing the New York premiere of Marie Antoinette at Soho Rep in 2013. Photo by Gregory Costanzo, courtesy of Pinkleton

Sam Pinkleton has found a niche as a Broadway choreographer of plays and even musicals that feel, ironically, largely absent of dance. His gifts are subtlety and authenticity, as he carefully folds in movement so natural and organic the audience might not even realize they're witnessing choreography. In fact, when working on a new project, the first question he'll ask the director is, “Do you really need a choreographer?" says Pinkleton. “I often take jobs away from myself." On November 14, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812—a nontraditional musical staged in and among the audience—makes its Broadway debut with his choreography.

Training: Appomattox Regional Governor's School for the Arts & Technology in Petersburg, Virginia; New York University Tisch School of the Arts, BFA in drama

Choreography: Broadway: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; Amélie (2017); Significant Other (March 2017)

Direction: Runaways (City Center Encores! Off-Center Series)

Photo by Gregory Costanzo, courtesy of Pinkleton

Choreographing The Great Comet “There are two things for me as a choreographer: Proximity, because people have to dance totally like themselves—the way their body does. If you put a performance on, I will call you on it. Second, the music has so much contrast. One second there will be full-on gypsy-punk throwdown, and the next, you're in a ball gown doing what appears to be proper 19th-century ballroom dancing. And then you're upside-down twerking in a strobe light."

Doing his research “I have to learn a completely new skill set for every show that I do. Heisenberg is a two-person play, and at the end, there's a tango. I've never tangoed in my life. So I went to tango class for a month and a half. Then I made this tango based on what a person who's taken tango for a month and a half would do—tentative, full of errors and not virtuosic."

On his process "I almost never, ever, ever choreograph on my own body. I often work with prompts and have people build things, and then I sculpt from there. Or I'll have one phrase that I mutate. I'm like an editor. I'm choreographing a play called Significant Other. It's about best friends in their 20s, and there's a bachelorette party and a wedding. It definitely shouldn't look like there's a choreographer. It's drunk, joyful people at an emotional climax in their lives, expressing themselves physically. So it was me getting the cast in the room, playing Beyoncé and shouting at them for three hours."

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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