Forty years ago, the movie musical Grease introduced audiences around the world to Grease lightning and an iconic hand jive. Would anyone guess now that all those unforgettable rock-n'-roll style dances were choreographed by a former Martha Graham Dance Company soloist? (Was John Travolta actually in a contraction?)
Choreographer Patricia Birch, better known as Pat, says "I was always attracted to Broadway, even when I was dancing with Martha."
After Grease's sensational success, Birch continued choreographing and directing, working nonstop for five decades and counting. She directed and choreographed numerous Broadway productions (Candide, A Little Night Music), was resident choreographer for the first six years of Saturday Night Live, choreographed HBO's Boardwalk Empire, and is currently working on touring her musical production, Orphan Train.
With two Emmy awards, two Drama Desk awards and five Tony nominations, it appears Birch was born to create for bright lights and silver screens. But her dance roots began at the School of American Ballet and Graham school.
"When I was a kid [12 years old] Merce Cunningham found me at a Perry Mansfield summer program, and he brought me to Martha," recalls Birch. "She was inspiring—although I often thought if I have to sit on this floor and listen to poetry much longer I'll die!"
Pat Birch, dancing with the Graham Company. Photo by Gene Cook
During her time with Graham, Birch married and had her first child at 21 years old. "I was carrying babies around while I danced!" laughs Birch, who remembers returning to stage only a few months after giving birth.
Although she loved modern dance and the theatrical aspects of Graham's work, she called up Agnes de Mille, who was "a big admirer of Graham," and asked to audition for her upcoming revival of Carousel. She landed the job, and later performed in Brigadoon and Oklahoma! Soon after, she joined Jerome Robbins' West Side Story, and due to her 5'2" stature and signature close-cropped pixie hair, Birch took over the role as Jets tomboy Anybodys.
Birch's first choreographic opportunity was for a production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown in 1967. "I was asked to play Patty, but I wished to play Lucy even though there was no way I could sing it, not a chance," Birch says. "The producer said no, so I told him I would assist the director and understudy Lucy—I lost my voice after just two shows! I stood backstage the next night, quite voiceless, hearing applause for sections I choreographed. I thought, well that's not bad! It all started there."
When asked what inspires her to continue creating, she quips, "I just like doing it!"
Erin Moore, who first danced for Birch while shooting Boardwalk Empire scenes in 2011, describes her as a supportive collaborator. "Pat really focuses on the person she is working with; I appreciate how she pulls different textures out of me," Moore says. "She pushes me to see myself as versatile—I admire that she never set boundaries on her own career."
Erin Moore and Kiva Dawson in Birch's choreography for George Antheil's Jazz Symphony for the New World Symphony. Photo courtesy Birch
And what is Birch's secret recipe for sustaining her body and energy throughout the years? "There were times during shows when I lived on Snickers bars and coffee, and then I'd go back to eating right," she admits. She also is a longtime Pilates student, but she claims to be a bad example because she lacks consistency.
Perhaps the most inspirational aspect of Birch's career is her ability to find balance between work and family. She has three children and four grandkids, and somehow has made time for everything.
"I don't know how I did it, I just tried not to get too crazy. For me, the work really became a vacation, therefore my work actually got better because I was so concentrated when I was there," Birch explains. "I don't think I balanced anything, I just learned to live with chaos and love it!"
Pat onstage of one of her latest directing projects Orphan Train, which she directed and staged, and is currently working to get the production on national tour.