Peter Gennaro

Judy Holliday and Peter Gennaro in the "Mu-Cha-Cha" number from Bells Are Ringing (1956)

 

When Jerome Robbins accepted the Tony Award for best choreography in 1957 for West Side Story, few people knew that it was not his achievement alone. He neglected to thank his co-choreographer Peter Gennaro, whose work on the show included the famous “America” and “Mambo” numbers. Gennaro had signed away the rights to his dances.

 

Today, Gennaro (1919–2000) is not as well-known as his contemporaries Robbins, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. But in the late 1950s and early ’60s he was one of the most popular dancer-choreographers. He and his dancers introduced audiences across America to the inherent sensuality of jazz dance through weekly television variety shows like Perry Como’s “Kraft Music Hall.”

 

“The whole world knew who Peter Gennaro was,” says Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, his former assistant at Radio City Music Hall. He was the gleeful man on TV, whether it was The Judy Garland Show or Ed Sullivan, and Gennaro’s choreography, Novellino-Mearns says, “was tight and underneath you.” His trademark was quick hips, fast footwork and a jaunty physical sense of humor. As Chita Rivera said, “He had the fastest feet I had ever seen.”

 

Last October, Gennaro’s dancers and colleagues paid tribute to the 5'6" son of Sicilian immigrants at a “Dancers Over 40” event, where musical theater notables remembered him as the most amiable of choreographers. “Nobody was ever late for rehearsal when he was choreographing,” says Broadway dance veteran Harvey Evans. “You walked in laughing and you left laughing. He was so kind.” Unlike Robbins, who read the riot act to dancers before the West Side Story premiere, Gennaro showered his dancers with loving support.

 

So how—in a business known for its high-strung personalities—did Gennaro cultivate joie de vivre? His daughter Liza says he was born with it. Raised outside of New Orleans, Gennaro’s remarkable disposition toward joy and dancing found fertile ground in the birthplace of jazz. “He always talked about his experiences as a child watching the jazz funerals on the banks of the Mississippi River,” says Liza. “He would join them and dance alongside the musicians.” This experience coincided with Gennaro winning prizes at age 5 in local Charleston competitions. Gennaro’s mother encouraged his nascent talent. His father did not. Nonetheless, Gennaro took his earnings from working at his father’s restaurant to study acrobatics and tap at a local studio.

 

When Gennaro graduated from high school circa 1936, he expressed interest in becoming a graphic artist. Although he occasionally performed in French Quarter clubs, a dance career seemed unrealistic. As America prepared to enter World War II, Gennaro voluntarily enlisted in the Army, where he serendipitously joined actor Melvyn Douglas’ entertainment troupe as a dancer. Gennaro performed for eight months through the India-China-Burma theater of war, entertaining the Allied troupes and honing his skills as a hoofer. With the Armistice, he moved to New York and used the GI bill to study with dance pioneer Katherine Dunham and her chief teacher, Syvilla Fort.

 

In 1947 Gennaro found full-time work with Chicago’s San Carlo Opera Company. There he met his future wife Jean Kinsella, a former Agnes de Mille dancer. Two years later, he made his Broadway debut in Make Mine Manhattan. Gennaro also taught while working with Hanya Holm and Michael Kidd during his chorus dancing years. Grace Kelly took his Dunham-oriented class, which featured subtle body isolations, quick footwork and polyrhythmic movement phrases.

 

In 1954 Gennaro got his big break dancing alongside Carol Haney and Buzz Miller in Bob Fosse’s “Steam Heat,” from The Pajama Game. What made “Steam Heat” churn was a skewed, subtle sexuality, and it was so popular that the director threatened to take it out because it didn’t feature any of the lead performers.

 

After “Steam Heat,” Gennaro’s choreography career flourished. He made work for 11 original Broadway productions and numerous films, including The Unsinkable Molly Brown. In 1977, 20 years after Robbins’ West Side Story Tony, Gennaro won the same award for Annie. His ambition, says his daughter, was not linked to becoming the authoritative choreographer. “It was about getting out there and dancing.” DT

 

Freelance writer Rachel Straus is working on a PhD in dance history.

Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine Archive.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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