Closing the gap between East and West
Balasaraswati in performance, circa 1962
Bollywood is busting out all over. From the Academy Award–winning film Slumdog Millionaire and swirling-armed flash mobs populating Times Square to ankle-bell-clad couples stamping on TV shows including “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Smash,” Indian dance has found its global footing. And while fascination with exotic aspects of Asian culture has infiltrated our pop culture, it was Balasaraswati (1918–1984) who helped bring the traditional dance form international respect and recognition.
An exponent of pure bharata natyam, Balasaraswati remained true to the ancient form and was one of the first to expand it to Western audiences—without pandering. Her traditional performances helped prove the historical and artistic value of the dance, contributing to the current status of bharata natyam as a fine art. “Bala was able to transcend biases and integrate her art into the mainstream,” says Hari Krishnan, who teaches dance at Wesleyan University and directs the Toronto-based inDANCE troupe. “Her work is subtle, poetic and a sophisticated way of celebrating art and life—something that must be remembered today.”
Born in South India, a seventh-generation descendant of musicians and dancers, Bala—as she’s known to fans—was encouraged by her mother (a singer/musician) to dance. Bala trained with various teachers starting at age 4, studying mime, gestures, improvisation and music, as well as language and philosophy. And when she made her debut performance at age 7, audiences were astounded.
Though bharata natyam originated in the temples, by the early 20th century it had been condemned. Western colonialists looked with disdain at the ritual dances and practices linked to worship, and a movement rose to abolish them. The artists who worked to preserve bharata natyam were of two camps—those who thought to reform and contemporize the dance, and those who chose a nationalist and traditionalist route. Bala was a purist, and she continued to perform the repertoire as generations had done before.
A master of footwork, she focused almost exclusively on gesture, torso movement and facial expressions. With her arms raised and palms out, she was praised for bringing out poetic imagery of themes dealing with a human striving for union with the divine. “It’s not about lines or craft. What fires up her dancing is an understanding of the human sentiment,” says Ananya Chatterjea, the director of dance at the University of Minnesota, who also directs Ananya Dance Theatre. “Through her love of God, she was also dancing about the love of human beings.”
As Balasaraswati’s reputation soared, a number of people advocated for international appearances. Among them was Charles Reinhart (later the American Dance Festival director), who signed her to tour for the Asia Society. Bala performed in 1962 at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and at the 1963 Edinburgh Festival, and she was lauded by Martha Graham and Margot Fonteyn. Universities, including Wesleyan University, UCLA and Mills College, sponsored performances and residencies, and Bala taught American dance students from 1962 to 1981.
The mid-1970s also saw the formation of Balasaraswati School of Indian Music and Dance in Berkeley, California. Bala and her daughter, Lakshmi S. Knight, headed the faculty.
Though Balasaraswati died in Madras, India, (now Chennai) in 1984, Lakshmi opened and directed a Balasaraswati School of Indian Music and Dance in New Jersey until her death in 2001. There is still a school in Chennai, where Lakshmi’s son, Aniruddha Knight, heads the facility and is the last direct inheritor of the music and dance traditions preserved in his family for nine generations. Today, the Bala Music & Dance Association, in Old Lyme, Connecticut, is led by Lakshmi’s husband Douglas Knight and facilitates performance tours. DT
You might have seen Nakul Dev Mahajan’s energetic Bollywood choreography on Season 4 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” but are you familiar with some of the other styles of Indian dance?
Bharata natyam is one of the oldest Indian dance forms that originated in the temples and courts of South India. Codified in the 19th century, the artform was passed down through generations within the Devadasi tradition, in which women were dedicated to temples and trained to perform the dance as part of worship. But when the practices associated with the Devadasi system were prohibited in the colonial era, artists looked to preserve the dance. Beginning in the 1930s, the dance was brought from the temples to the proscenium stage. The style is characterized by a vast vocabulary of symbolic hand gestures (mudras), rhythmic footwork and detailed facial expressions that all convey a story. A bharata natyam recital usually encompasses six (or more) sections and can span more than two hours without interruption. Today, the form is one of the most popular and widely performed—by both men and women—and choreographers often mix this classical form with contemporary styles.
Kathak: A classical dance of northern India, this style began 4,000 years ago with the Kathakas, storytellers who developed the dance to emphasize their stories, rooted in mythology. The form involves quick spins and rhythmic footwork, complex gestures and theatrical facial expressions. The choreographer Akram Khan is known for blending kathak with contemporary dance.
Odissi (or Orissi): Originating in the temples of ancient eastern India, this dance form was prohibited during the colonial era. During the Indian dance revival in the 20th century, performers studied sculptures, artwork and religious scripture to reconstruct it. This style emphasizes isolation of the head, torso and bust, and the dance moves through poses that tell a story.
Bollywood refers to India’s Mumbai-based film industry. Generally featuring boy-meets-girl scenarios, this high-energy genre influenced by hip hop is known for lavish song-and-dance numbers and spectacular costumes. As the global village becomes smaller, classical Indian dance, replete with bobbing heads, deep pliés and filigreed fingers, has made Bollywood-style dance a fixture in television, Broadway shows and film.
Photo courtesy of the Dance Magazine Archives
The inspiring drive of "Glee" choreographer Brooke Lipton
Brooke Lipton has packed a lot of dance into her 32 years. The driven redhead scored her first gig when she was 12—a pediatric AIDS benefit headlined by Paula Abdul—and has since become a force to be reckoned with, most recently as associate choreographer on the smash hit TV show “Glee.” She’s worked with Janet Jackson, Madonna and Beyoncé, and toured with Britney Spears. With faculty positions at Hollywood Connection and The PULSE On Tour conventions, Lipton may keep the schedule of a workaholic, but she does it all with the heart of a teacher.
As the fourth of six children growing up in a close-knit family in Phoenix, Lipton describes herself as competitive. Her parents were supportive of her career choice. Lipton began traveling when she was 12 to Los Angeles with her mother to take classes and audition.
Sporting a tiny diamond in her right nostril, Lipton, who occasionally highlights her hair pink or purple, recalls that first gig: “There were 10 of us who flew to L.A. to audition, and the tricky part was that my bat mitzvah was the same month. My mother kept going home to plan, and I was doing Torah stuff over the phone. I was a crazy dancer kid who did private Hebrew lessons because regular lessons interfered with dance."
Her bat mitzvah went off without a hitch. “I was a good student and got all A’s. That was important,” she points out, “because dance would be taken away if we didn’t keep up our grades.”
Lipton, who stands 5' 4" and studied everything from jazz and tap to ballet and gymnastics, says: “I grew up at a competitive dance studio where you did what the teacher said and you applied what they gave you. I may not have been the best, but conventions changed me as a dancer, by giving me more drive.”
After graduating from high school, Lipton moved to L.A., where she took class but didn’t understand how the industry worked. “My body wasn’t in the right shape and I didn’t have a look. I got frustrated on auditions. I knew I wasn’t the pretty girl with the beautiful legs. So I went to work on myself.” She joined a gym, lost weight, changed her hairstyle and took any job that would let her dance, paid or unpaid.
It’s this drive—whether teaching, performing, choreographing or self-improving—that has served Lipton well. After three years in L.A., she snagged her first big job in 2001, dancing on Britney Spears’ Dream Within a Dream tour. By then Lipton was well-known in the community, both for her talent and determination. “When people found out I booked the Britney job, I got such a warm welcome,” she says, “because they knew how hard I had worked to get there. It felt good having that backing, and that job changed my career.”
Brian Friedman, consulting producer of Simon Cowell’s U.S. version of “The X Factor” and choreographer for The PULSE On Tour, has known Lipton for years. They both performed at that long-ago pediatric AIDS benefit, and, as choreographer of Spears’ 2004 Onyx Hotel tour, Friedman had hired Lipton as a dancer. “As long as I’ve known Brooke, she’s been a beast,” says Friedman. “In rehearsals, class or onstage, she’s one of the hardest workers and is an inspiration to all dancers.”
He points out that success hasn’t changed Lipton. “She started professionally at an early age, and work like that can either humble you or go to your head. Brooke is down to earth and will stay that way.”
It was through another friend/colleague that Lipton landed “Glee.” In 2008 she was dancing with Spears in “Circus,” as well as teaching at Hollywood Connection. Also on faculty was Zach Woodlee, who’d been tapped to choreograph the “Glee” pilot. Lipton auditioned as a dancer. Recognizing both her resolve and her dance prowess, he then asked if she wanted to assist him. The dancing was six days’ work; serving as his assistant was six weeks’.
Those six weeks turned into three years and counting, plus the “Glee” tours, the Glee: The 3D Concert film and last year’s “The Glee Project,” a competition reality show that aired on Oxygen and whose premise was finding new stars for the current season of “Glee.” “It was an immediate click with Zach,” says Lipton. “We have one of the hardest schedules in Hollywood and whatever happens, we still laugh every day because he has such a positive attitude.”
As for working with dancers who play high school students at the show’s fictional William McKinley High, Lipton says she and Woodlee cast the routines and have hired nearly 400 dancers since the series began. “As our show has gotten older,” Lipton says, “our dancers have also gotten older, but we have to keep them young to fit into what the look is. We don’t try to fake it with 30-year-olds acting as high school students, so it’s been a big breakthrough for young dancers.”
Choreographing the routines, she admits, comes with challenges. Working with nondancing actors, says Lipton, requires “a different energy than working with someone who’s been trained since they were 4.” She says the main goal is to “not get stuck” and to make each number special. “We never want the dancing to look out of place. It has to be realistic and there has to be a reason for the dance.”
And should a dancer be unable to perform for any reason, Lipton’s the go-to gal. “We started shooting a number last year and one girl got injured. I put on her costume and a wig and filled in the slot. People said, ‘Thank God Brooke’s always around, because we can throw her into the dances if there’s any emergency.’”
At the end of the day Lipton maintains that she and Woodlee are happy “just doing the work.” Low points, she says, are not having enough time, with shooting schedules running 12 hours daily, Monday through Friday, from August until May.
Yet it’s precisely this frenzied schedule that seems to energize her, and she finds time to teach on weekends, including at Hollywood Connection. Owned by friend and former agent Bill Bohl, the organization helps educate parents and dancers about the nuts and bolts of a dance career. “We talk about what the kids are wearing, how their body language affects everything. It’s geared to reality. The kids might not work right away,” says Lipton. “We teach them what they have to do to be able to work in this industry. I tell them they have to be willing to put 300 percent into this, like I did.”
Bohl, who choreographed the Abdul pediatric AIDS project and ultimately hired Lipton, says, “Brooke was born to do this and it shows. For her to rehearse and shoot a ‘Glee’ episode all week and then get on a red-eye to one of our convention cities to teach and guide young dancers all weekend, it shows you her dedication."
One of her biggest assets, he says, is her honesty. “Brooke tells them what they need to improve on and what their assets are. She also challenges them to push themselves, because that’s the only way to get better.”
Lipton, however, gauges student interest before giving the big push. “All I want to do is dance, and that’s what I begged my parents to do, but I’m not going to push students into anything crazy unless I know they’re ready,” she says.
In 2004, she married Edgar Godineaux, an associate choreographer for the Broadway and touring shows of Memphis. The couple have a 7-year-old son, Pierce, and a daughter, Lennox, 5. Motherhood, gushes Lipton, has had a profound impact on her—personally and professionally.
“I understand what it’s like to take care of a kid and the feelings a parent goes through. Being involved with competitions and conventions, I have a bit more patience—but at the same time I’m a workhorse and I pay attention to the kids, no matter how big the class.”
One begins to understand the power of her persuasive influence when she says, “Anything I say ‘yes’ to, I’m going to give 100 percent. As soon as I can’t, I won’t, because I don’t want people disappointed. There’s always energy somewhere left in your body,” she adds with a smile, “because the more you give out the more you get back. You can do it.” DT
Victoria Looseleaf is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and KUSC-FM radio. She teaches dance history at the University of California.
(Photo by Joe Toreno)
Changing lives in the studio and on the stage
Watching Debbie Allen rehearse Twist—An American Musical, which had its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse in June, is like observing a highly skilled surgeon at work: Precise, dedicated and supremely talented, Allen is directing and choreographing the production she first worked on last year for Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.
“You’re late,” says Allen to a cast member who missed a cue. “It’s run, run, run, trip. That’s it,” she says, clapping out beats as she paces the floor like a lioness checking out her cubs. “I know I’m just sketching things,” she adds, “and I’m gonna probably change it 10 times, but for now, let’s do it again.”
Best known for her roles in the “Fame” franchise, Allen, 61, has been a force in the entertainment world for decades. After growing up in segregated Houston, Texas, in the ’50s, she eventually proved herself on Broadway, in film and in television, racking up a prestigious list of credits along the way as not only dancer, actor, singer and choreographer, but also director, writer and producer.
Seemingly indefatigable, Allen established the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) in Los Angeles in 2001. Her studio has become a dance hub for a new generation of performers and is home to the Los Angeles Tap Festival and the Los Angeles Hip Hop Intensive.
“I take on projects that are meaningful to me,” says Allen during a break from Twist, a reimagining of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist set in New Orleans in the 1920s. “Things that I can wrap my mind and heart around. Being creative is the closest you can be to God—the creator. You have to go in a quiet place and be alone and hope it will come to you.”
“It” has decidedly come to Allen. Whether mounting productions like Twist or choreographing a Mariah Carey tour, she also devotes much of her work to the development and inspiration of young people.
Dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, her long hair pulled back to accentuate soulful brown eyes, Allen has a fierce work ethic that belies her often smiling face. Attributing that to her mother, writer Vivian Ayers, Allen explains:“When you grow up in the segregated South, you have brick walls around you, and you have to work extra hard. At the same time, my mom let us know we could jump over mountains. That was her plan and she wouldn’t let me feel self-pity.
”Although Allen began studying dance as a child, she switched to drama at Howard University, after she was rejected from the North Carolina School of the Arts for having the wrong body type for ballet. Her teacher at Howard was Vera Katz, who joined Allen in L.A. to assist with Twist.“
Brilliant from the start,” is how Katz describes Allen. “For her senior project, she directed Snow Black. She’s very exacting and her work is always fabulous.”
Twist, with a 31-member cast and 29 musical numbers, is representative of the kind of projects Allen takes on. As artist-in-residence since 1995, she has directed and choreographed productions for the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, including Pepito’s Story, Soul Possessed and Pearl (shows for which she also wrote the scripts), and her most recent production, OMAN…O Man! in 2009.
During the Twist rehearsal, Allen is part cheerleader, part traffic cop and all patience. She encourages those around her, including daughter Vivian Nichole Nixon, who, literally, is following in her mother’s footsteps. A former member of Ailey II, Nixon debuted on Broadway in the 2006 musical Hot Feet, then hoofed in Memphis before joining Twist.
A believer in a close-knit family, Allen directed her sister, Phylicia Rashad, in the first all-black cast of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2008. It was Allen’s Broadway directorial debut, but not her first time on the Great White Way. That was in 1980, when she earned a Tony Award nomination for her role as Anita in the revival of West Side Story.
That year Allen also appeared as dance teacher Lydia Grant in the film, Fame. Indeed, Allen is the only actor to have appeared in the film, the TV series (which earned her five Emmy awards) and the film’s 2009 remake.
“We left an incredible footprint that is still resonating,” says Allen of “Fame.” “When you go to someplace like China, and you’re in a room with 500 young people who want you to teach them how to dance, there is a language that is beyond politics and religion—a language that people speak everywhere. That’s what ‘Fame’ did for me.”
It also jump-started her career directing episodic television, a natural progression, says Allen, after dancing and choreographing. “When the directors didn’t know how to shoot the dancing on ‘Fame,’ because I was in charge of that, I became a director.”
“Fame” then led to other TV directing gigs, including work on “Family Ties” and “A Different World.” More recently, Allen has directed several episodes each of “Hellcats” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” which takes about a month per episode, from the preparation and shooting to postproduction.
“Choreographing and directing are different,” she points out, “but it takes the same kind of hard work, energy, integrity and diplomacy.”
One dancer who has worked with Allen consistently over the years is Desmond Richardson, co-artistic director (with Dwight Rhoden) of Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
“Debbie’s clear, concise coaching and directing challenged me to step into the realm of the ‘real,’” he says, “not forcing it, but having me be in the moment and allowing the audience to genuinely feel my performance.”
Richardson is one of many who teach master classes at Allen’s dance academy. What began a decade ago with 200 students has blossomed into 643, with a full-time faculty of 13 and 32 part-time teachers. The annual operating budget is $2 million, and the academy offers 80 weekly classes in ballet, tap, hip hop, flamenco and jazz, with techniques including Vaganova and Horton. Allen is hands-on, from auditioning new students to selecting paint colors for the walls.
“When we opened, I had a line around the block for kids who wanted to come,” says Allen. She points to her students’ successes as testament to the studio’s purpose. “They’re in Ailey, or starring on Broadway, in movies,” she says. “They’re everywhere.”
One such student was Cathie Nicholas, granddaughter of tap legend Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers. The other half of a tap duo with her sister, Nicole, Nicholas worked as Allen’s assistant on Twist, and also teaches at DADA, where she began studying at 13.
“I’ve known Debbie since I was 2,” says Nicholas, 23. “Vivian [Nixon] and I grew up together, and Debbie is like a second mother to me. She is brilliant, and her joy and passion are indescribable. Debbie’s a wonderful role model.”
With all she has on her plate, Allen says her most precious commodity is time. Multitasking is a must, but it’s her passion that seems to keep her moving and motivated. Take Twist. “I’m doing it because it’s a great entertainment and it’s relevant,” she says. “This kid changes people’s lives, and I think this musical changes people’s lives when they see it.”
Allen believes her dance studio also changes lives—that by learning the language of dance, doors open. “I think the discipline of the dance world is something that has shaped my work ethic, and once I was given the opportunity to dance, I was eating it up like a hungry tiger. But you can’t do this,” adds Allen, “unless your heart and soul are in it.” DT
Victoria Looseleaf is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and KUSC-FM radio. She teaches dance history at Santa Monica College and the University of Southern California.
Photo by Rose Eichenbaum
"Dance was my life–even before I was a dancer. My training started from osmosis. When I was 7 years old I would watch my mother teach at Scottsdale Community College and I knew what was going on with dance. I had an eye for it,” says Brian Friedman, dancer, choreographer, director, teacher and entrepreneur, about his passion for the artform. Now 33, Friedman commutes between Los Angeles and London, where he is creative director on “America’s Got Talent” and Simon Cowell’s TV show “The X Factor.” A virtual rock star of the dance world, he’s choreographed for pop icons Britney Spears and Beyoncé and also served as a judge and choreographer for three seasons on Fox’s hit television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” But, of everything Friedman does, including designing shoes and clothing, he says teaching is the most rewarding.
“As long as I can move and talk, I will teach,” says the shaved-headed dynamo. “For every person who’s trained their whole life, it’s their duty to give back and make sure the next generation is strong. It also helps other people achieve their dreams.”
Friedman began dreaming early on. With his father often away on business, the youngster formed a close bond with his mother, Judi Friedman, who taught him time steps, piqués and pirouettes before he actually enrolled in dance class at age 11. Shortly thereafter, he moved to L.A. with his mother to begin working as a dancer, landing roles in the musical Newsies, directed by Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), and the TV series “Kids Incorporated.” Friedman, who also attended the Dupree and Tremaine dance conventions, recalls his on-the-job training as invaluable.
“I learned so much on movie sets,” he says. “Working with Kenny and then with Twyla Tharp on I’ll Do Anything, I was able to soak in things at such a young age.” As a youth, he also worked with Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul and others.
Friedman makes up a verbal score full of whimsy and imagery as he demonstrates: "Whack it, drop it, shoo-shoo gaga woo; one two bam-bam tooga-tooga woo-ha; you hold here, crown of life, press it down, hugga bug."
Friedman cites choreographer Marguerite Derricks (Fame) as his main dance teacher and Jamie King (director of Rihanna’s Last Girl on Earth Tour) as idol and mentor. “Marguerite took me under her wing and gave me the technical base. Jamie is the person who made me see a bigger picture and want to be more—a creative director and choreographer, not only a dancer.”
Then, at 16, the born multitasker opened a dance school with his mother in Scottsdale, where he taught jazz and hip-hop classes and she instructed ballet and tap. Although that school no longer exists, Friedman makes use of his teaching expertise by co-directing The PULSE On Tour, a national convention with classes featuring headlining choreographers Wade Robson and Mia Michaels, among others.
However he chooses to express himself, Friedman is commanding: six feet tall and sporting a tattoo on his right forearm with the Hebrew words for “to be free.” Charismatic onstage and off, he is articulate and self-possessed—but without a “divo” attitude. His enthusiasm is contagious, befitting his superstar status on YouTube, where his videos receive hundreds of thousands of hits. He’s also got more than 30,000 followers on Twitter. But charting his life in 140 characters doesn’t begin to tell the story, a big part of which is his work at The PULSE.
“Teaching up to 700 people at one time is difficult,” says Friedman, “but you make sure that every student feels connected to you. When I’m onstage, I make it a point to be personable so that each person feels I’m talking to them and that the note or correction is directed at them. I want them to feel that I understand who they are and that I’m on their level. Once you have that relationship, anything is possible.”
Regarding studio teaching, Friedman says it’s a different animal, with the hands-on approach to technique and routines helping make students better dancers. “You can be more thorough [in the studio],” he says, adding, “If it wasn’t for studio teachers, we wouldn’t have professional dancers.”
Friedman’s co-director at The PULSE is choreographer and “SYTYCD” judge Mia Michaels. The two met in the ’90s at a dance convention, and Michaels began working with him at The PULSE several years later. Together, the pair approves the whole faculty roster, as well as classes, the layout of production and the Protégé Program, which offers scholarships to young dancers.
“The kids love Brian, but they know they can’t pull any [stuff] with him,” says Michaels. “We’re old-school like that. They’ve got to do the work, and we let them know when they need to be better. As teachers, we’re bringing artistry to the kids, instead of a dance-school mentality.”
Friedman is particularly proud of his students who have gone on to have successful careers of their own, including Tucker Barkley, 20. A hip-hop dancer and choreographer, Barkley studied with Friedman at conventions for eight years. Singled out by Friedman at a Monsters of Hip-Hop event, Barkley has supported himself by dancing and choreographing since he was 15. He attributes much of his success to Friedman.
“In class you are pushed to the full extent of your ability,” says Barkley. “When you mess up, he’ll give you that look and you know you’re wrong. Then you have to pull up and fix yourself, and everything will work out. You have no choice but to grow and become a better dancer because Brian doesn’t take no for an answer. He won’t let you not give it everything you can.”
As for the cultural impact and über-popularity of shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” Friedman opines freely, especially on the contestants’ “wow” factor—the spectacular jumps and turns that make audiences go wild.
“A lot of the dancers have trained like Olympic athletes,” he points out, “and you can’t look down on that. But there’s not a lot of artistry in, say, running track—it’s technical and falls under athleticism. I choose artistry with strong technique over tricks any day.”
“I enjoy a dancer who has it all: technique, artistry and athleticism,” Friedman adds. “Being able to push yourself further than what is expected is an amazing gift. That’s the wow factor for me.”
And while Friedman doesn’t have much downtime (he splits his time between London and L.A. and travels about 40 days annually with The PULSE), he’s happy to hang out at his Southern California home.
Besides, says Friedman, his work is fun and that’s what fuels him. Indeed, much of his work ethic stems from his philosophical attitude—that, essentially, nothing’s impossible. When he puts on his headset and commands those hundreds of dancers to “be an open canvas and paint this new movement into your space,” it is not only seductive, it seems within reach.
“It’s all about self-belief, determination and drive,” he says. “Immerse yourself and you can truly achieve anything.” DT
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning freelance arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and other publications. She also teaches Dance as an Artform at Santa Monica College and the University of Southern California.
This flamboyant, extravagant dance style, which Brian Friedman helped create and popularize, is all over the commercial dance scene. Friedman was one of the first choreographers to use the style and initially referred to it as “ganking.” Using Britney Spears as his muse, he created his own recipe for a “ganky stew,” which he describes as “a mixture of drag queen performance, vogueing, house and thrashy jazz.” He adds: “It has to be powerful and dominant, almost like you’re getting into a fight with a dance move. Mash it, stab it, kill it and then walk away with confidence.”
Though ganky seems like feminine movement, it’s definitely not just for females. “While it’s very girly dancing, sexism should be squashed,” Friedman says. “This style will continue to spread like wildfire,” he continues, “because it’s fun to watch and even more fun to do.” —Monica Levy
Photo by Rachel Papo
1. Busby Berkeley famously turned hundreds of dancing showgirls with whimsical props into _____ _____ _____, making cinematic history during the Great Depression.
2. Berkeley was more concerned with his chorus girls’ ability to do what, instead of their actual dancing technique?
3. How many cameras did Berkeley use to film his whirlwind production numbers?
4. What experience during his military service in World War I, coupled with his theatrical upbringing, helped shape Berkeley’s future cinematic vision and earned him the position of choreographer for nearly two dozen musicals?
5. True or False: Busby Berkeley was both a trained dancer and choreographer.
6. Name the film in which tapper Ruby Keeler becomes a star, dancing in numbers such as “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”
7. What is significant about the “By a Waterfall” scene in the film, Footlight Parade?
8. Berkeley disagreed with a young Judy Garland and was removed as director/choreographer from Girl Crazy, but his number _____ _____ _____ remained.
9. For whom did Berkeley create the epic “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” finale for in Lady Be Good?
10. True or False: In all, Berkeley staged and directed over 100 Hollywood musicals.
1. Complex human kaleidoscopes; 2. Maneuver into geometric figurines; 3. One; 4. While stationed in France and Germany, he directed military exhibitions and parades. He also served as an aerial observer with the Air Corps.; 5. False; 6. 42nd Street; 7. Scantily clad showgirls form a cascading human waterfall. The glass-lined pool was the largest soundstage ever built.; 8. “I Got Rhythm;” 9. Eleanor Powell; 10. False. He staged and directed over 50 Hollywood musicals.
Film Choreographers and Dance Directors, by Larry Billman, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1997
Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle, by Martin Rubin, Columbia University Press, 1993
The Busby Berkeley Book, by Tony Thomas and Jim Terry, New York Graphic Society, 1973
The Genius of Busby Berkeley, by Bob Pike and Dave Martin, Creative Film Society, California, 1973
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson, Knopf, 2004
The Busby Berkeley Collection, Volume 1 (Footlight Parade/Gold Diggers of 1933/Dames/Gold Diggers of 1935/42nd Street), Warner Home Video, 2006
Dozens of beautiful chorus girls strumming neon-lighted violins and twirling in double-tiered translucent Chinese silk hoop skirts slink around an enormous curving staircase. An overhead camera captures the constantly moving silver-wigged chorines in concentric circles before they glide in and out towards the giant circle’s center—the image, a pulsating sunflower.
This is the famous “The Shadow Waltz” scene from Gold Diggers of 1933, and the genius of choreographer-director Busby Berkeley (1895–1976), the man who delivered new and intriguing ways of experiencing song and dance productions. Turning hundreds of dancing bodies (oftentimes with whimsical props) into complex human kaleidoscopes, Berkeley made cinematic history during the Great Depression, creating indelible numbers for almost every musical Warner Bros. produced from 1933 to 1937.
His work has been called everything from brilliant, miraculous and extraordinary to vulgar, sexist and camp, but Berkeley was essentially a purveyor of dreams and moods. Less concerned with his showgirls’ actual dance technique than their ability to maneuver into geometric figurines, Berkeley used only one movable camera on custom-built booms, monorails, cranes and holes drilled into the studio’s roof to capture his whirlwind visions; it was, in fact, the camera that did the dancing.
“Some of Berkeley’s ideas came from Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who liked to have lots of chorus girls in lines,” says Richard Schickel, film documentarian, author and Time magazine movie critic. “But Berkeley’s work really requires the camera to realize that. He didn’t just burst the fourth wall of the theater—he burst all the walls.”
Born in Los Angeles the son of theater director Wilson Enos and actress Gertrude Enos, William Berkeley Enos began performing with his family at age 5. He later christened himself Busby Berkeley by combining the surname of actress Amy Busby with his mother’s maiden name, Berkeley. At 12 he attended military school, eventually enlisting in the army during World War I. While stationed in France and Germany, Berkeley directed military exhibitions and parades. He also served as an aerial observer with the Air Corps.
These unique jobs, coupled with his theatrical upbringing, undoubtedly shaped the untrained choreographer’s future cinematic vision and earned him the position of dance director for nearly two dozen musicals, including the 1927 hit A Connecticut Yankee. It wasn’t until 1930, when Broadway star Eddie Cantor suggested Berkeley create the dance routines for the film Whoopee!, that Berkeley found his calling behind the camera.
In addition to Gold Diggers of 1933, four classic musicals made for Warner Bros. sealed Berkeley’s immortality: 1933’s 42nd Street, starring tapper Ruby Keeler in the famed “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” routine, set the tone for future backstage musicals; Footlight Parade (1933), is known for its extravagant “By a Waterfall” dream sequence, where scantily clad showgirls form a cascading human waterfall (the glass-lined pool was the largest soundstage ever built); in Fashions of 1934, 20 to 30 dancers fashioned as harp columns join 200 girls dancing with white ostrich plumes to create prismatic floral designs; and in Gold Diggers of 1935, 56 white grand pianos come to life performing with 56 girls in “The Words Are in My Heart,” and Berkeley’s masterpiece, “Lullaby of Broadway,” involves a mass dance sequence of 150 tappers.
Moving to MGM after the decline of outlandish musicals in the late 1930s, Berkeley worked on four films with the young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Disagreements with Garland caused Berkeley’s removal from Girl Crazy, but his number “I Got Rhythm” remained. During this time, he also created Eleanor Powell’s epic “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” finale in Lady Be Good.
Berkeley’s surreal style resurfaced in 1943 when Carmen Miranda wore a towering fruit headdress and showgirls danced with giant bananas in “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” from The Gang’s All Here. In all, Berkeley staged and directed over 50 Hollywood musicals, choreographing seven films in the 1950s, including Esther Williams’ exotic water ballets in Million Dollar Mermaid, before his final credit on the 1962 film Billy Rose’s Jumbo, starring Doris Day.
By the end of the decade, Berkeley had been virtually forgotten, until a ’60s camp craze renewed interest in his work. He toured the college lecture circuit, returning to the Great White Way in 1971 as production supervisor in a successful revival of No, No, Nanette. Five years later, Berkeley passed away of natural causes at his home in Palm Springs, CA, at age 80. His influence is still felt today, from the “Be Our Guest” sequence in Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to “Miss Piggy’s Fantasy” swim number in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper.
“Berkeley’s moment was the 1930s. But the numbers are timeless,” says Schickel. “With 100 people getting together as a gigantic team and doing a routine in which everybody is perfectly unified—that’s what people were trying to say about the United States. We had to pull together. It wasn’t about individualism. These are perfect statements of collectivity—100 people working together to create a gorgeous effect.” DT
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and freelance dance critic for The Los Angeles Times. She teaches dance history at USC and Santa Monica College.
Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
At first glance, Kermit Love (1916–2008), with his long, Santa Claus–like beard and gentle demeanor would seem the antithesis of fashion. But the man who died last year at age 91 was one of the theater world’s most original costume designers. With a career spanning more than six decades, Love worked with many of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers, including Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp and Robert Joffrey. Love also created several famous “Sesame Street” Muppets that won him international attention. From superbly conceived backless tuxedos to giant angel wings to mice sporting suits of armor to an 8-foot-2-inch yellow-feathered ornithological creature, Love’s constructions sprang from the mind of a uniquely gifted artist who could bring characters to life through detail. His work forever changed the ideology behind effective stage costumes and designs.
“Kermit was enormously valuable in providing a consciousness-raising toward the value of wit and fun in creating costuming for the stage,” says veteran dance photographer Herbert Migdoll, who knew Love from the designer’s work with Joffrey Ballet, including the 16-foot-tall Mother Ginger puppet he created for the company’s Nutcracker (1987). “The guy was a genius.”
He was born Kermit Ernest Hollingshead Love in Spring Lake, New Jersey. As a youngster, he first became enamored with Punch-and-Judy puppets. Then, after being thrown from a horse at age 12 and confined to bed for three years due to leg injuries, Love began listening to radio dramas and drawing pictures of how he imagined the characters. The theatrical die was cast.
In 1935, 19-year-old Love made puppets under the auspices of a federal Works Progress Administration theater before designing costumes for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. But it was his work with Barbara Karinska, star costumer for the New York City Ballet, that led the designer to the dance world. Love worked with Karinska in 1942 on de Mille’s Rodeo (which he redesigned in 1976 for the Joffrey), then, two years later, he designed the jaunty sailor suits for Robbins’ first ballet, Fancy Free.
However, it was Love’s 40-year collaboration with Balanchine that yielded a wealth of designs: the 28-foot-high marionette for Don Quixote (1965); Karin von Aroldingen’s Firebird wings in 1972; the masks for Pulcinella (choreographed with Robbins from 1972); and the full-body puppets for the 1975 one-act opera, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (The Spellbound Child). (He also created dancing chairs, a spinning clock, life-size owls, frogs and dragonflies for the 1981 PBS “Dance in America” television production of this opera.) “Balanchine liked working with me because . . . I surprised him,” Love told Dance Magazine in 1998.
This innovative spirit was also evident in Love’s fruitful alliance with Twyla Tharp, whom he met in New York City while working as a designer-consultant at Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s. He designed garb for a number of Tharp’s works, including The Fugue (1970), Eight Jelly Rolls (1971) and The Bix Pieces (1971). Love, in conjunction with Tharp’s then manager, William Peter Kosmas, also advocated for a revolutionized company image—specifically, updated costumes and new haircuts at Vidal Sassoon’s salon. Tharp soon emerged with her signature angled bob.
Original Tharp dancer Sara Rudner, currently director of dance at Sarah Lawrence College, recalls Love’s ability to unify a piece yet work with the dancers individually. “He took these dances and put them in time and character and helped us become more—for lack of a better word—stylish,” she says. “We were dancing with the same wild energy, but we were in these exquisitely conceived, tailored costumes. He was extremely thoughtful and perceptive about what would help the dance be visible.”
While working at the Judson Theater, Love also met the future famed Muppeteer, Jim Henson. This introduction led to the creation of “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird, which debuted in 1969, and his 7-foot-tall wooly friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus. Love, who was occasionally known to be cantankerous, aptly designed two other regular “Sesame Street” residents, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster, and created 22 versions of characters for foreign productions. But despite the common name, Love insisted that he was not the namesake of Henson’s famous frog. The late costumer also served as key Muppet supervisor for the iconic children’s show, and often appeared as Willy the Hot Dog Man—a character who always sported a yellow feather in his hat, as a tribute from Love to his treasured bird.
And it’s not every designer who gets the approval of artist Pablo Picasso. As part of the Joffrey’s 1971 remounting of Léonide Massine’s 1917 work, Parade, for which Picasso designed the original costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Love was asked to reconstruct the cubistic creations. These characters included the Manager on Horseback, manned by two dancers, as well as two large constructions, the French Manager and the American Manager.
Migdoll says that Picasso’s original costumes (made out of papier-mâché and wood) were too heavy for the dancers to move in, so Love refashioned them with aluminum tubing and Styrofoam, enabling the men to move and jump around with ease. “Picasso signed off on the ballet,” adds Migdoll, “and Massine was impressed that the work was going to have a brighter life than it did in its first incarnation. Kermit’s work made it very fresh and it was extremely successful for the Joffrey.”
Love remained active in the business as he approached his 90s, but he died on June 21, 2008 of congestive heart failure in Poughkeepsie, New York, close to where he lived with his partner of 50 years Christopher Lyall. “Kermit had a gift to go in many different directions,” says Rudner. “He never seemed to be bound by his own previous work. That is the characteristic of a really interesting, wonderful artist.” DT
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and producer of the TV show, “The Looseleaf Report.”
Photo by and courtesy of Herbert Migdoll
Celebrity coach and studio owner Cheryl Burke makes her dancers shine.
She’s a world-class hip-shaking, shoulder-shimmying mover who can out-waltz the Viennese and out-quickstep an Olympian. As for her tango? Let’s just say she was to the stiletto and fishnets born. She is none other than Cheryl Burke, ballroom dancer extraordinaire and two-time winner on ABC’s hit reality series, “Dancing With the Stars.”
Indeed, while helping to amp up the visibility of the artform, Burke has danced her way into the hearts of audiences across the country. With the show routinely snagging 20 million viewers weekly and YouTube postings garnering even more fans, Burke, at 25, has become a star in her own right.
Although she and her season-eight partner, French heartthrob Gilles Marini, didn’t bring home the mirror ball trophy, Burke says she’s having the time of her life. “I never dreamed of being on TV. This was never my goal. It just happened to be like this, doing something that I love. Expressing who I am through my body and through my movements and sharing it with millions of people is such an honor.”
Doing something she loves came early to the little girl who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and began studying ballet at age 4. When her parents brought her to watch a ballroom competition when she was 10, though, Burke fell in love with the artform and shelved her ballet slippers to pursue training in both standard and Latin ballroom dancing.
By age 13 Burke was traveling and competing internationally, eventually winning several titles, including World Cup Latin Professional Rising Star Champion in 2005. She hadn’t, how-ever, reached a goal of becoming a world champion, when a dance with destiny intervened.
Burke had been living in New York, training with her ballroom partner in 2005, the same year “DWTS” first hit the airwaves as a summer replacement. Burke says she thought the show was entertaining, though she wasn’t sure how long it would last. But timing in life, like timing in dance, is everything.
Producers had heard of Burke through word of mouth and saw her perform in a competition. They then approached her about doing the show. “I think it was mainly my dancing, and my look was different,” says Burke, whose mother is Filipino and father is half-Russian, half-Irish.
Initially camera-shy, the sultry brunette with the winning smile and sizzling moves has come a long way. After winning competitions on the show with pop singer Drew Lachey and former professional football player Emmitt Smith, Burke has blossomed into a confident woman, both on and offscreen.
She makes numerous appearances on talk shows and at Hollywood red carpet events, and her website, strictlycheryl.com, continues to attract fans of all stripes. Part of that appeal stems from Burke’s no-nonsense approach to teaching celebrities how to dance in about 12 weeks, even though ballroom is a discipline that generally requires years of study, hard work and dedication.
“It’s all about trying to find what they’re good at,” says Burke on working her magic with stars unfamiliar with the quickstep, tango or paso doble. “With Gilles, when he gets his steps, he’s amazing. You can tell he’s not a dancer—that it’s hard for him to remember choreography. But he has a dancer’s body. He’s limber and has beautiful lines. Whenever I put him in a position, he looks great.”
Burke says Emmitt Smith had natural musicality and great rhythm. “I capitalize on what the celebrities’ strengths are, not their weaknesses. I’ve been lucky enough to where all of my partners have been pretty good and it’s not so hard to find their strengths.”
Having been coached most of her life, finding herself on the teaching end, Burke confesses, was a challenge. “It was a hard transition, but I learned to adapt to whomever I was teaching. That’s the best way to maximize your talent. Every celebrity is a different personality and their way of learning is different,” she says. “For me, I learn how my students learn so I can teach what is best for them. With the celebrities, you work on details to make them look good.”
From all appearances, Burke has become an outstanding teacher, which she has incorporated into another job, that of businesswoman. Having opened her first dance studio in San Francisco in 2008, she decided to expand with studios in Mountain View and Laguna Niguel, California, in May and June of this year, respectively.
Offering classes in a wide range of dance styles, the studios are overseen by her mother and business partner Sherri Burke, who had recently retired from her own home health-care business. “Cheryl and I saw that the Metronome studio in San Francisco was going to close,” says Mrs. Burke, “and we thought, ‘We can’t allow that to happen.’ We also wanted to put ballroom on the map, because it’s a great way to promote physical fitness and articulate the beauty of dance.”
“That was Cheryl’s vision,” Mrs. Burke adds. “She wanted to be a fresh face and be more customer-friendly, where we could reach out to kids, adults, you name it.”
The studios have full- and part-time teachers (ranging from 5 to 30 per venue) on their rosters, with enrollment topping out at 1,100. Mrs. Burke, CEO, acknowledges that though one might have love and passion for dancing, to go into business one also needs working capital and the ability to build a customer base.
“To do that,” she says, “you look at a certain location and ask if there are people who actually love to do what you’re trying to provide. You listen to what the customers want and try to fulfill an unfulfilled need.”
Mrs. Burke says that she and her daughter also took over an existing studio in Mountain View, the Starlite, but that in Southern California, seeing a need for a ballroom studio, they started from scratch.
“Cheryl’s celebrity was a plus,” she says, “but even without that, anybody could do it. If you want to make a difference and influence others with what you know, you provide that service.”
Meanwhile, the younger Burke tries to be as active as possible in the studios. Since she didn’t tour with “DWTS” this summer (Burke performed on three tours to date), it allowed her time to teach beginning master classes of up to 120 students.
Her teaching philosophy essentially remains the same: “Whatever I teach in master classes is how I teach celebrities—I try to make them look good. But,” she adds, “the students in my studios learn faster because they usually have some dance experience.”
Mrs. Burke points out that teaching came naturally to her daughter. “Since she was 11 she was taking private lessons and she was exposed to so many different coaches. And since Cheryl is not a person who would run a business, she’s more the performer, the teacher, the innovator of so many different ways of teaching and performing.”
Michael Eric Koptke has been teaching at the Burke studios for the last year, assisting Cheryl with master classes and private lessons. “She has a fantastic way of helping everyone, no matter what level of dancer they are,” he says. “She is also one of the hardest working people I know and does her job without any complaints. She has influenced me to put my life into perspective and to enjoy and appreciate it without complaint.”
Burke’s endeavors also include making a workout DVD, Disco Abs, which was released in 2008 by Time Warner. And earlier this year she joined forces with Fit Couture to design a line of active and workout wear, something, Burke says, she’d always wanted to do.
Who, after all, is more active than Burke? She’s an avid competitor who not only appreciates what it takes to be a world-class dancer, but she also knows how to keep her instrument—her body—in peak form.
“During the show we rehearse every day, seven days a week. It’s crunch time and the celebrity has four days, putting in eight hours a day, to learn a dance. I try to listen to my body as much as possible. It’s important to warm up and conserve energy. If at the end of the day I feel exhausted, I’ll slow down and take a break.”
As for the future, Burke says she’s enjoying her work on “DWTS,” and she will again be competing on the show in season nine. She also won’t rule out future TV hosting or entertaining in Las Vegas someday. “I don’t sing, but I would love to have some sort of a dance show like ‘Dancing with the Stars’—pure dancing, authentic ballroom dancing,” she says. “The show has been a launching pad. But I like to live day by day. If you don’t live in the moment, you will never enjoy the moment.” DT
Cheryl Burke’s Tips for Competition
* Build up stamina by training intensely—three straight hours, five dances in a row. Rehearse until out of breath in the weeks leading up to competition.
* Don’t practice too hard the day before and get lots of rest that night.
* On competition day:
-Make sure to have a really good breakfast.
-Walk through your routine—there’s not much more your body can do.
* Have a positive attitude.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and producer of the TV show and blog, “The Looseleaf Report.”
Photos from top: by Kelsey McNeal, courtesy of ABC; by Marty Sohl; others by Adam Larkey, courtesy of ABC