Sunday, April 10, 2016

Finding the Right Steps

Contributed by Emily Edwards

Dance always improves a show. It doesn’t matter if it’s a full pas de deux or a simple grapevine of unadulterated glee. The amount of movement however, should always correspond with what the story needs. No more, no less.

I’ve been actively choreographing for the past eight years. With a background in ballet and modern and a fervent love for musicals; I’ve choreographed everything from a textbook production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, to a K-Pop dream sequence featuring comic book characters, to a 1940’s-era fight using a placenta as a weapon against easily horrified Nazis. With each new production, I realize how little I really know.

The first show I ever choreographed was Pippin. Not terribly daunting. Just following in the footsteps of some guy named Fosse. My goal for the show was to prove exactly how talented I was and how I could be just as good as Fosse. Somehow, I don’t think I managed it, but this mindset continued. Every time I was asked to do a new show or number, I was so grateful, then excited, and then needed to prove to everyone beyond a doubt that I was a valuable member of the creative process.

The result of this was a bunch of shows with lots of dancing. LOTS of dancing. So much dynamic movement everywhere, all the time. Then a couple of years ago I got into a heated argument with my musical director in the late hours of a tech rehearsal about whether or not the male lead should be dancing during his big solo. To me, his “big solo” meant that this was his time to shine in movement as well as song, and thereby win the audience’s hearts. The musical director’s counter argument was that he needed to be able to sing the song. Which, I totally get, but why not push it a bit? A comment from the musical director stayed with me: “They never do that on Broadway. They don’t have to sing and dance at the same time.” I disagreed, but let it go. The end result was that I cut out most of his movement and it was fine, except for my feelings being hurt. Nevertheless, I started paying closer attention to the movement in the shows I attended.

Many years have passed. A directing course I took stated that in order to clarify the story, only one person on stage should move at a time. This completely blew my mind! How does that even work?! Once again, I started studying performances and found it to be largely true. Shows with big name choreographers tended to be the shows I was least impressed with because I could tell that they were trying, much like I used to, to prove themselves. The story felt overwhelmed and muddled by the albeit beautiful dancing. I found myself becoming a believer in simplicity.

Emily Edwards (right) into the swing of things on Governors Island.  
Photo: Mike Cho

So I made a shift and started focusing on the story, more than my ego. The end result has been transforming. I don’t have to create the most complicated or difficult moves; I need to create movement that serves the story. I no longer get upset when a director tells me a number needs to be cut or simplified. Often I end up completely agreeing. Just because I can do a certain move, doesn’t mean I should. Oh sure, there’s still room for big production numbers with flips and kick-lines. (Who doesn’t enjoy a good kick-line?) But it doesn’t have to be about me “proving myself” anymore. If I do my job correctly, you should barely even notice I’m there.


Emily Edwards is a choreographer, director, and performer who has worked in NYC for 13 years now. She loves the Indie theater community and has worked with Vampire Cowboys, Dysfunctional Theatre, DM Theatrics, The Brick, New Georges, The Flea, and Nosedive Productions to name a few. She is also the resident musical choreographer at NJIT/Rutgers. Emily can be found this summer teaching free swing dance lessons on Governors Island as part of the Dysfunctional Collective.

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