Friday, April 18, 2008

Dance as Expression in Movin’ Out vs. Spring Awakening
In today’s world, Broadway musical often combine many elements. Whether the show employs comedy or drama, simple or elaborate sets, large or small casts, each show has its own voice; some more audible than others. In my opinion, dance often enhances a show by being its primary plot device or as a means to connect ideas within the work. In Billy Joel and Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out and Duncan Sheik and Steven Satar’s Spring Awakening, dance is utilized in completely different ways to achieve a common goal: providing cohesiveness and connecting the plot to the characters through movement, both simple and complex.

Through Billy Joel’s lyrics, a story unfolds in Movin’ Out. Set in the Vietnam era, the dancers are simultaneously the actors and narrative. The entire production is performed to Billy Joel classics, choreographed by the world renowned Twyla Tharp. She uses dance as the core of the show, but not just as a way to shift from one scene to another. In my opinion, she is successful in transforming the audiences’ expectations of a “ballet” or Broadway show. She blends the two to create a new type of experience by bringing dance to the foreground, instead of serving as embellishment. The dancers (like in classical ballet) carry the plot without being tied to the lyrics. They do reflect what the song is about, but they are not necessarily miming the story. With the group sections, the dancing becomes less about specific characters, and more about the era in which the story takes place. For example, in the section “We didn’t start the fire”, the dancers are not defined individuals, but they evoke the sense of chaos associated with riots, which were all too common in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The end of this section is perfect because of its simplicity. Most of the show is very flashy, showy and daring, but in the last few seconds of the song, the ensemble forms a simple line just staring at the audience. Movin’ Out is a Broadway musical in which the story is told largely through dance, not just lyrics and acting. Other musicals have used this format, most notably Fosse, but probably none have tackled such a difficult topic as the Vietnam War era. Perhaps the medium of dance helps to discuss uncomfortable topics.

Certainly another uncomfortable topic occurs in Spring Awakening. The original 1880s German play was banned because it dealt with exploring the sexual development of teenagers and social taboos such as homosexuality. In contrast to Movin’ Out, Spring Awakening uses dance as a way to show the age of the characters and also as scene transitions. The show was choreographed by Bill T. Jones, who used informal patterns and rhythm instead of flash and dash. Unlike Tharp, Jones did not have the luxury of working with professional level dancers. Jones used high school and college age actors and singers who had very little dance experience. Since the story is about a group of young, German teenagers in the late 1800’s, the movement is often free and playful with lots of props including chairs and microphones. However, because the subject matter of the musical deals with coming of age issues and misinformation concerning our sexual nature, the movement is also often aggressive and nearly punitive. In one of the opening numbers the male students stomp in place and in random patterns exhibiting great angst and frustration. The show is set with a music video in mind; the actors say their lines and then the songs are the characters’ thoughts during each scene. Dance is not the major narrative conveyance in Spring Awakening, but its unique nature of semi-patterns and passive-aggressive expression definitely help convey the attitudes of the characters. Just like Movin’ Out is innovative, so is this production, however, dance is not as prominent. It serves as a more passive role with more interpretive movement. While the “dance”, non-structured and not definable by genre is not the major focus of the staging of Spring Awakening, Bill T. Jones’ choreography makes a tremendous statement and addition to understanding the characters’ psyches, thus illuminating the theme of the play.
Both Tharp and Jones use dance to help with character development and transitions, while simultaneously advancing the plot, but in completely different ways and styles. In my opinion, Tharp use dance better, mainly because she takes it to a new level by making it the plot, not just another transition. Bill T. Jones uses minimal choreography to convey difficult topics, without making dance prominent. However, both approaches work. Movin’ Out is remarkable because it is a Broadway musical story told primarily through dance. Spring Awakening is notable because typical Broadway chorus dances are absent, but the barebones choreography greatly enhances our appreciation of the characters’ dilemmas and hopes. Either way, whether complicated and technical choreography, or the simplest of choreography (i.e. simply moving the chorus), well done choreography is a must for a successful Broadway musical.

No comments: