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Dance Like God is Watching In Broadway’s “Scandalous,” dance is both religious and entertaining

By LAUREN KAY

From the fierce undulations of a tribal circle to the constant swaying of men praying in a synagogue, the link between movement and religion is undeniable. In Scandalous: The Musical, now on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre, this connection is on passionate display.

The story of Aimee Semple McPherson (Carolee Carmelo), a famous 1920s evangelist with a twisting journey and an affinity for celebrity, the show highlights the intersection of entertainment and religion, as well as spiritual fervor of many stripes. The dances, from backbreaking showstoppers to subtler gestural pieces, are essential in reflecting that specific human ability to use the body when words just aren't enough.

For choreographer Lorin Latarro, this was the main thrust when she began creating. "Music creates a spiritual place, whether you're dancing to it or praying with it," she explains. "And since both music/religion and rhythm/a trance-like state go hand in hand, movement and prayer become intertwined. Anything rhythmic creates a sense of ceremony and physical mantra. That can easily morph into a 'step touch.'

"Plus, the idea of allowing something to speak through you---that you're a vessel---is intrinsic to religion and dance alike. They're both about letting go, having faith in something beyond comprehension, and a sense that's there's something larger than us."

For Latarro, who has performed in 14 Broadway shows herself, the first challenge was navigating the delicate subject of faith. "It's tricky to deal with religion," she says. "You have to handle it in an elegant manner. You're not presenting this show for a religious audience: It's a show that happens to be about religion but made for a regular audience, so how can we reach a wide swath of viewers with a broad point of view and not make them uncomfortable? This was a priority while also maintaining that one of the 'givens' of the show was that the acolytes behind Aimee engage in some sort of liturgical dance."

To start the process, Latarro researched the 1920s and the blossoming of classical modern dance. "I pulled from early Martha Graham and Humphrey-Wiedman technique, along with popular dances like the Charleston," she says. "I wanted the choreography to have the period's sensibility without dipping into full-on liturgical dance, which would lean more toward rolling on the floor and jumping up and down. I didn't want it to be that literal." (As a former Martha Graham Dance Company member herself, Latarro also drew upon her own experience.)

The result: In the energetic opening number "Stand Up," the acolytes breathe lightly into billowing angel arms and send up rising, cupped hands that are both an abstraction of a prayer pose and Art Deco in shape. Later, when McPherson meets a group of Irishmen, the Irish jig "Sweet Lassie" is filled with folksy stomping and lyrical, sweeping lifts that showcase the jubilance of people praying to the god of celebration.

Latarro says it was crucial to help the cast engage with the material in a genuine way, whether they were religious or not. "I needed the performers to be onstage believing in something---even if they don't believe in God---so they could be praying in the scenes without it being false," she explains.

To achieve this, she collaborated with the cast: During "He Will Be My Home," a song that takes place during a Pentacostal barn meeting, the actors sit in rows of chairs. To create the movement, Latarro held an improvisation session in which she asked the performers to choose a movement that depicted their own interpretation of gratitude. Then, Latarro chose from their phrases and created patterns to use at different times. Next, she asked the performers to put their hands in a standard prayer position by using four steps to reach that shape. The quick gestures combined to become the lulling, mesmerizing figures in the piece. "Because everything that they do onstage came from within them, it rings true," Latarro says. "They're able to cry, whether religious or not, because it's honestly meaningful to them."

She used this same type of exercise to create a moment of ecstatic healing in the midst of the tambourine-filled number "Follow Me."

"This was more difficult for me because I myself am not sure I believe in that," she says. "So, I had to help others like myself have a real experience on stage, even if not connected to an idea of God. We did the same type of improvisation exercise, and it resulted in a wonderful explosion of feeling free, from frenetic moments to calm surrender."

Admitting an unlikely connection was helpful, too: "Though some people may not want to say so, an ecstatic religious moment is similar to the intensity of a sexual experience in the freedom and loss of control," Latarro says. "They both have a sensuality and surrender. I tried to use that physicality throughout, in writhing arms reaching up to the sky and head rolls."

Latarro also used sexy, snappy tango dancers; ironic, fast-walking reporters; and brash, high-kicking prostitutes to contrast the weightless, hopeful movement of McPherson and her followers. Finally, in "Demon in the Dress," the battle cry sung by McPherson's enemy Brother Bob (George Hearn) and his followers, Latarro focused on using prayer hands as a weapon, slicing and slamming arms as the religious army hurls insults at McPherson.

"As in all the pieces, the tone of the ideas surrounding religion were the main focus and had to be dealt with gingerly," Latarro says. "Navigating that through movement helped bring the ideas together and shed light on the intense emotion spirituality creates."

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Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York
Photo by Jeremy Daniel