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A Dancer's Broadway Breakthrough

Date: Apr 24, 2017

Robin Masella moves from Cats to the Chocolate Factory


Even in a stressful audition room, Robin Masella exudes a rare blend of passion and restraint. Her dynamic movement crackles, each fan kick and triple turn vibrant, while a mischievous smile flits across her face. But at the same time, her work remains impeccably clean. Each line is etched clearly in space, and she shapes the energy of each movement instead of being overpowered by it.

This writer noticed this unique trait years ago, dancing alongside Masella in various tryouts. And for more than a decade, the Queens native shared these talents in regional houses like Sacramento Music Circus and on national tours including Evita and Chicago.

Now, Broadway has finally made a place for her. This season alone, she made her Broadway debut as Demeter in Cats and then took her spot as a swing in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which opened last week at the Lunt-Fontanne. (That's her pictured above, performing as Demeter at the 2016 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.)

Her whirlwind entrance to the Great White Way has been even more satisfying for Masella since it includes working with two of today’s most prolific choreographers: In Cats, style master Andy Blankenbuehler adds to Gillian Lynne’s original movement in the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's landmark musical about felines bounding through a junkyard. Down the street, Joshua Bergasse offers clever sizzle and unabashed whimsy in Charlie, which adapts the beloved book and films about the chocolatier Willy Wonka and the children he invites on a tour of his madcap factory.

Both shows use equally challenging but vastly different movement vocabularies, from Blankenbuehler’s cool, jaunty prowls to Bergasse’s explosive, zippy work. Fortunately, as the daughter of a theatre family, lifelong dancer and veritable student of the industry’s nuances, the 31-year-old vet is ready for all of it. And more specifically, she's hungry to stretch herself on New York City stages.

"After years of taking gigs out of town, my friend and mentor Nikole Vallins said, 'If you want to work in New York, you have to stay in New York," Masella recalls. "That was hard. As a performer, you simply want to keep going, and I had been fortunate to book gigs consistently. But I made the decision to stay, and not long after, I booked Trip of Love Off Broadway. And that's when I was auditioning for Cats. So when I finally made it to Broadway, not only did I appreciate it more, I was prepared. I'm 31, so I've been in the business for years. I had friends in the show and orchestra. I came into a family."


Her feline family was hard won, though. While she made it down to the final few after multiple rounds of auditions, she initially lost out on the prominently featured role of Demeter, a wary feline who has a dark history with several other characters. However, since she was simultaneously auditioning for Hamilton, which Blankenbuehler also choreographed, she got tons of face time with him. She started to understand his process, even before she nabbed the gig.

"I love how detailed Andy's choreography is," she says. "There's meaning behind every movement; he knows very specifically what each small arm gesture means. Not all choreographers are like that. Personally, I want to know that line of reasoning, and that changes how I'll perform the movement."

While in Cats, Masella was called in for Charlie. In the room with Bergasse, she was reminded of her time in his classes at Broadway Dance Center and assisting him on gigs years before. "They had already cast the show and were looking for just two tracks," says Masella. "So clearly they were looking for something very specific. Fortunately, the dance combination was the quintessential Josh I remembered from class: triple turns into huge kicks and fast footwork."

Bergasse's approach helped Masella feel confident she'd be able to do her best work. "He loves feedback," she says. "He comes in with ideas and choreography, but then sometimes he'll say, 'I'm thinking I want it to be like this.' He'll let people play, then he'll splice together the parts he loves. That way, he winds up making his dancers, and thereby his work, look the best."

Charlie features a buffet of music and dance genres, and each child who visits Wonka's factory is represented with his or her own dance flavor. Greedy Augustus Gloop, for instance, enters with a Bavarian beer hall number, while Violet Beauregarde, a self-obsessed online star, is carried along by dance-pop. Still, Masella connects most deeply to the uniting thread in Bergasse's work. "No matter what, he always finds the accent, the syncopation, the burst within each phrase," she says. "He knows how to ensure the audience knows where to look when, and it's consistently exciting to dance that way."

Cumulatively, these shows have added to Masella's artistic toolbox. "When you watch someone create, you start to see the full scope of possibilities, not only from their perspective, but from your own, too," she says. "I start choreographing in my own mind. Because Andy and Josh are different, they pull out different options in my head that then take on different shapes in my own style. Eventually, I want to choreograph, but for now I have many years of performing ahead of me, learning from people like Josh and Andy."


Lauren Kay is the director of TDF's Meet the Dance Company film series.

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