Inside the killer choreography of An American in Paris
While the dance world at large continues to wage an uphill battle (see: the closing of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet), Broadway is enjoying a surge of dance-heavy shows.
The charge is led by three musicals currently on the boards. Gigi and On the Town – both choreographed by Joshua Bergasse – burst with athletic energy and complex routines, while the third, An American in Paris, uses the fluidity, elegance, and pristine lines of ballet.
All three productions have ties to the MGM Golden Age of movie musicals, and fans of the Paris film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1951, will recognize the new production's story. We follow Jerry, an American soldier turned expat painter who falls in love with Lise, a charming dancer with a heavy secret. Their romance involves several love triangles, a few high society parties, and the city's persistent angst as it tries to rebuild after the end of Nazi occupation.
Yet even though it's based on something familiar, An American in Paris, now in previews at the Palace Theatre, offers something new. Craig Lucas's book, for instance, sharpens the storytelling and gives weightier back stories to many of the characters. Just as importantly, Christopher Wheeldon serves as both director and choreographer. A titan of the ballet world, this production marks his first chance to reach Broadway audiences.
Known for work that ranges from hauntingly dramatic (After the Rain) to magically whimsical (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), Wheeldon, who was a dancer with The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet, often imbues his movement with a narrative thread. His transition to Broadway underscores that skill. At the end of both acts,the show tells most of the story through dance, with lengthy ballets letting us see how love is blooming, fading, and fighting to survive. There's no dialogue or singing to explain what's happening, but the richly specific movement makes everything clear.
To achieve his vision, Wheeldon is employing ballet favorites Robert Fairchild (New York City Ballet) and Leanne Cope (The Royal Ballet) as Jerry and Lise, and he has filled the ensemble with knockout pros. Even cast members who have sometimes relied more on their acting and singing are upping their dance antes.
Case in point: Ensemble member Will Burton. Trained at the University of Michigan, the 26-year-old made sure to study dancing, singing, and acting while growing up, but as he's worked at regional houses like Arena Stage, Goodspeed Opera House, and Paper Mill Playhouse, he's been hired more for his "featured young man" qualities than his footwork.
Still, one of those gigs led to his current role: "My South Pacific music director at Paper Mill told me about the audition [for An American in Paris]," he recalls. "He said it was the craziest, hardest dancing he had ever seen, but I should take a shot at it. I wanted to see where I stood dance-wise – and get a free class! When I kept getting called back, it was a miracle in my mind. The audition started with a ballet sequence across the floor with basic skills like jumps with beats, chaine turns, and arabesques, followed by a jazz combination. It was clear the dancing was the star in this show."
He continues, "Once I booked the job, I was panicked that I'd show up and they'd be disappointed. I got in gear. They were offering ballet class before every rehearsal. I said, 'I'm going to every single one. I don't want to get left behind.' That's how you improve: Surround yourself with people who are better. It sucks and hurts your ego, but that's the quickest way."
The dance world is influencing Burton in other ways, too, including simple physical care. "Now, I roll out my legs with a foam roller and use a frozen water bottle on the bottom of my foot," he says. "Also, active stretching, versus static stretching, is better because it prepares muscles for actual dancing."
Burton's also seeing more ballet than ever before. "I went to New York City Ballet for the first time ever and saw a program of pieces by Alexei Ratmansky, Justin Peck, and Chris, too," he says. "It was much less stodgy than I remembered from other ballets. The movement was a lot richer, and now I understand it more."
All of Burton's newly doubled dance efforts were put to the test when Wheeldon set a chunk of choreography on him while the show was in tryouts in Paris. "One day, he asked me to come out and do a chunk that tripped me up," Burton recalls. "I felt the eyes of the company on me, and since he was going at the pace he was used to – breakneck – it was a panicky moment. But I dug in and got it. I practiced it over and over: a 1000 times. Then it's in my body, versus many of the other dancers who can watch Chris and then do it right after, perfecting it as they keep performing. After Paris, other people had to do that same section, and they were asking for help, too. It was really tricky – for everyone."
Consider that: When even Broadway performers describe the choreography as challenging, then you know this season is offering an exhilarating level of work. It's enough to make the larger dance world's problems seem less daunting, at least for the few hours of a performance.
Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City
Photos by Angela Sterling. Top photo: The cast of An American in Paris.