If you like to get your early morning ballet fix, you’ve probably found yourself in Greg Zane’s 9am class at Broadway Dance Center. But over the past year, Greg’s been in and out of the BDC studio, serving as Associate Choreographer for the Tony Award-winning revival of The King and I at the Lincoln Center Theater. Even with the show up and running, Greg continues to play an active role in the production—in charge of maintaining the choreography, as well as hiring and coaching new cast members. We were able to chat with Greg about his long history with The King and I, his work on this revival, and winning a Tony Award.
How did you come to be Associate Choreographer on this production?
It was a case of many elements aligning at the perfect time. Chris [Gattelli] and I have a friendship that stretches way back to when we were both dancers on Broadway: I was in The King and I and Chris was in CATS. We both moved on from our performing careers, and started working as choreographers and directors. Chris went on to great success as choreographer for Altar Boyz, Newsies, and Lincoln Center Theater’s South Pacific. I had gone on to direct and choreograph regional theatre works that included 11 productions of The King and I (K&I).
My K&I education really began during my days performing in the 1996 Broadway revival and, subsequently, the West End company and US National Tour. During this period, I learned the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography for the famous Act 2 ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from Susan Kikuchi. Susan learned Robbins’ choreography from her mother Yuriko who originated the role of Eliza in the 1951 Broadway production. In the tradition of handing down choreography from generation to generation, Susan then passed the ballet on to me. With such a direct link back to the original K&I, I am one of a handful of people who are acknowledged as “reconstructors” of Jerome Robbins’ K&I choreography.
When the 2015 revival was announced, the president of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin, thought I’d be the perfect person to represent Robbins’ legacy. Ted urged me to contact Chris. And Chris—knowing my history with K&I—thought I would be a valuable asset.
What is your role as Associate Choreographer?
In the ten-day pre-production dance workshop, I taught the Act 2 ballet to the dancers. Once that basic foundation of vocabulary was there, I helped Chris reshape and adjust the choreography for the Lincoln Center stage. The challenge was that Robbins—who found inspiration in two-dimensional Thai paintings—originally choreographed the ballet for a proscenium stage, whereas the stage at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theater is a thrust.
In rehearsal, my role was to help the choreographer shape the dances. I was also a sounding board. I could tell Chris what I thought was working and what was not. Considering my experience with the show, I was relied on more heavily in that I was asked to stage entire sequences. Once I did that, Chris and Bart Sher, the Director, would take a look and make adjustments and tweaks. I helped to lay the foundation on which the choreography is based.
Post-opening, I serve as Chris’s representative, not only maintaining his choreography but also the integrity of his vision. I also maintain the integrity of Jerome Robbins’ choreography. Whereas the Dance Captain is responsible for the tracking of individual parts, I am there to coach the dancers in the nuances and details of the Act 2 ballet. This 16-minute piece is not merely a big production number, but a character-driven narrative ballet. As the coach, I need to help the dancers understand the intentions that drive the steps. Each step has a meaning, and there are no empty moments. It’s not just movement for movement’s sake. I also coach “Shall We Dance”— I am now a polka expert! In addition to taking notes during performances, I also audition dancers for future replacements in the cast.
How does your experience as a ballet teacher help you in your role in this show?
As a ballet teacher, I know how the body works physically and kinetically. I also understand the classical ballet aesthetic. I can bring that knowledge with me as a coach and choreographer. With all of that knowledge, I can help a dancer if they are having trouble with a specific step or I can also stage movement and phrases that make sense kinetically and physically. As I say in my BDC classes, ballet technique is very precise—you either do it or you don’t. This has helped to sharpen my eye.
Robbins’ work is very ballet-based; consequently, the show’s dance foundation is ballet. All the dancers who are cast in the show have very strong ballet technique. When I cast dancers, I use my teaching experience to make decisions. As I said, I have a very discerning eye, and I know the style of the piece, so I can tell who is right and who is not.
What planning/research did you have to do before starting the project?
As I mentioned, we did a ten-day pre-production dance workshop. You could say my research took nineteen years of experience with the show itself!
With a revival of such a treasured musical, there are high expectations. How did the creative team and cast make this revival the same classic story with a new flair?
We maintained the essence of the story. With a piece that is as well known and loved as K&I, people are expecting certain moments. This time we can dig deeper into other elements that were not fully investigated in the past—in this case, colonialism and the education of women.
How is Gattelli’s choreography inspired by that of Jerome Robbins? How does it differ?
The foundation of the show is the vocabulary of Jerome Robbins. In this version, the dancing is much more muscular and athletic. We’ve retained the Robbins choreography but enlarged it by putting it right in your lap. Because of the Beaumont’s thrust stage, you get to see the ballet from different sides. The choreographic patterns are more three-dimensional. This “in your face” approach and the muscularity of the dancers, makes this version of K&I is what Bart likes to call, “Jerome Robbins on steroids!”
How did the choreography develop during the pre-production and rehearsal process?
The opening dance sequence in Act 1 called “The Vignettes” went through at least three or four different versions. The problem was finding a way into the sequence. It was unrealistic and out of character to have the peasants start to dance in unison on the dockside after Anna leaves. We thought it could be Anna’s journey from the dockside through the streets of Bangkok into the Royal Palace, or a dance rehearsal of the Royal Court Dancers. We had so many ideas. Chris thought of a “physical” overture that set up the theme of a male-dominated society, which led to using the palace guards in muscular choreography that was percussive and masculine. That then led to the inclusion of two Royal Court Dancers dancing as birds who mirror the story of Lun Tha/Tuptim and Anna/the King: they are attracted to each other, but are kept apart. The two vignettes morphed from one into the other, ultimately leading the audience into the Royal Palace and climaxing with the entrance of the King. Chris and I would develop a version and then tweak, refine and adjust the steps as the rehearsal process went on—even into previews.
Where were you for the Tony Awards? How did you feel before that night and what is it like having been a part of this award-winning production?
That was a wild and crazy day and night! It started for me that Sunday at 8:15am for the dress rehearsal, and didn’t end until 6:00am the next morning after the Tony Awards After-Party. Chris invited me to the Awards, so I got to sit in the orchestra section. I was a thrilled to see Ruthie and Kelli win their Tony Awards, but the best part was winning for Best Musical Revival. That meant all of us were a part of this extraordinary journey. I had to pinch myself! Being in the same room with all of these directors, choreographers and performers! How did I, a kid from Hawaii, end up meeting and conversing with people like Julie Andrews? It was crazy! I was and continue to be so grateful and honored to be a part of this amazing production.