Broadway Dance Center is celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the Black dancers, choreographers, and educators who broke through barriers and transformed the industry.
First up is Janet Collins.
Who is Janet Collins?
Janet Collins (1917-2003) was the first Black prima ballerina to dance at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House.
Growing up amid adversity
Collins was born in New Orleans in 1917 and moved to Los Angeles with her family for the majority of her childhood. She divided her time between ballet and painting and attended the Los Angeles Art Center School and Los Angeles City College. Collins initially took ballet lessons at the local Catholic community center and then trained under Carmelita Maracci, allegedly one of the few teachers accepting Black students at the time. When she was just 15, Collins auditioned for and was accepted to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. However, she turned down the opportunity after being told she would have to wear lighter makeup to try and pass as white.
Making career moves
Collins eventually made the move to New York City, having saved money from selling her artwork. She performed with Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton’s dance troupes, in films including Stormy Weather and Jack Cole’s The Thrill of Brazil, and on Broadway in Cole Porter’s Out of This World. She also began to choreograph and perform her own work throughout the city. And people were taking notice—Collins won the Donaldson Award (for best dancer on Broadway) and Dance Magazine dubbed her “the most outstanding debutante of the season.”
In 1951, Collins was invited to join the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company. She was not only the first Black dancer to join the company, but also the first Black artist to perform on the Met stage. Collins danced with the Met until 1954, performing leading roles in ballets such as Aida and Carmen and garnering notable reviews from critics and audiences alike. Collins’ former partner, Loren Hightower, told Dance Magazine, “You could show Janet a movement, and immediately it became something that nobody else could do. But she did not alter it. It was as if Janet looked inward, and a strange power that she had seemed to come from there…it was magic, hypnotic. It was totally intuitive, and when anything is that unadornedly genuine, it’s absolutely compelling.”
Discrimination on the road
Despite her prima status, Collins experienced racism when the Met Ballet Company toured throughout the United States. In several cities, Collins’ understudy had to perform her leading roles, and she was not welcome in many hotels and restaurants. In response, the company threatened not to return to venues that practiced such segregation. Just as in her teen years, Collins rose above, committing herself to her own artistic excellence and allowing her performance onstage to speak for itself.
Beyond the stage
After her career with the Met, Collins went on to establish her own dance troupe and choreographed for companies including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the San Francisco Opera. She taught at the School of American Ballet, Marymount Manhattan College, San Francisco Ballet, the Harkness House, and St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf, always empowering her students to grow as artists and teaching them to accept nothing short of excellence. Collins passed away in 2003, but her legacy—both on stage and off—paved the way for future generations of Black dancers and continues to inspire and inform choreographers, educators, and audiences today.
If you’re a musical theater dancer, you know the name Lizz Picini. Whether you take Ricky Hinds’ class next to her, audition for her at Pearl Studios, perform with her at a regional theater, hear her name called back at an ECC, or take her class at Broadway Dance Center, it’s clear that Picini has become what the industry calls a “unicorn” – someone who magically wears multiple hats on any given project.
BDC was able to catch a quick call with Picini, who is currently performing in and serving as associate choreographer for CHICAGO down at the Maltz Jupiter Theater in Florida. “I started dance because I liked dressing up in costumes,” she laughs. “Though honestly, it’s truly a miracle that I do this for a living.” Picini was born premature with underdeveloped hips. Her doctor had her wear triple diapers to realign her femurs in her hip sockets. “I’m lucky to be able to walk, let alone to dance! It’s a reminder to be grateful for this gift.”
Picini continued dance throughout her youth—mainly focusing on ballet and pointe work. She also sang in her church choir and studied piano from her mom. After high school she attended Towson University, known for their strong technical dance program, to obtain her BFA. “I studied Dance Performance and Education,” she explains. “I took all the education curriculum but ended up dropping that secondary focus. I never thought I was going to teach…I just wanted to perform!” (We’ll come back to that irony later)
Just four days after graduation, Picini moved to New York City to participate in Broadway Dance Center’s Summer Summer Session. “Towson was fantastic for concert dance training, but I felt BDC’s SIP would help bridge the gap between college and the professional world.”
“I vividly remember that first day at BDC,” Picini recalls. “There were 75 summer interns! I was intimidated by the talent.” But Picini stood out from the crowd. Bonnie Erickson, former Director of Educational Programs, saw how focused Picini was about training and about pursuing a lasting career in the performing arts. “I didn’t perform in every student-choreographed piece,” Picini admits, “l would take classes in the areas I wasn’t as strong in, I made an effort to look presentable in every class, I sent professional e-mails updating my mentors on my progress, and I took every note I was given.” For Picini, SIP was not just a fun summer in New York City. “The program opened my eyes to musical theater, and I was excited and hungry for the challenge.”
BDC’s theater teachers like Jim Cooney, Ricky Hinds, and Al Blackstone really shaped Picini’s time as a summer intern. “Jim saw my potential and gave me a lot of tough love,” Picini says. “I had strong ballet technique and vocal chops, but Jim’s class challenged me as an actor—It still does! Ricky’s and Al’s classes demand professionalism and hard work, but the room is filled with so much fun and joy. I believe that that supportive and empowering environment is how you can get the most out of a dancer.”
That’s not to say Picini’s time in the program was smooth sailing. “There was one musical theater mock audition where I crashed and burned,” Picini confesses. The teachers and administrators behind the table said that, with that performance, she would have been cut. But, because they knew Picini’s work ethic and capabilities, they said they would actually call her back. “More than anything, the program taught me that, while talent is great, consistency and hard work are the most valuable qualities to be successful in this business.”
At the end of SIP, Picini was praised with the “Most Outstanding Student” award. “I was given a job in BDC’s retail store which gave me the opportunity to continue my intense training.” She became a “regular” in many of the advanced theater classes and, when a teacher’s assistant would leave town for a gig, Picini was there and she was ready. “I didn’t go into class desperately wanting to become an assistant,” she explains. “Stay present and patient and do the work. It’s a balance of being proactive and open, but also being in the right place at the right time.”
Picini was also promoted on the administrative side when she started working in BDC’s Group Services. “One day there was a teacher who didn’t show up for class, so they threw me in!” Picini recalls. “It was exhilarating!” After that dive into the deep end, Picini got a few chances to sub for Jim Cooney, an opportunity to lead one of BDC’s Absolute Beginner Workshops, and eventually scored her own guest teaching slot. “I had about three people in my initial classes,” she says. But things took an unexpected turn in 2016 when FOX brought cameras into Picini’s class to promote “Grease Live.” “When cameras show up, a class will always sell out,” Picini jokes. Maybe dancers initially came for the cameras, but they stayed for Picini. Her class has been waitlisted ever since.
“I’m completely overwhelmed when I’m in that studio in front of 75 people. I have to pinch myself,” Picini says with immense gratitude. “It’s an honor to teach alongside so many of my mentors at BDC. Sometimes I feel insecure because I haven’t been on Broadway yet. But I realize that dancers don’t come to my class because of my resume, but because of me and my work.”
Outside of BDC, Picini has performed at numerous reputable regional theaters across the country. “I did a ton of dance captain jobs and then was asked to be assistant choreographer for a show at Finger Lakes Musical Theater (now The Rev Theater Company),” Picini remembers. “I was nervous because I didn’t want to give up performing. But, due to the limited amount of union contracts available, I would not have been on the project at all had I not also been assistant choreographer!” Her initial predicament quickly became her superpower. It wasn’t black-or-white—Picini could do both. And she was more marketable as a result! “It checks a lot of boxes if one person is capable to do a lot,” Picini acknowledges. That’s one less flight, one less housing accommodation, etc. “I’ve put a lot of work in and it has really blown up. People have taken notice and that’s such an incredible feeling.” Picini has assisted such choreographers as Parker Esse, Ricky Hinds, Rommy Sandhu, and Denis Jones. “Being behind the table has leveled me,” she discloses. “Casting a show is a complicated puzzle. At many auditions, you could cast the show ten times over with the amount of talent that comes in! A dancer’s job is to show up and do your work. That’s all you can do—and that’s enough.”
As a teacher, associate choreographer, and active performer, it’s no surprise Picini’s schedule can be jam-packed. “I’ve learned (and am still learning) about balance,” she concedes. “There was a point when I felt so popular yet so alone. I was also hospitalized for exhaustion at one point.” Picini has realized how important it is to rest, say no when she needs to, and keep a supportive inner circle of family and close friends. “Rest days, therapy, and my faith keep me grounded. Now I understand that I am me and the opportunities that have been opened to me are because I am expressing and taking care of who I am.”
Picini credits her ever-bourgeoning journey to BDC. Her creative voice, infectious laugh, and humble work ethic inspire her peers, students, audiences, and own teachers and mentors. “Recently a choreographer whom I had never worked with called me to wear multiple hats for his upcoming project,” Picini explains. “He said, ‘And if I know of Lizz Picini, this is right up her alley.’ That is the most amazing feeling. Sure, Broadway will always be a goal. But I’m learning to celebrate the present and continue to put in the work every day.”
Joy Karley’s journey to Broadway Dance Center was a weave of passion, artistry, and (believe it or not) science! Karley currently teaches ballet, Pilates, and frequent foot care and extension classes at BDC and, while her trajectory may not have felt linear at the time, her resume is incredibly impressive.
“I started dancing in Cleveland, Ohio in those 3-5 pre-dance combination classes,” remembers Karley. “I had three older brothers and my mom wanted me to do something ‘girly.’ I took everything from tap and ballet to tumbling.” Throughout her adolescence, Karley trained at various studios including the Cleveland Ballet. “Back in the 70s and the 80s, dance scene was still a very abusive environment,” she concedes. “To my teachers at the time, I would never be good enough or skinny enough to succeed.”
With that invigorating mix of disappointment and determination in her bones, Karley decided to apply for college where she felt she could major in dance and train in a more supportive environment.
She was accepted to Kent State University where the dance program was, at the time, part of the physical education department rather than performing arts or musical theater. “My degree was a B.S. (a Bachelor of Science). But I didn’t want to take the science requirements, so I pushed them off to my senior year.” While exercise physiology initially sounded boring to Karley, she eventually discovered she loved learning about human anatomy and how the body works. It all clicked—She could relate that knowledge to her dancing.
Alongside her academics, Karley found a side hustle teaching fitness classes at local gyms. “There was no such thing as a ‘fitness certification’ back then,” she recalls. “All you needed was a cassette tape and some rhythm!” Slowly but surely, Karley’s interests began to dovetail.
“Still, dance in college is like dance—or any performing art—anywhere else,” Karley admits. “There’s discouragement everywhere you go. My advisor even told me to change majors!” But a lightbulb went off after reading a small Dance Magazine article about the Pilates method, a training program popular among dancers. “I wanted to help dancers get better at what they do,” Karley told her advisor. “I think you’d better focus on your studies…” her advisor replied.
That same fire was ignited in Karley again. “I finished my degree, continued teaching fitness, and delved into learning more about other fitness methods including Pilates,” she says. “At that time Step Reebok was brand new. I learned to teach Step from Tamilee Webb (“Buns of Steel”). She kind of mentored me about pursuing a career in the fitness industry.”
Karley knew she had more to learn, so she headed west to San Diego State to get her master’s degree in Biomechanics and Athletic Training. “San Diego had the biggest concentration of well-known professors and was where Step Reebok was doing all their innovative research,” says Karley, whose thesis actually contributed to the research and development for the step training manuals. “It wasn’t so bad to study at the beach either!” She also kept up teaching dance and fitness and freelancing with some small dance companies in Southern California.
After a stint in Los Angeles, Karley got recruited to work in fitness marketing in New York City. “The environment was very toxic and misogynistic,” she recalls. “I missed dance, so I started taking (and eventually subbing) classes at Broadway Dance Center.” It was here that everything seemed to fall into place. “I realize I’m doing exactly what I told my advisor I wanted to do—help dancers get better at their craft,” Karley says with pride. “To all the teachers who told me to quit, I’m teaching at Broadway Dance Center in New York City and empowering dancers to become better, stronger, and smarter artists.”
“Being onstage is great, but I have had such rewarding experiences as a teacher.” Karley recounts one story about a former International Student Visa Program student who dragged himself to her ballet class because it was required for his program. “While the student was very resistant at first, after a few weeks he started getting really good. I would catch him checking himself in the mirror and clearly enjoying class,” she remembers. “When the program ended, he came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you because you taught me about ballet and made me appreciate it.’ That makes what I do worth it. If ballet comes on TV and his buddies joke about it, he might defend it and say, ‘No, that’s really difficult. Those men are athletes.’ That makes an impact.”
Karley’s classes are popular amongst dancers because she teaches not only technique, but a deeper understanding of how the muscles and joints work to achieve each movement. “In my day, we were taught to just make your body do that. It was like Darwinism…the weak would be weeded out and the cream of the crop would rise to the top,” Karley explains. “I try to teach people from a biomechanical standpoint so dancers can understand their abilities from the inside-out and work with what they have to train and perform safely. There’s a lot of imagery in ballet, but some of it is untrue. Understanding what’s actually going on anatomically can make a huge difference in a dancer’s technique.”
Good workouts are the ones that withstand the test of time. They can certainly evolve, but they’re scientifically proven and aren’t just ‘trends.’ “Science behind it ensures you’re not going to get hurt,” explains Karley. “Ballet actually proves to be scientifically sound—You start with plies and end with jumps after an hour of warming up. It’s progressive physically.”
If you understand how your body works, you can avoid injury and get stronger. Dancers, like athletes, have a tendency to push through pain in order to perform. “The industry is getting much healthier,” addresses Karley. “Companies have physical therapists on staff and training programs are encouraging dancers to take control of their own self-care through classes like Pilates, yoga, and active isolated flexibility. Imagine how much longer you might be able to dance if you take care of yourself.”
In addition to a dancer’s core technique classes, Karley strongly encourages Pilates as a critical form of cross-training. “Pilates keeps dancers healthy and strong,” she says. “Young people think ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’ but you don’t realize how vulnerable you are until your first injury.” Pilates strengthens and lengthens the body with a sense of control and centering through your ‘powerhouse’ (core abdominal and lower back muscles).
Karley’s additional specialized signature classes evolved from her own students’ needs. “Years back I had a dancer who was planning to have bunion surgery,” Karley recalls. “I gave her a foot kit (sold in the BDC store) and, after using it only twice, her foot pain went away.” Karley got inspired to design a foot conditioning class to help dancers care for their most important instruments—their feet. In addition to her foot class, Karley’s other signature classes, stretching and improving extension, remain popular at BDC.
Over her years teaching here, Karley has noticed an ever-growing bad habit amongst her younger students: tech neck (poor posture from texting, gaming, or working on a computer). “These kids have the posture of senior citizens,” Karley worries. To combat this postural problem, she suggests four simple exercises: 1) aligning the body starting a the feet and stacking the skeleton all the way up to the crown of the head, 2) some sort of core activation exercise like opposite arm/leg reach, bridging, or ab curls, 3) an upper back ‘swan,’ and 4) cat/cow stretch to mobilize the spine. “If you can start your day with these exercises or do them before dance class, they’ll make a world of difference.”
To become an even more informed dancer, be sure to drop into Karley’s ballet, Pilates, and frequent signature classes at BDC.
Salmon’s passion for ballet radiates from her every pore and shines onto each
student she encounters here at BDC. With her virtuosic demonstration, careful
hands-on correction, visual imagery, and historical and experiential anecdotes,
Salmon has had many of her students grace the ballet, concert, and Broadway
stages. And before their shows or in between contracts, these dancers come back
to her ballet class because they know with “Miss Jamie,” there’s always more to
learn and improve. Even dancers who for one reason or another begrudgingly make
their way to the barre often discover a new appreciation for ballet—both as an
art and as a practice—thanks to Salmon’s thoughtful, inspirational, and
up, Salmon trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts, SAB, Joffrey
Ballet School, and Broadway Dance Center. Her first professional gig was
performing with her ballet bud, Nicole Fosse, in a production of “The
Nutcracker,” directed by Gwen Verdon and produced by Bob Fosse, who were like
second parents to Salmon during her SAB summers in the Big Apple. She went on
to dance with the Joffrey Concert Group and for TV, film, and commercials.
Salmon credits her teaching philosophy to the mentors and experiences that
helped to shape, challenge, and support her as a dancer. “Both my training and
performance experience have influenced me tremendously as a teacher.” Salmon
considers herself a “tough love teacher with positive reinforcement.” This, she
explains, is a balanced foundation to truly empower her students with the
encouragement and discipline to achieve their goals. “Every student and
circumstance is unique,” she adds. “What works for one dancer might not work on
another. You, as a teacher, have to determine the best way to reach that
individual dancer—when to give a little extra pressure and when to back off in
To Salmon, it’s an exciting challenge to teach open adult classes at BDC where students come from all over the world and have diverse dance backgrounds and varying levels of technical ballet training. “While I do love teaching at a conservatory, it’s just as rewarding to inspire a contemporary or street style dancer to find a love for ballet.” This gift to inspire was passed down from Salmon’s most memorable teachers and mentors (*see acknowledgments). “I had teachers that were so energetic, hands-on, and visual with imagery. That was very helpful to me,” she remembers. “As a teacher, I feel like I’m the new messenger—passing on the ballet history and folklore that came before me. And then, by sprinkling in my own personal stories, it becomes something new and personal. It’s very special.”
Salmon first began teaching at BDC back in 2008 and she still gets goosebumps walking through the halls. “It means a lot to teach at Broadway Dance Center,” she acknowledges. “I trained here with Finis Jhung, Evie Lynn, and Douglas Wassel. It’s humbling to be on the faculty amongst my ballet colleagues, all the incredible educators in their own genres, and then also part of the great legacy of teachers who have called BDC home.”
Salmon, ballet will always always be the crux of any dancer’s training–at
Broadway Dance Center, a liberal arts university, a pre-professional
conservatory, or anywhere. “There’s a lot of talk about cross-training today,”
Salmon says. “I hear about Broadway performers who skip dance class and head to
the gym. Fitness classes might build your stamina, but they won’t help you
perfect your pirouettes or heighten your extension. You need to get back to the
And ballet, emphasizes Salmon, is an integral foundation for every style of dance. “An arabesque is an arabesque no matter if its jazz, contemporary, or any other style of dance. You need to know the architecture of that position from ballet,” Salmon explains. “There’s something from ballet—whether it’s proper alignment, posture, quick and detailed footwork, or graceful port de bras–that can be taken and used to inspire in any form of dance.” She continues, “What’s more, there’s an aura about ballet dancers. I can tell the type of ballet training a dancer has had just by how they prepare at the barre before the music starts. You can tell by a dancer’s demeanor and the way they carry themselves. That poise and professionalism will translate anywhere.”
do many dancers feel like they have to drag themselves to the barre? “If you
only take ballet once a week, you won’t like it,” Salmon says frankly. “It’s
difficult to do only once per week because the body doesn’t respond quickly to
the very formal movement and rigid placement of ballet technique. It needs
repetition…to be reminded over and over again. People think ballet is rigid. It
isn’t—it has a very specific
placement. You can find freedom and energy within those restricted confines,
but it requires the discipline of showing up and working towards that…It isn’t just
handed to you. I promise the more you do it, the stronger, freer, and more
confident you’ll feel.”
Salmon admits that ballet class is certainly not always sunshine and rainbows. “It’s
so fascinating that dancers feel the most naked in ballet class. I don’t know
why that is, but I felt the same way,” she admits. “That’s the barrier I want
to try and break down…For my students to come to class dressed professionally,
looking confident, and saying ‘Here I am!’”
“It’s about getting excited for the challenge,” she adds. “The people that go and climb Mount Etna don’t look at the mountain thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s so far. I’ll just turn back.’ They say, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m going to climb this!’ with the full intent of getting there. They are going regardless of their fear because it’s just so exciting.” As perfectionists, many dancers ascertain it’s better not to try at all than to try and fail. That’s when our egos can get in the way. “As a young dancer, I would hold myself back because I was afraid of making a mistake and feeling humiliated,” Salmon recalls regrettably. “It’s a false sense of pride that we’re supposed to do everything perfectly.” In class, Salmon often reminds her students that ballet is a never-ending journey towards an impossible destination. “Not being able to achieve the same standard as Tiler Peck, Misty Copeland, Mikhail Baryshnikov, or whoever you believe epitomizes the ‘perfect’ ballet dancer is not an excuse not to try to find your personal best. There are only a few people that can achieve those standards. Instead of feeling discouraged by comparing yourself, get inspired to achieve your personal best.” The art and the joy are in the work itself.
And that “work” extends beyond a few tendus and pliés at the barre. “While there seems to be a lot more dancing—and more people dancing—than ever before, I’m concerned about this new generation of dancers,” admits Salmon. “There’s a lack of knowledge about dance history. Kids are doing steps without understanding where they originated. Can you really express the dance correctly when you don’t know the genesis of where it came from? If you’re really interested in dance, you need to do your homework.”
That homework includes understanding dance history and also taking proper care of the dancer’s physical instrument. “I notice a lot of dancers today seem very out of shape due to lack of training. That also makes you more prone to injuries.” To best aid her students, Salmon relies on visual and aural cues as well as physical adjustments. “Of course, I ask the student beforehand,” says Salmon. “But a little physical manipulation can be incredibly helpful in discovering proper placement in ballet—especially for more beginner students.”
At BDC Salmon currently teaches beginner ballet, advanced beginner ballet, and pointe to wonderfully diverse classes of dancers from tiny hopeful pre-teen primas and seasoned Broadway veterans to hundreds of students from BDC’s professional training programs and many of BDC’s own faculty. At heart, Salmon believes a great teacher is one who looks at each student as an individual dancer and as part of a collective ensemble. “It’s like a family,” she says with a smile. “You—the teacher—have to nurture and mentor each student differently.”
Salmon isn’t performing professionally anymore, the qualities and skills she
cultivated as a dancer have grown ever stronger in her teaching: taking risks,
paying attention to detail, collaborating, inspiring those around her,
creating, and being present in the journey. Most of all, Salmon hopes to
encourage those abilities, values, and aspirations for her students. “The memories
that most stuck with me were the hug with, ‘I’m proud of you. You had a tough
day today and you didn’t give up’ or the arm around my shoulder with, ‘I need
more work from you—You’re too talented to be getting in your own way.’ Those
moments were infinitely more impactful than teachers who just tell you how
wonderful you are all the time.”
“I was so lucky to have some truly amazing teachers in my life,” Salmon recognizes. “I am grateful for how they mentored, nurtured, sometimes babied, and often acted tough on me. I wouldn’t trade any of it.” She jokes that she’s a “torchbearer,” passing on the information she learned from her teachers and professional experiences—and selectively choosing what to bring with her and what to consciously leave out. “Because of my teachers who did it for me, teaching just seems natural …As many students as I can fill in my heart!”
*Salmon would like to extend her gratitude for her teachers and mentors, including: Dana Kennedy, Melissa Hayden, Margaret Thayer, Paul Mejia, Juan Anduze, Joan Saunders, Duncan Noble, Joyceann Sedimus, Meredith Baylis, Dorothy Lister, Trinette Singleton, Jim Snyder, Finis Jhung, Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse, North Carolina School of the Arts (now UNCSA), School of American Ballet, Joffrey Ballet School, and Broadway Dance Center.
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.
We recently sat down with BDC Ballet Faculty member Richard Bowman for a Q & A session, and here’s what he had to say.
What was your training like growing up?
I started dancing when I was six years old. My mother was a dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet and my father was the company manager at that time. They settled in Auckland and my mother decided to put me into ballet class. When I was 14, I went to the Royal Academy of Dance’s International summer school in Wellington, New Zealand. They had teachers from the Royal Academy of Dance and The Royal Ballet. It was the first time I had been in a class with just boys, and being taught by a male teacher, as well.
At the end of the International Summer School one of the ballet masters was very interested in my potential. I was invited the following year to the International Summer School in Brisbane, Australia. There I was offered me full scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London. After training there for two years I was offered a position in Vienna at the Volksoper. Shortly thereafter I auditioned for the Vienna State Opera Ballet, during my time with the Vienna State Opera I was offered a position as a soloist with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
While performing in New Zealand, I decided I needed to learn more about my profession so I returned to Europe. I accepted a contract as a soloist with the Leipzig Ballet under the direction of Uwe Scholtz.
How did your mother affect your career?
She was the basis for my training from the time I was a child until I went to London. She is a wonderful children’s teacher.
Who has been the most inspiring person throughout your career?
As a dancer one of the most inspiring teachers that I ever had was Jiahong Wang (Mr. Wang). I trained with him in the Royal Ballet School in London and years later when I was joined the Australian Ballet he was a ballet master. It was great to work with him as a student and then a professional dancer. His wealth of knowledge was unbelievable. As a teacher there have been so many teachers who have inspired me. Most recently was David Howard.
Can you tell us about the ABT® National Training Curriculum?
My experience with the ABT NTC is that it is a wonderful set of guidelines that aims to assist all teachers in training dance students in how to use their bodies correctly, it focuses on kinetics and coordination, as well as anatomy and proper body alignment. Artistically, the National Training Curriculum strives to provide dance students with a rich knowledge of classical ballet technique and the ability to adapt to all styles and techniques of dance.
What do you see dancers falter on the most?
I see dancers falter on their posture. It is a bad habit, which can be corrected with good training.
What is your advice for preparing for an audition?
You need to be in shape. Get plenty of sleep the night before. You have to be at the top of your game when you walk in that door. You also have to look like you came out of bandbox. You have to look like you’re a million dollars in other words. You can’t have dirty shoes, holes in your tights. Your hair and makeup have to be perfect. If I am auditioning somebody my first impression is what I see. That’s a tough lesson to learn. Make sure that you are prepared for whatever is going to be thrown at you. If you are going for a ballet audition, ladies make sure to have a couple pairs of pointe shoes ready to go. Make sure that you’re prepared to maybe even show a variation. You should have one already prepared in the back of your mind that you have been rehearsing. It has happened to me before out of the blue. They needed to see a variation. “Do you have music?” Sometimes it’s necessary since directors may want to see you outside of a classroom situation. Be prepared for anything.
What has been the most challenging obstacle for you in this business?
Trying to make sure as a teacher that I help and connect with every single person in the room.
Do you still take class? What kind of styles?
I would take class if I had time, but my schedule is very full at the moment. I used to take class maybe two or three times a week but recently it has become harder. I think it’s important to take other styles depending on what you are looking for. It doesn’t matter what style of a dancer you are, ballet class sets you up for every other genre. It’s a very good foundation for all dancers.
Can you tell us about the dance school you and your wife opened?
When I retired from performing full time with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre we moved to California and opened our own school. It was an amazing experience. A few years later my wife and I were invited to direct and manage an already established school and we were able to help turn the school around and make it very successful. In 2011, my wife was appointed the assistant principal of the Jackie Onassis School at ABT. Where I also teach now.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Yes, I do! I will be teaching at BDC this summer, as well as the American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive in NYC.
What would you say is the biggest change you’ve seen over the years in dancers?
Over the decades, I find that the dancers are stronger now than they have ever been before. One thing I find that is missing is there are not many storytellers out there anymore. I see lots fantastic dancers who have difficulty portraying their characters. Imagination has a lot to do with that. What I mean is its not just about the steps, you actually have to become the character, a good way to work on this is to encourage dancers to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it. I think that’s where the fun part comes in. If you can’t have fun then you cannot act or portray roles. Then it becomes very superficial.
Which of your projects are you most proud of?
My passion is training good dancers, so I try to be proud of every project I do.
How has your teaching experience been at BDC?
I really love teaching here. It’s a positive experience and always filled with energetic people who want to learn and that makes it fun.
On the evening of October 8th Dancers over 40, a non-profit organization that honors the lives and legacies of the dance community, hosted “Balanchine, Broadway and Beyond” at St. Luke’s Theatre on 46th Street. The underground theater was filled with dance legends in their own rites, including Donna McKechnie and Arthur Mitchell. The evening was comprised of rare film clips of Balanchine and his work as well as panel discussions with some of Balanchine’s featured dancers:
The panel of esteemed dancers all referred to Balanchine as “Mr. B.” and talked of many occasions where he would come up with choreography on the spot – a true mark of his artistic brilliance. In the composition process, choreography changed quite a bit. Balanchine would make up the movement, but it was your (the dancer’s job) to remember all of it!
Everyone on the panel spoke so highly of Mr. B. while reminiscing their dance performances of yore. When constructing a new solo piece, Balanchine would highlight a dancer’s technical strengths and affinities but add some challenging steps as well. Merrill Ashley described how this “was meant to ‘show us off’ while giving us all a little prod to work harder.”
George Balanchine was a Russian-born choreographer who is regarded as the most influential contemporary ballet choreographers of all time. Balanchine’s father was a Georgian composer, and young Balanchine studied music and composition during his early years. This passion for music clearly translated to his ballet career for which he brilliantly united the dance and the music as “one.”
[Balanchine] emphasized balance, control, precision, and ease of movement. He rejected the traditional sweet style of romantic ballet, as well as the more acrobatic style of theatrical ballet, in favor of a neoclassic style stripped to its essentials – motion, movement, and music. His dancers became precision instruments of the choreographer, whose ideas and designs came from the music itself. – Gale Encyclopedia
Balanchine choreographed nearly 400 ballets, 20 Broadway shows, and 5 Hollywood films. Balanchine notably founded the New York City Ballet in 1948.
Some of Balanchine’s most memorable works include:
“We must first realize that dancing is an absolutely independent art, not merely a secondary accompanying one. I believe that it is one of the great arts. . . . The important thing in ballet is the movement itself. A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle . . . is the essential element. The choreographer and the dancer must remember that they reach the audience through the eye. It’s the illusion created which convinces the audience, much as it is with the work of a magician.” – George Balanchine
Be sure to check out BDC contemporary jazz teacher, Mishay Petronelli, in the October 2012 issue of Dance Spirit Magazine. In the magazine’s “Style Lab: The Look” section, Mishay is featured for her eye-catching personal style.
In the article, Mishay advises, “Couple unique items with something classic. Always remember the importance of creating clean, strong lines. Make choices that will flatter you in the particular style you’re dancing. And, of course, always be yourself.”
Mishay teaches Contemporary Jazz classes at Broadway Dance Center but has trained in nearly every dance style from commercial to ballet to tap! She performed in Whitney Houston’s “Million Dollar Bill” music video, Madonna’s “Gimme All Your Luvin” music video, on “Saturday Night Live” with Kanye West, and in commercials for Converse and Verizon. Mishay is currently a member of Dana Foglia’s dance company.
“Mishay Petronelli is probably the most inspirational person I have ever met. The way she dances and choreographs is out of this world! She truly cares about each student equally and strives to make every dancer improve. After taking Mishay’s class I feel as though I grow as a dancer. She always pushes me to be my best! Mishay Petronelli’s class is incredible and I highly recommend it!” – Makenzie Dascenzo (PS F’12)
“What I loved about Mishay her classes is her eye for detail. Although it was really hard for me to do exactly the thing she wanted she made me want to get her way of moving. She also made me watch better when a teacher was showing something so I could figure out the details myself. Mishay was my mentor, a great teacher and a very inspiring dancer, and I just really like her as a person and dancer!” – Nathalie Bilderbeek (ISVP ’11)
Here is Mishay’s choreography from the 2012 NYC Gala Opening Number of The Pulse: On Tour:
And wait, there’s more! Did you see BDC’s own Matthew Powell featured in Dance Informa? The extensive article recounts Matthew’s journey from aspiring young dancer, to American Ballet Theater company member, to “A-Rab” in the International Tour of “West Side Story,” to a successful graduate of LEAP, and finally, to acclaimed NYC ballet teacher.
Matthew admits that a strong sense of balance (no ballet pun intended) is much to that for his successful career. “You have to have a good network of support around you…if you don’t, people will see that and it’ll show in your work too.”
The article explains, “Despite his undeniable success as a performer, it is evident that Powell thrives most with being a teacher. He has a boyish charm and calm demeanor that provides a very welcoming feeling for anyone who takes his class. “
Matthew teaches six ballet classes per week at Broadway Dance Center – Advanced Beginning, Intermediate, and Intermediate/Advanced. Matthew also has taught/currently teaches at Marymount Manhattan College, the International Tour of “West Side Story,” Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, The Rock School, Brooklyn Ballet, “Billy Elliot” on Broadway, and Ballet Academy East.
“Matthew Powell is a teacher for all students. He has the ability to light a fire underneath you and give you a class full of vitality, substance and liveliness. He offers classes that literally replenish you and leave you with the confidence that you worked hard. It’s very rare to come across a teacher who not only pushes you to perform to the best of your abilities but inspires you to succeed, as well. I would encourage everyone to take his class.” – Alexa Erbach (PS F’11)
Here is a short clip of Matthew’s teaching shot for Dance Teacher Web:
After a difficult double-header day of dancing at Broadway Dance Center, the last thing I wanted to do was watch a documentary about exceptionally talented young ballerinas. Thankfully, my friend convinced me to go with him to see the talk of the (dance) town, “First Position.” We trekked over to the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (65th between Broadway and Amsterdam) and paid just $8 for our tickets (unheard of at NYC movie theaters!). The atmosphere was chic – the theater was very tiny with padded bleacher seating for the 15 or so people in the audience.
But on with the show! “First Position” follows the journies of eight young ballet dancers as they prepare to compete in the most prestigious international ballet competition, the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP).
Aran Bell: (11) son of a US Navy doctor, lives in Italy
Gaya Bommer Yemini: (11) daughter of an Israeli choreographer
Michaela Deprince: (14) orphan from the horrors of war in Sierra Leone who was adopted by a family in New Jersey
Jules Jarvis (JJ) Fogarty: (10) California
Miko Fogarty: (12) girl from California who is home-schooled so can spend more time in ballet
Jules Jarvis (JJ) Fogarty: (10) Miko’s younger brother who follows in her footsteps but does not share the same passion for ballet as his sister
Rebecca Houseknecht: (17) glamorous former-cheerleader from Maryland
Joan Sebastian Zamora: (16) left his home and family in Colombia to study ballet in NYC
All of the dancers (ranging in ages 10-17) aspire to win awards, scholarships, and job contracts to companies such as the American Ballet Theater and the Royal Ballet in London. These young kids are brilliant dancers – and the film will give you the motivation to get back in ballet class!
“These performers are so young, so serious, so full of dreams and so hard on themselves that it is difficult not to be moved by their striving.” – Kenneth Turan (LA Times)
“First-time director Kargman triumphs by picking characters who largely defy expectations.” – Mary Pols (TIME)
“Forget that “reality” show about young dancers on the Lifetime channel. First Position, a debut documentary from Bess Kargman, is the real thing.” – Amy Hitt (Washington Post)