BC Beat’s Ali Marconi on the new ‘Dirty Dancing’
June 16, 2016
Last year, ABC announced that it would be trying its hand at the TV movie musical. Following the resurgence of musicals hitting channels like NBC (think live productions like The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and The Wiz) and FOX (think the highly promoted Grease: Live), ABC has joined the bandwagon by taking on the 1987 cult classic Dirty Dancing.
Written by Jessica Sharzer, the three-hour taped movie will feature Abigail Breslin as lead character Baby and Colt Prattes as the heartthrob Johnny, originally played by Patrick Swayze. Other main characters include former Pussycat Dolls lead singer Nicole Scherzinger as resort dancer Penny, Modern Family actress Sarah Hyland as Baby’s big sister Lisa and actress Debra Messing (famously known for starring in NBC’s Will & Grace) as Baby’s devoted mother Marjorie.
Cast Member Alessandra Marconi, who can be seen as one of the 10 staff dancers in the film, talks to us about the movie’s rehearsal and filming process, working with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler on the project and her favorite scenes. Plus she shares about her personal career, working abroad, being a part of New York’s Hustle community and her involvement on independent projects like BC Beat.
BC Beat Artist
Ali, to first introduce you to our readers, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you start dancing? What has your training consisted of?
“I’m from Trenton, Ohio. I danced when I was little but I stopped because I found it to be boring! I fell in love with gymnastics and I did cheer for a couple years. I also did taekwondo and found the technique to be fun and challenging. A year or so later, my old dance school was having an open house and that fall I started dancing again. I loved clogging! I spent a few years doing dance competitions and meeting other dancers in the Ohio area. At 14 I had decided I wanted to dance professionally and so I took a full year to train in ballet at De La Arts Center in Cincinnati. After that, I joined Exhale Dance Tribe, a contemporary jazz company where I trained rigorously. I began working professionally with Exhale and with other theater companies in Cincinnati until I graduated high school.”
When did you book your first gig? What was it? Since then, where has your career taken you?
“I studied Communications and Journalism in college at Marymount Manhattan. Most weekends I traveled as a dance demonstrator with New York City Dance Alliance, a national dance convention. It was my intention to invest my time in both academics and the arts.
My first dance job out of school was with Catapult Entertainment. I premiered their first evening show and European tour for three months in Germany. In 2015, I did another tour with them in Italy. I spent a lot of time outside of New York post graduation, but traveling was always a dream of mine. It has proved to be a vital part of who I am. I love being immersed in a new culture.
Coincidentally, two weeks after I returned from Italy, I was offered a job with a company that fuses technology and dance called iLuminate. The show is really physical and interactive, which is exactly what I was craving at the time. I spent three months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia doing the show Artist of Light and that experience was unforgettable, precious and life changing. I’ve been in New York for a year now and I’m itching to travel again!”
Now you’ve just finished work on the new Dirty Dancing remake. What can you share about this project? What was your role and what was production like?
“I was cast as one of the 10 staff dancers. We had one week of rehearsals in New York to learn three dances. On the first day, we all walked in grinning with excitement. All the dancers are professional, well-versed and were instantly willing to invest in the movement and trust each other 100 percent. When all that aligns, it’s a really precious thing.
That week went by really smoothly, thanks to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and his assistants. Knowingly, ‘DD’ was a dream project. We were asked to dance to funky, soulful music and to embody unapologetic teenagers after hours in a sweaty bunkhouse. It took us all of two seconds to get into character. [Laughs.]
Being on set was surreal because the original Dirty Dancing is a movie I loved growing up. Additionally, all the production staff were so lovely. I am grateful to have had such a great first experience in the film industry.”
Alessandra Marconi for BC Beat. Photo by Eli Fendleman.
In your opinion, is the Dirty Dancing story still relevant today? And why do you think die-hard fans should give this new rendition of the classic a chance?
“The original themes remained in the new movie and are life experiences that we can all relate to: adolescent independence, discovering sexuality, classism, consequence, absence of choice, grappling with love and being accepted for who you are. In the current screenplay you’ll see new character development that more specifically reflects our social climate today. The revisions have made the characters more complex, which is what we as an audience relate to the most. Also, it’s been made as a TV movie musical, so you’ll see all of us singing. They had to cast principles that not only act, but sing and dance. You’ll see the actors’ versatility, which is impressive.”
What was it like working with Andy Blankenbuehler on the film?
“His preparedness and direction are so clear, which are stellar qualities in a choreographer.”
How did you and the cast stay warmed up while on set?
“In the bunkhouse scene, it was easy to stay warm because it was so humid. That scene is all about the dancers so the only time we weren’t active was when they were moving the cameras to a new angle. It was a serious cardio workout.
Staying warm on set is a skill. Pushups, lunges and a good child’s pose helped me. However, on our last day we filmed ‘Time of My Life.’ We hadn’t danced for a couple hours and it was going on midnight. At 1 am, Andy came over holding 10 espressos and he said, “We have to go full out for this next shot.”
What’s your favorite scene in the new production? Why?
“We were only on set for two weeks, which is a fraction of the time they spent in preproduction, so in the big scheme, I witnessed very little being filmed. Two moments I’ll never forget are: first, watching Katey Segal and Debra Messing film scenes. I learned a lot about film acting by watching the way they connect with the camera. Secondly, a song between Lisa (Baby’s sister) and Marco (leader of the band) at the Kellerman’s Talent Show. It’s a really touching moment accompanied by a song that marries the context of the era to the narrative. As an audience, it will bring the older and younger generations together.
My favorite moment that I got to participate in was filming the bunkhouse scenes. It was so fun to set the choreography in the actual space and utilize the set. The energy in the room was off the chart. We didn’t want to stop.”
You are also involved in New York’s Hustle community. Can you explain what Hustle is for those who don’t know?
“Hustle is a partnered social dance that was created within the Puerto Rican community in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. Also known as the Latin Hustle or the New York Hustle, it was a dance that people did at home and on the block with family and friends. The dance was driven by the DJs of the disco era and by the mid-1970s it was the common dance everyone knew at nightclubs in New York City. People say that each borough had it’s own style.
Ali (center) with some of the ‘Dirty Dancing’ cast at the airport. Photo courtesy of Ali Marconi.
Pioneers of the dance were instrumental in commercializing Hustle through TV on the Merv Griffin Show, ’76 Billboard Dance Contest and Ed McMahon’s Star Search competition, to name a few. It started as a six-count phrase dance and has evolved in what we know today as a three-count phrase danced to 4/4 music. We can dance to the original disco tracks as well as the music we know today. There is a leader and a follower position, unspecified by gender.
Being Latin-based, it has similarities to salsa. Hustle is recognized by its circular shape and the partners’ synchronicity of hand and footwork creates a unique momentum with an elastic quality.”
How are you and other artists fostering this Hustle community?
“The unique thing about Hustle when compared to any other style that I’ve trained in is that the generation of people who created the dance are still around. There are several Hustle socials per week where the community gets together. Now that its summertime most people gather at certain parks and piers where DJs play and social dancers congregate.
I take every opportunity to introduce Hustle to the dance community around me! For example, while we were filming Dirty Dancing, I took the dancers to Pack Square Park in downtown Asheville and taught a Hustle class. Right now, I’m teaching a weekly series at Brooklyn Studios for Dance in Clinton Hill. And this past spring I hosted a creative networking event via Hustle dance at Marymount Manhattan College.
It’s common that trained dancers are uncomfortable social dancing or when asked to freestyle, so I try to make them more comfortable. Knowing a partnered social dance has helped me on every professional job and certainly at auditions. Generally, I see Hustle as a way to connect with people – dancers and non-dancers alike. No cell phones and no words necessary!”
Are there any other projects you’re currently working on?
“I’m about to start with iLuminate again soon. We will be taking over the St. Marks Theater for seven weeks beginning July 18. I’m also assisting Jennifer Jancuska to choreograph a workshop of The Bad Years, which is an immersive musical written by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk.”
In addition to all this, you’ve been involved with BC Beat, a NYC event that’s an exciting mix of choreographed work and dance party fun. What’s been your level of participation?
“Yes, I’ve performed three times at BC Beat – first with Cindy Salgado then with Andy Blankenbuehler. This past May, we premiered The Living Room, which is an original work that came from doing a collaborative residency with choreographer Jennifer Jancuska and writer Adam Gwon.
What I love is how BC Beat reinforces the collaborative potential of artists. It’s like social dancing meets Broadway. The makeup of Cielo forces you to be engaged, connect and respond to your neighbors as humans. It’s a great place to discover and be discovered by the community.”
To learn more about BC Beat, head to www.bcbeat.net. To see Ali perform in iLuminate, book tickets at http://iluminate.com. ABC has yet to reveal the release date for Dirty Dancing.
What it means to be a 'Teaching Artist'
February 8, 2016
What it means to be a ‘Teaching Artist’
Our teachers are the people who guide us, correct us, inspire us, mentor us, help us and above all, educate us. Dance teachers, in particular, are a special breed because they’re not just showing us something in a book, but they’re passing down a living, breathing art, a technique, that can’t fully be learned any other way but through personal direction. Some dance teachers, though, go even further than technique. Those teachers reveal and expose us to true artistry – often through their own.
Broadway Connection focuses on this special quality when its teachers, some of Broadway’s best, lead master classes and workshops at studios around the country. It calls its faculty members “Teaching Artists” and not just “Teachers” because they bring the spark and energy from their current and past stage experiences to each class – creating magic, encouraging artistry and boosting enthusiasm in the students they teach.
Dance Informa caught up with three Broadway Connection faculty members to find out just what being a “Teaching Artist” really means and why it’s important.
Brian Martin, a performer touring in Tony Award-winning Director/Choreographer Susan Stroman's production of Bullets Over Broadway, said, “‘Teaching Artist' to me, simply put, means sharing personal creativity and educating others with my own pearls of wisdom. [It’s] using tools that have helped [me] pursue my career to give future professionals a helping hand and inspiration to succeed and grow as performers.”
Eric Johnson, currently the dance captain and a swing on the first national tour of Cinderella, said, “For me, what makes a ‘Teaching Artist’ is someone who doesn't say, ‘This is right and that is wrong,’ but someone who says ‘Yes’ and ‘Let’s try.’ You have to let your students explore, and fail, and try things that they've never thought possible. Really, it comes down to someone who's willing to share their experience, and their own integrity vs. someone dictating what is correct and what is incorrect.”
On the other hand, Natalie Wisdom, currently performing on the first national tour of Matilda, said teaching is an “art form” all its own, so ‘Teaching Artist” is “more to me than just an artist who teaches.” She said, “I consider teaching itself an art form as well. To inspire students and create a lesson plan that helps them work toward and achieve their goals in any area is a skill that is very special and can be different for each individual teacher, and each student will respond in a slightly different way to each class and session – making it an exciting experience for all!”
The title “Artist” honors the unique and invaluable experience of someone who is currently creating and working professionally in dance and theatre. Not all regular teachers are still artists in this sense, at the cutting edge of what’s happening right now. (That’s not to say their teaching isn’t valid; rather, it’s just different.) Those currently performing on stage and sweating in rehearsals day in and day out are often the ones creating the newest trends, who are experimenting, who are being visionaries.
Wisdom began teaching with Broadway Connection in 2012 when she joined the national tour of Billy Elliot. She said, “My professional experience in the industry propels and inspires me to provide the best classes possible for young people who are interested in the arts. I believe that by sharing my personal stories and experiences through the Q&A's, as well as giving specific advice and critique on audition technique and different dance combinations, I am cultivating the dancers of tomorrow to be even more prepared than I was for the challenging, yet rewarding field of Musical Theatre Dance. This kind of training not only helps them prepare for what's ahead, but it also preserves and protects the art form for future generations, which is a powerful thing.”
Likewise, Martin said his professional experience—which encompasses “workshopping a musical, regional credits, as well as three national tours”—can be a real benefit to aspiring dancers. He said, “Learning from numerous directors and choreographers has helped evolve my own artistry. With this knowledge and creativity I communicate and share my methods and goals with my students and young artists.”
One aspect of Broadway Connection that really sets the organization apart is it’s full circle experience. It pushes the classroom experience even farther by connecting students with their Teaching Artist at the artists’ live show. Johnson, who first joined the Broadway Connection team in 2011 when he was performing on the first national tour of West Side Story (and he’s done five other national tours since!), thinks this is “refreshing.”
“Often times, there is a divide between the performers onstage and the audience, but through Broadway Connection, you can bridge the gap,” he said. “I believe that young students have a tendency to see successful performers as something that’s very far out of reach, but through Broadway Connection, it becomes tangible…”
This also positively affects the parents. Wisdom noted, “I think it's great for the parents too, because I know my parents were excited for me, but it was also a little daunting for them to anticipate me going into a career that is so competitive and, at times, unstable. When parents see friendly, supportive and successful actors at the stage door, it puts their minds to rest that if this is their child's chosen career path, that it is possible to have a fulfilling, happy life as a Musical Theatre Dancer. It helps wipe away the ‘starving artist’ idea that I think so many parents worry about when their kid says, ‘I want to do that!’"
While it may be impossible to ever know the full impact Broadway Connection teachers will have on the future industry (how many students of today will become the performers of tomorrow?), it is clear that they can make lasting impressions. When asked if they had a “Teaching Artist” that had impacted them, each artist (Wisdom, Martin and Johnson) recalled someone in their young life as an aspiring performer.
While Martin said he had “numerous,” Johnson recalled one specifically. “Jeanne Gilbert pushed me out of my comfort zone and placed my first foot on the stairway to artistry. She was always encouraging, always trying new things, and to this day, is one of the hardest working, passionate people I know.”
Wisdom also remembered one: “I did have a ‘Teaching Artist’ growing up. Her name was Kristen Pelster. She was my music teacher in sixth grade, and her mother was my music teacher from kindergarten to fifth grade. While Kristen wasn't performing in any Broadway tours, she was consistently performing locally in St. Louis where I grew up. She also was a dancer and would choreograph for local productions and show choirs in the area. I really felt like she was such a great role model. She taught me the discipline and commitment it takes to be a successful performer and dancer. She also was a wonderful person who always had a positive outlook and lots of energy when rehearsing. I try to keep that positive energy I learned from her when I'm working today. She and her mother, Susan, came to see me in Billy Elliot on Broadway years ago, and she came to see me in Matilda twice in St. Louis when we were there at the Fox Theatre! It felt so great to have a former teacher and role model in the audience after so many years. It was really special.”
For this reason exactly, Broadway Connection seeks to reach students in over 200 cities worldwide – to make a lasting positive impact! With 78 “Teaching Artists” and two directors, the organization is creating real waves in the dance and musical theatre industries. For further information, visit www.broadwayconnection.net.
Additional Tips and Advice from these Teaching Artists:
Brian Martin said, “Connection is key in this business. Meeting and working with a variety of artists can only benefit you. Also, remembering that being a student and having the ability to gain knowledge is infinite in the span of life. Goals can always be set, and working with new artists helps keep your creativity alive!”
Natalie Wisdom noted, “Many teachers who still perform also choreograph or direct, or are on that path, and it's always good to get to know positive, ambitious artists, as you never know when it could lead to your next job.”
Eric Johnson shared, “Art is changing all the time, hence, an artist can never coast--who would want to anyway? As artists, we all have a responsibility to contribute to one another, to try new things, and to learn from one another. You cannot be a selfish artist. You'll never try new things. Think of it like this: your artistry is like building a snowman: you push your small snowball around in the snow collecting other snow to make it bigger, and grow stronger. When you're finished with one boulder, you start another and you stack it on top, and you continue this method, and build as many sno
What's it take to be a Swing on Broadway?
January 4, 2016
Have you ever heard the term “swing” in reference to a Broadway production and wondered what it was? A swing is a performer who covers multiple roles in the chorus of a particular production. For many Broadway stars, this is where their journey began – in the chorus where they juggled numerous positions.
Dance Informa recently caught up with three Broadway Connection teachers who have experience being swings on Broadway. Broadway Connection, a performing arts education company that seeks to inspire the next generation’s love of musical theatre, allows performers like Andrew Chappelle, Mathew deGuzman and Fredric Odgaard to pass along their knowledge and expertise to aspiring student dancers. Here, these teachers now share their personal insights with us. When asked what it takes to be a swing, they listed the following traits.
#1. You must be detail-oriented.
PIPPIN cast member Mathew deGuzman is very familiar with being a swing. Before his current gig as an onstage track and an understudy, he was a swing for Follies and A Christmas Story.
He says, “As a swing on Broadway, you not only need to have the skill set to perform every track that you cover, you also need to have every small detail in your mind, ready to use at a moment's notice. You need to know all of the important onstage business like traffic patterns, prop handoffs, what wing you enter and exit in. You also need to know the backstage traffic as well -- where do you get a prop from, where do you drop it off, where do the costume changes happen? Swinging uses a completely different part of the brain than you would normally performing your own track.”
#2. You must be able to pick up cues fast.
Andrew Chappelle, currently a swing in Hamilton who covers numerous male principals and an ensemble track, explains, “The ability to learn choreography and music quickly is a necessary skill in general.
“When you are in previews, the show is changing every day, and you need to be able to adapt and implement those changes in the show at night," he advises. "As a swing, you have to be able to do that for all the tracks you cover. The way to train yourself to do that is by taking several dance classes. This works that muscle in your brain to pick up choreography and all the details that accompany it."
#3. You must be observant.
Current Kinky Boots performer and former Finding Neverland swing Fredric Odgaard notes that you must be highly attentive. Noticing and remembering specifics like “how someone likes to be partnered” or “what prop goes to which person” is crucial, he explains. These little nuances add up to big production moments.
#4. You must be a pro at juggling tasks.
When you’re a swing, you will juggle various roles, requiring lots and lots of memorization and then organization. At any one moment, you could be called into a new or different role, each involving its own script lines, choreography, lighting cues, costume changes, props and last-minute adjustments.
One trick that Chappelle, deGuzman and many other swings and performers use to help out is having notecards they can check. “I like to make tracking sheets that has every single detail down on the paper,” deGuzman comments. “I am constantly updating these, adding notes and additional helpful ideas. I don’t have a particular strategy except I never stop studying. You can never be too good in a track.”
#5. You must be in top physical condition.
“It's important to keep yourself healthy and strong so that when your name is called, you can perform to the best of your ability," Chappelle says. "That means getting sleep and resting when you aren't at the show."
#6. You must be calm under pressure.
“The ability to keep calm in highly stressful situations, that's the key," Chappelle adds. "It's assumed you know the steps and the words, but to make your fellow cast members feel at ease when you are on is most important."
#7. You must be able to see the bigger picture.
Odgaard says, “If you can always keep the big picture in your head, you will always know where you fit. It’s like having a puzzle sitting in front of you with only one piece missing. That one piece only has one place it can go. At least that’s how I look at a show. I go number by number because it’s less overwhelming for me.”
Chappelle reemphasizes this point. “The best swings I've worked with know their tracks and know the entire stage picture," he adds. "When I was doing Mamma Mia, for example, I only knew what my character did. I was oblivious to everything else on the stage. Being a swing has widened my awareness.”
#8. You must be able to put your emotions and your ego aside.
Odgaard remarks, “I think one of the greatest challenges of being a swing is setting your emotions aside. Being a swing is hard on so many levels, but what I struggle with is the feeling of being left out or not feeling like you're part of the team. You are such a big part of the show in the grand scheme of things, but it is still an ego-crusher if you ultimately want to be on stage. I know so many people who are good at swinging but prefer to be on stage because they like to perform and to be on stage every night.”
Agreeing, deGuzman notes that one of the greatest challenges is “leaving your ego at the door”. He adds, “Swings don’t necessarily get to perform every day, which is really difficult for most performers.”
Overall, though, deGuzman and the other swings agree that while the job is stressful and highly demanding, it’s also a bunch of fun. “It is without a doubt one of the most stressful jobs I have ever done," deGuzman says, "but understanding what it is to be a swing and seeing the way a show grows and how each person has a purpose in this huge machine is a great asset.”
For studio owners or dance teachers interested in having a Broadway Connection teacher out to their facility to teach a master class or workshop, visit www.broadwayconnection.net.
By Chelsea Thomas of Dance Informa.