Broadway and dancing have been intertwined for the past 80 years. Broadway theater was founded in the 18th century by Thomas Kean and Walter Murray in New York. Over the years, dancing came to light at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. This was the first time a Broadway show and dancing came together in the production of Show Boat (Lombardi, 1985). Since then, Broadway shows have had dancing in their production, like West Side Story, Les Miserable, etc. In these productions, genres of dancing style are seen, for example, jazz, ballet, and new versions of hip hop. Curiosity has taken up space in my mind concerning who was the first to incorporate a dancing style to Broadway plays. Was it a theatrical producer, an average person, an aristocratic entity, or a fanatic who had a different taste? Also, I aim to find out how professional dancers, who have to dance throughout their whole life, learn how to implement emotions and storytelling into their dance. I have chosen this route of dance history because of my passion for theater and some experience in dancing.
Broadway and Dancing
Broadway musicals are very popular as a generally accepted artistic form of theater. What makes Broadway performances special is a unique mix of theatre, music and dance. These days, a performance to be held there serves as a mark of success; it is also viewed as the highest level to be attained by a commercial theater. Broadway as a theater dates back to the 18th century and was founded by Thomas Kean and Walter Murray in New York. However, at that time, incorporation of dances into a play was viewed as mauvais ton. In fact, choreography as a discipline was notoriously lax in theatre. However, over the years, dancing came to light at the Ziegfeld Theater. This was the very first time a Broadway show and dance came together in the production. Broadway and dancing have been intertwined for the past 80 years. Since then, such Broadway shows as like West Side Story, Les Miserable and Hairspray among others have had dances in their production. In these productions, genres of dancing style vary from ballet, jazz, contemporary to new versions of hip hop. The dance history of the Broadway stage is an interesting story not only to those addicted to musical theatre, but also to those who just begin to discover the magic and strength of dance in full-length stage productions.
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For almost as long as the theatre has existed, dance has existed within the theatre. For instance, dance was incorporated in many plays in Ancient Greece, and despite its style differed very much from what one can see in Broadway these days, dance touched audiences way back then. As a matter of fact, dance on Broadway has advanced from untrained and almost naked women that frolicked on stage to extravaganzas with high-level choreography mesmerizing modern audiences. In fact, in the early days of Broadway, dance was viewed as merely decorative. For the most part, the dancers were female, many of whom did not have needed training; these dancers used their physical attractiveness in order to attract the male audience (Liew, 2010). The insertion of dance numbers became standard practice when the interest of the audience in the show seemed to be decreasing.
Broadway musical has always been a unique mix of high art and low music and comedy, business and show. In its earliest days, one production of all brought together a variety of theatre traditions combining song, dance and comedy in one extravaganza. In her video, Barbara Angeline (2011) points out the importance of the relationship between society and Broadway dance. Broadway dance is situated well to tell people a lot about the society in which it is happening because audience will not buy tickets for shows that they are not interested in.
In the beginning, Broadway theater intrigued people. As for New Yorkers, dance had become an important component of the plot of play for the first time. Dancing on Broadway dates back to the impacts of 1840s wandering showmen and goes on to develop these days with a wide range of styles that include ballet, jazz, hip-hop, punk and tap among others. According to “Theatre in New York: History – Part III” by John Kenrick (2003a), “By the 1870s, ‘Broadway’ and ‘theatre’ were becoming synonymous, and the Union Square area near Broadway at 14th Street had become New York City’s main theatre district” (Up to Union Square section, para. 4). However, Broadway, as it is known nowadays, appeared in the 1900s. The theatre was just beginning to influence the culture of New York City. At that time, it was disregarded by many “reliable” theatre goers and critics due to its “far from reality” themes “with a whimsical feel” (Warta, n.d.b, The Beginning of Broadway Dance History section, para. 2). Broadway creators were referred to as “gypsies” until the success of their productions proved otherwise. In fact, the target audience of Broadway’s early productions were middle class New Yorkers who were desperate or some fun, and they “often found it with front row seats costing a mere $2.00 fee (Warta, n.d.b, The Beginning of Broadway Dance History section, para. 2).
For a certain time, The Black Crook was known for two distinct aspects – being the very first musical, as well as being the first play of that long run in New York. However, nowadays, it is known as the first long run play. According to Paul Mroczka’s “Broadway Theatre History: The Black Crook, the Play that Was Not the First Musical” (2013), “historians no longer considered it [The Black Crook] to have been a musical. It was a phenomenal mix of play, dance, music and spectacle that became the rage when it premiered at Niblo’s Garden on September 12, 1866” (para. 1). However, what is interesting is that the first Broadway musical, The Black Crook, opened to the audience discovering the appealing mix of ballet with dramatic acting even before the turn of the century. The production of The Black Crook cost a huge amount of money at that time – $25,000. Nevertheless, it was very popular among the New Yorkers. According to “Theatre in New York: History – Part III” by John Kenrick (2003a), “This landmark Broadway blockbuster [The Black Crook] ran for over a year and toured for decades, redefining the commercial potential of theatre in America” (Up to Union Square section, para. 1).
The melodrama used a French ballet troupe in order to attract large audiences, and it was a successful strategy. Shapely (n.d.) adds, “using extravagant sets, members of the troupe dressed as fairies and provocatively danced in a moonlit grotto” (Women on Display section, para. 1). In fact, The Black Crook featured several spectacular special effects and dance numbers. These numbers included “an aerial ballet where the dancers were flown on wires and a descent into hell unlike any other” (Mroczka, 2013, What People Loved section, para. 1). However, at the beginning of staging “it was pure chance […] that brought The Black Crook in its final form to the stage” (Mroczka, 2013, The Greeks Called it Tyche section, para. 1). This melodrama written by Charles M. Barras retells the story of Faust and plots and themes from other plays. According to Mroczka (2013), William Wheatley, the manager of Niblo’s, was afraid that the play could fail as the script was written poorly and the acting was not any better. However, something that happened as a result (the success of the performance) can be considered magical. Less costuming was used to draw attention of the audience until productions of comic operas by Sullivan and Gilbert that debuted in the late 1800s. Such shows as The Mikado interwove some dance within the plot, as well.
Julian Mitchell was among the first choreographers, otherwise named dance directors, to begin a transformation in work etiquette, as well as the common attitude toward choreography on Broadway. Despite the fact that Mitchell’s choreography was truly easy, it required certain training to have the ability to follow the steps. The choreographer started his career from working at Niblo’s Garden years before he became a dancer and choreographer. What forced Mitchell to end up his career of a dancer was the fact that he “started to lose his hearing” (Liew, 2010, para. 2). However, Mitchell became a successful choreographer who worked by feeling the music, its rhythm and “his dancers merely through the vibrations through the piano and the dance floor” (Liew, 2010, para. 2). Mitchell choreographed many Fields and Weber musicals that included The Pink Lady, Babes in Toyland, 9 editions of the Ziegfield Follies and The Wizard of Oz among others. According to Liew (2010), Mitchell “was famous for giving every single ensemble member a chance to shine in his choreography, and is credited with the invention of the ‘production number’” (para. 2). Also, the Broadway musical revue was defined by Mitchell in co-operation with Florence Ziegfield.
The Ziegfeld Follies, produced by Florence Ziegfeld, was a very successful staging of that time. To some extent, it was a breakthrough for the Broadway musical form. According to “Episode 1: Give My Regards to Broadway,” Florence Ziegfeld had a healthy understanding of that sex sells, and it played an important role in everything that he did. In 1907, Florence Ziegfeld found the form that would make him Broadway’s greatest showman called simply The Follies. In The Ziegfeld Follies, there was a number of well-known performers of that time, such as Nora Bayes, Ruth Etting, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller, W. C. Fields and Bert Williams among others. Ziegfeld’s review took the French Follies Bergere and made it American with song, dance and comical sketches. In “Episode 1: Give My Regards to Broadway,” Tomy Tune, a choreographer and director, says, “we still hear these great stories about his shows and how perfect they were, and how […] stylized, and how beautiful and artistic they were.” Indeed, The Ziegfeld Follies were a reflection of everything that was happening in the United States, and especially in New York, at that time. This was the age where all these different ethnic communities where coming together and different kinds of music mixed. Ziegfeld’s talent lied in the fact that he could create a unique product of a mix of dance, comedy, music and art.
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Ziegfield also worked together with Mitchell’s coeval, Ned Wayburn, on a number of his productions. The choreographer is considered to have brought some changes to musical theatre. Wayburn played an important role in the development of dance styles of the musical comedy. He is also believed to define the look of the classic chorus girl on Broadway. According to Liew (2010), today Wayburn’s legacy is traced in musicals anywhere: such elements as the kick line and geometric, symmetrical body arrangement on stage were created by him. Furthermore, to find a solution to the dilemma of chorus girls walking down high stairs wearing massive and heavy head-pieces, Wayburn invented his signature “Ziegfeld Walk”, which involved “counterbalancing the thrust of one hip with the forward thrust of the opposite shoulder” (Liew, 2010). Also, he devised a very basic dance notation form, which facilitated the rehearsal process greatly.
Thus, his contribution to the development of Broadway musical choreography cannot be overpriced. The shows that Wayburn choreographed include Fantastic Phantoms, Follies, and Havana among others. His choreography was characteristic, and Liew (2010) explains that “trademark elements of his choreography include tapping and stepping, acrobatic work, and exhibition ballroom. He also liked to take popular forms of dance, such as the Charleston and recreate them for the stage with exaggerated movement” (para. 3). Albertina Rasch was one more choreographer from the team of Ziegfeld. She also was the first outstanding female choreographer, as well as the first who was referred to as a choreographer rather than a simple “dance director” (Liew, 2010, para. 4). Shows that Rasch choreographed include Lady in the Dark, The Three Musketeers, Show Girl, and The Great Waltz among others.
The arrival of Show Boat, created by Kern and Hammerstein, was a very important moment in the history of US musicals. It differed from Follies-type musicals and operettas. In “Broadway History: The Golden Age of the American Book Musical, Part 3 Show Boat,” Mroczka (2013), argues that Show Boat “established the template for the standard book musical. […] Hammerstein and Kern had created a new model for the American musical, basically reacting against musical comedy” (para. 1). According to Block (2009),“Show Boat not only opened up a world of possibilities for what an ambitious American musical on an American theme could accomplish; it remains firmly anchored as the first American-made musical to achieve a secure place in the core repertory of Broadway musicals” (p. 4). Indeed, it was an outstanding show.
Some of the earliest Broadway dance choreographers are George Balanchine, Gower Champion and Robert Alton. George Balachine was one of the most important choreographers for Broadway dance history. Balanchine heighted the impact of the ballet on Broadway dance. According to Liew (2010), “his most famous and innovative musical theatre piece, “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” in On Your Toes, is arguably the first dance piece, and definitely the first ballet dance piece, to mesh with and further the plot of the musical” (para. 5). There, the dancer makes the music keep going on as he is going to be killed as soon as dancing is over. The choreographer’s innovations helped the Broadway musical break through the pattern of the use of dance simply as a diversion or decoration. Balanchine was also a creator of the edition of Ziegfeld Follies in 1936. According to Shapely (n.d.), “The Ziegfeld Follies, from 1907 to 1931, redefined dance with novelty kick lines and formations” (Extravagant Musicals section, para. 1). In his production, Balanchine added more to the levels with ballet numbers that appeared throughout the plot line. In her article “Famous Choreographers,” Tamara Warta (n.d.a) writes, “his choreography was criticized as being too experimental to ever be accepted as mainstream, including then unheard of styles such as dancing in bare feet” (George Balancine section, para. 1). Liew (2010) adds, “one defining characteristic of his choreography is his ability to adapt any kind of movement, even grotesque, ugly movements, into his ballets, and make them seem like a cohesive whole” (Liew, 2010, para. 5). In fact, Balanchine was very serious and attentive towards his choreography. Balanchine paid much attention “not just to the music, but also to the set, the costumes, the lighting, the lyrics, the storyline, and took all of those elements into account while choreographing” (para. 5). His most well-known Broadway pieces include On Your Toes among others.
While Balanchine was working on the aspects of the production concerning ballet, Robert Alton was the next choreographer to bring further the first modern dancing resembling a great number of pieces performed by Broadway stage dancers these days. A few years later, those who were trained in theatrical dancing started to create choreography. Among them was Gower Champion, a notable choreographer “who won a Tony Award for his impressive dance theatre contributions in 1949” (Warta, n.d.a, Bringing in the Gypsies section, para. 1). These musical creators were called “gypsies” among theatrical critics; however, soon they dominated the market with their successful productions. Bob Fosse is considered by many the greatest gypsy of all for his development of a brand new “style of Broadway dance that is still cherished and upheld today by many theatre troupes around the world” (Warta, n.d.b, Bringing in the Gypsies section, para. 2). He became a revolutionary in the dance history of Broadway by his creation of unconventional movements and creative usage of body parts in new ways. According to Warta (n.d.b), “today the Fosse style is most easily recognized by his immortal usage of props, – canes, top hats, and gloves – and is also noted for its provocative approach to the arts” (Bringing in the Gypsies section, para. 2). Fosse was not shy to incorporate sexuality into his productions, for instance, in such famous pieces as The Pajama Game and Sweet Charity.
George M. Cohan, a famous actor, dancer, composer and producer, grew up in vaudeville. In “Obituary: George M. Cohan, 64, Dies at Home Here,” The New York Times (1942) refer to Cohan as “the great song and dance man – perhaps the greatest in Broadway history” (para. 2). In fact, his contribution to the development of musical as a form of art and its choreography cannot be underestimated. Cohan wrote a great number of Broadway musicals. With the premiere of his famous song and dance shows that featured such memorable hits as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway” in 1904, Cohan proved that men could dance on the Broadway stage, as well. Decades before Agnes de Mille created choreography of Oklahoma!, he used dancing not merely as a trick, but in order to advance the plot, as well. According to The New York Times (1942), Cohen’s style of choreography can be described in such a way, “He and his sister, Josie, were early exponents of eccentric dancing. They stepped high, fast and lively, sometimes dancing right over the stage furniture” (An Eccentric Dancer section, para. 1).
In fact, Balanchine offered the audience a mix of plot and dance. However, Agnes de Mille went even further with her choreography in Oklahoma! and “dream ballet.” Similar to Rasch and Balanchine, de Mille was a ballet dancer, and that is why the choreography was the basis that helped to blend classical and modern styles harmonically in her dancing. According to Liew (2010), in Oklahoma! “in a virtually unprecedented, bold decision, dance was used to further and enrich the plot of the musical” (para. 7). Opened in 1943, Oklahoma! was a groundbreaking Broadway show. Ordinary actors and non-stars were hired. There were many potential problems connected with the production of Oklahoma! One of which was that Agnes De Mille, a choreographer, had been hired to work on the show. The woman had never before choreographed a Broadway musical. However, as it became clear later, De Mille’s input became exceptionally important. In his article, “Broadway Show History: Oklahoma! The Musical that Many Doubted,” Mroczka argues that this choice was correct, de Mille was given the artistic license to create what would be a hallmark moment in American musical theatre and her Dream Ballet choreography along with the other dance numbers she created became legendary and influenced musicals for the next two decades (Concerns and Potential Problems section, p. 3).
As a matter of fact, “dream ballet” style elevated the role of choreographer in dance theater. In reality, Oklahoma! set a new standard for musicals on Broadway in which the play, music, lyrics, and choreography all became an integral part of the staging. However, concerning the premier of Oklahoma! on Broadway, the staging was considered to be very risky. In fact, choreographers would begin to use dance as a device of storytelling instead of a simple decoration from then on. To support this observation, Pamyla Alayne Stiehl (2008) points out “the emerge of choreographic power (not yet dominance) on Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s (p. 147). Apart from Oklahoma!, de Mille choreographed One Touch of Venus, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Carousel
among a large number of other Broadway musicals.
The Broadway dance history is an amazing story. Both those who are in love with musical theatre and those who just begin to discover the strength of dance as transcending language in theatre find it fascinating. In fact, dance can express feelings in ways that music and words cannot. That is why dance continues being crucial in Broadway shows. Broadway theatres regularly stage revivals of previously popular Broadway hits. Therefore, the dance history of Broadway stage continues to be written as new-coming choreographers try to follow in past great choreographers’ footsteps, discover and create new styles for old favored performances.