Once on this Island requires a rather close collaboration between director and choreographer, perhaps even more so than many musicals since the piece is... Inside ONCE ON THIS ISLAND: Choreography and Understanding

In this 3-part series, PerformInk takes you inside Spinning Tree Theatre’s production of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past “Inside” articles click here.

By Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst

“Once on this Island” instantly became one of my favorite musicals when I saw the original Broadway production in the summer of 1991. It was my first trip to New York, the city that would become home for seventeen years. The show was a revelation. I had seen plenty of Broadway tours at The Midland Theatre in Kansas City. I had seen – and performed in – a bunch of big professional shows at Starlight Theatre. But I wasn’t prepared for “Once on this Island.” The relatively intimate Booth Theatre was, if memory serves, curiously bare upon arrival. The show started with the Prologue and then Ahrens’ and Flaherty’s glorious “We Dance” and it was all light and sound, music and movement. Movement throughout. Graciela Daniele directed and choreographed. I was in awe.

“Once on this Island” has been on our must-produce list since we opened Spinning Tree in 2011. Because it’s a show so close to our heart, we needed to wait on producing it until we felt we were able to cast it beautifully. Nedra Dixon, who has directed the show several times before, came on board as did music director Pamela Baskin-Watson. Our cast, from auditions late last summer, developed as spectacularly as we had hoped.

“Once on this Island” requires a rather close collaboration between director and choreographer, perhaps even more so than many musicals since the piece is essentially wall-to-wall music. Ideally, the audience isn’t seeing/feeling a “bump” when characters start to dance. Our director also happens to be a choreographer; and incidentally, I made my directing debut working with Ms. Dixon the actor on Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. The process was helped with our mutual understanding of direction and choreography.

My work as choreographer on a specific number begins with needing to understand – from both the playwright and the director – the characters’ intent in the scene, their relationships and circumstances, and the development that occurs from the beginning to the end of the scene. If I feel we’ve made sense of these elements, the choreography itself tends to be relatively free-flowing. When I get stuck, it’s usually because I’m not understanding one of these elements and need to go back to the text and/or director.

Choreographic research began with an exploration of Yanvalou, Haitian Vodou dance. Yanvalou can be translated into English as “supplication,” and is primarily used for rituals and ceremonies, and for the deities. It’s used to reinforce community, and to induce a trance-like state in which the dancers may become possessed. We chose Yanvalou as inspiration for our production because our Islanders are dancing “just to stay alive,” hopefully spared by the gods and goddesses from death. The knees are bent, the backs are supple, the wrists articulate. Shoulders and hips move with the neck. In the musical number “Pray,” the villagers are physically begging the gods and goddesses to have mercy on their lives after the peasant Ti Moune has defied them by attempting to keep wealthy Daniel alive. Repetition is used in a serpent-like move when trance has occurred.

The original Broadway production of “Once on this Island” played across the street from Les Misérables at the Imperial Theatre. When Island ended, Les Miz was only at intermission…so I second-acted it. As the turntable revolved, I found myself daydreaming about the compact, earthy and energetic little show I’d just seen. It wouldn’t leave me, its music and movement.

Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst (Choreographer, Once on this Island; Spinning Tree Managing Director) directed last season’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Andrew was assistant choreographer to Tony Award-winner Rob Ashford on the Broadway production of Curtains, and Dance Captain/Swing on the Broadway tour of Mamma Mia! for more than 2,000 performances. He had the honor of being directed by Roman Polanski in the original Vienna production of Tanz der Vampire as Dance Soloist, was chosen and directed by Alvin Ailey at age 16 to dance Memoria, and performed on the 2009 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall. As a Young Artist Scholar at the American Dance Festival, Andrew studied with Donald McKayle, Stuart Hodes and Daniel Nagrin and was awarded scholarship to The Paul Taylor School. A graduate of Texas Christian University (where he co-founded the Tarrant County AIDS Outreach Center Benefit Concert, currently in its 25th year), Andrew studied with David Hochoy (Martha Graham Dance Company), Brenda Daniels (Merce Cunningham Studio), Holly Williams (Mark Morris Dance Group), Bruce Wood (Twyla Tharp Dance) Li-Chou Cheng (Central Beijing Ballet, Boston Ballet), Gus Solomons, Jr. and Chuck Davis (African American Dance Ensemble). Andrew created the dance program at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey and is a graduate of Nonprofit Connect’s Executive Director Institute. He teaches dance to young and emerging artists and is a 22-year member of Actors’ Equity Association.

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