For dance-loving theatergoers, there’s one more gift to unwrap this season: American Dance Machine for the 21st Century — a dynamic collection of original choreography from some of the most celebrated musicals of all time.
Originally conceived by the late Lee Theodore in 1976 to create a “living archive” of musical theater dance, the company’s prolific work continued until shortly after her death in 1987. Nikki Feirt Atkins founded its current incarnation in 2012 and Wayne Cilento (seven-time Tony Award nominee including a win for Best Choreography for The Who’s Tommy) directs the company’s current residence at the Joyce Theater.
The evening consists of 18 excerpts ranging from Oklahoma! (1943) to the FOX television series, So You Think You Can Dance, and relies on a diverse ensemble of performers, most with Broadway credits under their dance belts and leotards. For the most part, it’s a thrilling evening that proves that New York City has always been—and still is—the world’s epicenter for musical theater. But by the nature of its structure, there are occasional moments that fall flat.
For traditional book musicals where the plot is furthered by song and dance, the storytelling through movement is a journey well earned. Agnes de Mille’s Act I finale in Oklahoma!—an epic dream sequence depicting Laurey’s fears and anxiety surrounding the man she loves and the man who stands between them—is the culmination of all that unfolds before. Without context, the vocabulary of movement feels somewhat shallow, and isn’t strengthened by an ensemble required to tap into the emotional journey without the benefit of all the plot points that come before it. “Manson Trio,” Bob Fosse’s eerie commentary on war from Pippin, also loses its luster beyond the construct of the greater story, while “Our Favorite Son” from The Will Rogers Follies looks meek in size and scope compared to its original.
The original “Turkey Lurkey Time”
It should be noted that these observations inspired this reviewer to go on several late-night YouTube binges to discover archival footage of the original performances. It was a scavenger hunt that yielded some precious gems, and also reinforced the idea that witnessing live choreography—in a theatre with the energy of audience and performer pulsating together—is incomparable, even without the show’s entirety to back it up.
The production value, particularly projection/video design by Batwin + Robin and a seemingly endless parade of costumes designed by David C. Woolard, fill in some of those contextual gaps, along with an eight-piece orchestra deftly led by music director Eugene Gwozdz.
It’s also fascinating to witness how various choreographic styles fit on the dancers’ bodies as they chasse, leap, and pirouette their way through iconic works by Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune, Bob Fosse, Wayne Cilento, and others. Standouts include the compact Jess LeProtto. With four Broadway shows already to his credit, LeProtto is a powerhouse performer whose athleticism soars in the fight sequence from Golden Boy (choreographer, Donald McKayle) and “Cool” from West Side Story (choreographer, Jerome Robbins). Lori Ann Ferreri tackles two challenging pieces in Act II: the lead dancer in “Turkey Lurkey Time” from Promises Promises and “The Music and the Mirror” from A Chorus Line (both based on the original choreography by Michael Bennett and staged by Donna McKechnie, who originated the roles).
The American Dance Machine for the 21st Century fulfills a vital role in the preservation and presentation of our most cherished musical theater choreography. It will be interesting to see what direction the company takes as it continues to find its rhythm in the years to come.
The American Dance Machine for the 21st Century
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue, NYC
Through January 3
Want more ADM21? Check out our interview with dancer Tyler Hanes.
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.