The anticipation surrounding NBC's Hairspray Live! has been CRAZY ever since the project was announced last January. We've gushed over the cast list (Derek Hough! Ephraim Sykes! Kristin Chenoweth! Jennifer Hudson! Ariana Grande!), caught up with Hough to get the scoop on what rehearsals have been like (see our December issue), and watched every single cast interview that exists. But we haven't really been able to glimpse any of the dancing...until now!
NBC has gifted us with an extended preview—and, you guys, it's pretty much everything. It highlights all the dance-y goodness of the show and somehow gets us even more excited for the official air date. (Which is Wednesday night! Only two more sleeps!)
Not that we're all that shocked that the dancing looks fantastic: The show's original Broadway choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, also worked on the live version. "I'm thrilled to have the chance to do the show again," Mitchell told DS. "I planned to use the talents each star brought to the table to make the show shine, so expect some new riffs on some of my original moves."
Watch the sneak peek below, and make sure not to miss the show this Wednesday, December 7 at 8/7c on NBC.
You already know that taking on a new role requires lots of homework, from perfecting the steps to figuring out spacing. But while it’s easy to become wrapped up in technical demands, a little extra research can make all the difference in your performance—because each piece of choreography is inspired by something, whether it’s a person, a time in history or simply an abstract harmony created by a composer.
Hope Boykin (center) in Matthew Rushing's Odetta (photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy AAADT)
“No matter how exquisite her facility may be, an uninformed dancer will never perform a more compelling Juliet than one who can use her knowledge, empathy and emotion to imbue the role with realism and create a deep connection with the audience,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson. We all might replay a dancer’s tricks over and over on YouTube, but the performances that leave us in tears contain so much more than technique. By researching your subject, watching the experts and honing your acting chops, you can transition from being a pretty dancer to a true artist.
Start with “Why”
When Ephraim Sykes landed a place in the ensemble for the Broadway hit Hamilton, he wanted to understand the context of the stories he’d portray. That meant trying to answer one question: Why? “There are moments in our lives that change our minds and hearts and make us live a certain way,” he says. “For instance, there was a moment in my life when I decided to start dancing. Finding out the character’s motives is the most critical thing in terms of exploring a role. All their actions will be justified, because you know the baseline of their lives.”
San Francisco Ballet principal Vitor Luiz agrees. As he prepares to take on the iconic role of The Creature in Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein this upcoming February, Luiz aims to understand why The Creature behaves the way he does. “He just arrived in this world and his creator rejected him. He’s bitter about it,” Luiz says. “There’s a sense that he wants to be loved above all, but he doesn’t fit into this world. That’s why he becomes angry. He had a pure soul.”
Do Your Research
To understand his role in Frankenstein, Luiz began by hitting the books. “There are a bunch of movie versions,” he points out, “but studying Mary Shelley’s classic novel helps me really know what my character is going through. If you see someone else playing a role, you only imagine the character that way.” Once he’s studied the book, Luiz will turn to the movies to add to his own conclusions.
Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in John Cranko's Onegin (photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB)
While many of Hamilton’s ensemble members read the biography on which the show was based, Sykes also loves the visual aspect of films and documentaries, because, he says, he can see more of the character’s world and pick up on his movement and mannerisms. For both Hamilton and Sykes’ recent role as Marvin on the HBO series “Vinyl,” that meant seeking out political documentaries to create a broader understanding of what his characters lived through, which informed his movement quality.
Trips to museums can also be beneficial. In 2009, PBT performed Stephen Mills’ abstract work Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project, a piece that requires dancers to embody the emotional weight of the subject matter with every movement. “Stephen led us through a long educational process before we started rehearsing to help us become more informed, aware artists," Erickson recalls. The dancers spoke with Holocaust survivors and even took a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
As the title character in Matthew Rushing’s Odetta, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Hope Boykin was tasked with representing singer Odetta Holmes, known as the voice of the Civil Rights movement. Though it wasn’t required of her, she learned all Holmes’ lyrics. “I wanted to make sure you could hear her voice through the movement and my understanding of each song—not just through the counts or the choreography,” she says.
Learn From Other Dancers—but Leave Room for You
It’s important to stay open to advice from your choreographer, director or teacher, and don’t be afraid to seek out more experienced dancers who may also have information that will help you. If you’re performing in a recently created ballet, you might have the opportunity to speak to those who were close with the choreographer, or to the role’s originator. The first time Boykin was cast in Alvin Ailey’s 1974 work Night Creature, she sought out former company member Sarita Allen to coach her. “She was known for doing the lead,” Boykin says. “One day in rehearsal, she turned on the music and told me everything that Mr. Ailey had told her. She started doing the movement, and I had to chase her around the room—she was so full of information. As dancers, we often get caught up in our lines, but there’s so much more to a work.”
On the other hand, it’s a good idea to avoid studying others in the same role until you have a strong handle on it yourself. SFB’s Luiz explains: “You start to copy the dancer, and a copy is never as good as the original.” That doesn’t mean Luiz shuts out all other interpretations—watching other dancers, either in videos or in person, can offer new perspectives on a role he’s performed many times.
Whether you hit the library, visit a museum or talk to experts, doing your research to fully create a character will be doubly worthwhile come performance time: Not only will you be able to be in the moment onstage, you’ll also transport the audience emotionally. “Learn to be an artist first and a dancer second,” Sykes says. “You’ll go much farther in your career if you think deeper than aesthetics.”
Few things excite us more in the Dance Spirit office than Newsies on Broadway. Seriously, we're obsessed. Which was why our day in Brooklyn shooting four of the Newsies dancers for DS's July/August cover story was one of the best days ever! Sure, it was freezing, but the boys found some pretty creative ways to stay warm. (An impromptu ballet barre on that fence? Let's do it! A warm cookie from that bakery? On it!) Plus, their stories from backstage (including some clever pranks) kept us laughing for hours. Sad you couldn't be there with us? Well, you don't have to be, because we captured it in an exclusive behind-the-scenes video!
Click here to read all about Alex Wong, Aaron Albano, Ephraim Sykes and Ryan Steele. Then, click on the image below to see their awesome antics caught on tape: