(This is the first installment in a five-week series about choreographer Diego Funes' work on a NYC revival of the musical Subways Are For Sleeping. Stay tuned for more!)
Diego Funes discovers his best choreographic ideas riding the New York subways. With his i-Pod earbuds in his ears, he observes commuters as they bump, push, grind and sway to the syncopated rhythms of the city's underground trains. It's a natural laboratory for kinetic magic, and the inspiration for his urban contemporary style of making dance. Storytelling and emotion, he says, are at the core of his work. It's no surprise, then, that he's choreographing the first revival of the 1961 musical comedy Subways Are For Sleeping. It's a love story about a reporter who is assigned to write about a care-free group of people who live and work in the subway—and who ends up learning that there are many more ways to experience the world than she realized.
Diego has been experiencing the world from various perspectives all his life. Born in Argentina, he has also called Spain, Brazil, Tanzania, Israel, London and Rome home, and has lived intermittently in New York. A competitive gymnast until he was 15, his flexibility, athleticism and natural stage presence made him a natural when he tried his first ballet class in college at NYU. Hard work and determination won him a spot at the School of American Ballet and eventually contracts with the Cincinnati Ballet and Teatro dell' Opera di Roma. Worried that he may have started dancing too late in life to become a principal ballet dancer, he moved on to Broadway and musical theater tours, and then to television, music videos and concert tours with Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan and Geri Halliwell, among others.
For the past three years Diego has concentrated on teaching, directing his own dance company and choreographing in New York. His class has been a favorite among teenage students. "They tell me about their college plans and auditions, and ask me for advice," he says, "As their mentor, I feel I'm returning the favor for all the great mentors I had."
The first thing I notice about Diego as he teaches one of his open studio classes is that, clad in cargo pants and a t-shirt, he looks like a normal guy. But then he starts demonstrating. His powerful physicality plus his intense connection to the class converge in a unique combination that's fun to dance as well as watch. Elements of classical, modern, contemporary, hip hop, jazz and Limon sparkle through. "I love ballet. I admire technique," he says, "But I don't want to see it when you're dancing. You should have it but you shouldn't show it to me."
As for the choreography he is creating for Subways Are For Sleeping -- "I'll have to be very minimalist, conceptual," he explains, "It's a tiny theater, and I'll have to tell the story with limited movement." Oh, yeah, kind of like dancing in the subway!