Light footfalls and nervous laughter broke the pre-class silence in the Harvard Dance Studio last Tuesday (Sept. 23). Five students faced the mirror, carefully working through the dance steps to “One,” the finale from the Broadway hit “A Chorus Line.” Class wasn’t set to start for another 20 minutes, but the group was anxious to get the combination right. After all, they would be dancing for a rather savvy audience — two cast members from the show, currently playing at the Boston Opera House. And this was just the first official week of class.
“Dramatic Arts 124: Dance in Musical Theatre” is a new course offered at Harvard College this fall. Students will explore the dance styles of Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, and Bob Fosse — four of America’s most renowned choreographers — to discover how their movement and energy shaped the history of Broadway from the 1920s through the late 1980s.
The course is led by Leslie Woodies, who brings a wealth of dance experience to the Harvard studio. She is a former soloist with Boston Ballet, has choreographed for Disney and Paramount, and played the lead role of “Cassie” in a production of “A Chorus Line” (ACL) directed by Michael Bennett.
Lectures and practical dance experience form the basis for the curriculum, as well as video excerpts compiled from production numbers shown on the Tony Awards and other public venues over the past 40 years. For many students, though, it was three little words in the course guide that sent them scrambling to sign up: “visiting guest artists.”
“I am so excited about the opportunity to learn from Broadway professionals,” said Becky Dillaway ’11.
In addition to the current ACL cast members, students will have the chance to work with Tony Award-winning dancers Bebe Neuwirth and Donna McKechnie.
Because the course has no prerequisites, students have varying levels of experience. One thing they all share, however, is a deep passion for musical theater.
“The class is open to anyone,” said Woodies, “and we love the energy of each individual performer. Daring to reveal your own perspective is a key part of the process.”
The first guest artists to join Dramatic Arts 124 this semester were Nikki Snelson and Venny Carranza, two performers who star in the Broadway Across America production of ACL. Snelson plays Cassie, while Carranza plays Roy. Carranza also covers (i.e., is an understudy for) four major characters in the show.
The musical follows the story of 17 dancers as they undergo a challenging audition for an upcoming Broadway show. First produced in 1975, the musical received nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
“This show is not just about Broadway,” said Woodies. “It speaks to every universal concept of people putting themselves on the line … getting your first job out of college, standing up and saying I do — or I don’t.”
Before hitting the dance floor, the performers sat down with students for an informal discussion about life in show business. As they answered questions about a range of topics — auditions, friendships with cast members, how their careers began — both Snelson and Carranza underscored the importance of staying true to your dreams.
“Sure, there are moments when you have doubts,” said Snelson, when asked if she ever considered giving up the performer’s lifestyle for a more traditional career. “But when you step back and take a look at it, I get to sing, dance, and play dress-up for a living. And I love it. So why not keep persevering until your dreams come true?”
Carranza agreed that despite its challenges, life on Broadway was very rewarding.
“After one performance,” he recalled, “my mom came up to me and said, ‘I’m so happy that you are happy with your life.’ To me, there’s no greater thing you can hear from a loved one.”
Many students were curious to hear how the performers’ audition experiences compared with the process depicted in “A Chorus Line.”
“Auditions are much more enhanced than they were in the 1970s,” said Carranza. “Now, you are actually a name, not just a number. And dancers are no longer in their own little world. Directors want a ‘triple threat’ — someone who doesn’t just dance, but can also sing and act.” Carranza noted that “Chorus Line” was one of the first shows to “break the barrier” of a single-talent approach to hiring.
Woodies also mentioned that as the economics of show business changed and productions became more expensive, directors needed performers who exhibited talent in all three areas. Furthermore, she said, because rehearsal time for productions grew shorter, the talent “had to get brighter.”
With the bar set so high, how do Snelson and Carranza face an audition?
“It can be very intimidating, but the light in your soul that loves to perform will shine through,” Snelson said. “The people behind the table will see that.”
There was no director’s table in the studio last Tuesday, but the energy was still palpable as students took to the dance floor. Following a brief warm-up, they lined up to perform “One” with Carranza and Snelson. Teaching Fellow Matt Corriel ’05 accompanied the group on piano, while Carranza called out the steps.
“Change! Toe-ball-heel! Lunge!” he called. “Hats at a jaunty angle! Think of every movement as a picture, precise and sharp. Keep your elbow in line or you’ll smack your neighbor.”
The students had learned the steps with Woodies in a prior class, during shopping period. Practice time was limited to less than two hours, though, because Woodies also had to discuss the syllabus and cover administrative details.
“We really had to plunge right in to prepare for [the performers’] arrival,” said Woodies.
Despite the quick preparation, the students knew their moves well. Rather than teach the steps, Carranza and Snelson were able to focus on small details that would improve the overall performance: the tip of a hat, the flick of a wrist, a smoother way to turn.
“I’ve gotta call up my agent,” Carranza joked, “because it looks like I may be out of a job soon.”
Some of Woodies’ students have Broadway aspirations, but many plan to pursue careers in other fields. Woodies is confident, though, that the course will have a positive impact on all who are enrolled.
“The freedom to communicate with your body, voice, and spirit allows you to do anything,” she said.
Snelson shared a similar sentiment.
“It’s been said for years now that any sort of music or arts education helps with other subjects, such as math,” she said. “It certainly helps your hand-eye coordination, which will be useful for any pre-med students in the room!”
If last Tuesday was any indication, the coming semester holds plenty of excitement for the students in Woodies’ class. They will face papers and exams, of course, and challenging assignments as they unravel the complex history of musical theater. Last week, though, they could focus on one singular sensation: the opportunity to dance for Broadway stars.