The mission of the Chita Rivera Awards is to celebrate dance and choreographic excellence. In a season of most excellent dancing on Broadway, it was both a surprise and an honour for the ensemble of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 to be nominated for a Chita Rivera Award for Outstanding Ensemble in a Broadway Show. I personally never know what to say when someone asks me what I do. Do I say "dancer?" Do I say "performer?" Do I have the audacity to say "I sing, dance and act?" I say "actor" most times because that's what I feel we are all doing through our different skills; acting through song or dance or both and, in the case of The Great Comet, while also playing an instrument. Though I am unsure of what to say when asked what I do, the box that I've been put in on Broadway is as a swing and dance captain, having been a swing and part of the dance captain teams of two Broadway shows. These responsibilities are generally filled by those who would call themselves dancers. So, I guess that makes me a "dancer?"
I joined the company of The Great Comet as a swing and eventually took on an Assistant Dance Captain responsibility. I found myself working in an ensemble of people who call themselves "singers" and "musicians," and not at all "dancers." The magical thing about the work of Choreographer, Sam Pinkleton, his associate, Chloe Treat, and his assistant, Flannery Gregg, is that it is all encompassing. You don't have to have trained in ballet since the age of 7 to walk into their studio and be considered a "dancer." First and foremost, you need to be authentic in your spirit; you need to move with true joy and love. The movement, whatever it looks like, has to come from an honest place, for many reasons, one of them being that you are so close to audience members that you are breathing, sweating, and sometimes pulsating on them (if they are lucky). If you are not opening your heart honestly to them, they will know. As an assistant dance captain, one of the things I found challenging was to allow for each individual's authenticity to shine through while making sure it stayed of the world that Sam, Chloe, and Flannery created. We had a full range of mixed abilities within the ensemble, but each member of it rose to Sam's request: dance so hard that it makes you want to vomit. I watched amazing featured dancers wow the audience with their strength and skill. I watched roving musicians (ensemble members who play instruments) do every bit of choreography while playing an instrument. As a trained dancer, I take for granted the knowledge that I have to maintain my health and body to do a long run of a dance show. Many members of the ensemble had never danced in the way that was required of the show and they spent weeks, even months, figuring out how to maintain the high level of energy and movement over eight shows a week without risking injury or fatigue. (Someone joked tonight before the awards started that if it was still called the ASTAIRE Awards, we'd win....because of the STAIRS.)
The ensemble of The Great Comet did not execute the difficult partnering the way they do at Bandstand (so effortlessly!). We did not dance with technical precision the way they do in Cats. But we danced with our hearts open wide as an invitation for every person watching the show to come join our party. We dared to move in ways that might be considered "weird" or "strange." We are unashamedly ourselves, whether we have female armpit hair, a unique ethnic heritage, or we are queer. In being ourselves, we encouraged all who joined our party to be brave in their uniqueness. The ensemble of The Great Comet pushed the boundaries on what an ensemble is because we were encouraged to break theatrical barriers by the dance team, director Rachel Chavkin, and Writer Dave Malloy. Winning the Chita Rivera Award for Outstanding Ensemble of a Broadway show means that the community of dancers and choreographers whom I admire and respect stand with us in our diversity and weirdness in movement choices. As an Assistant Dance Captain, I am the proudest. As an ensemble member, I am honoured to be in the company of my colleagues. As a dancer, I give so much thanks to those who recognize the ensemble of The Great Comet as the high kicking, viola playing, accordion dueling, clarinet blowing, barrel turning, bellies-full-of whisky storytellers we so loved being eight shows a week.
Listen to our episodes on the creation of The Great Comet here.