BDL: Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did dancing come into your life?
WS: I remember my Mom asking me, “Do you want to try dance?” My memory of my answer was “of course!” I started when I was 4 years old at a strip mall competition school in rural/suburbia Minnesota. I ate up whatever dance they threw at me. I even made my older sister, who was two levels above me, teach me her dances, much to her annoyance. Luckily, when I was 10, we moved closer to Minneapolis where I was able to switch to a more challenging school, Minnesota Dance Theatre. My love for ballet really began there as I started training and performing in their young company, working my way up to their professional company. In college I studied jazz and hip hop, then in NYC I jumped into the world of modern; then ended up in musical theater. So my training is eclectic, but my love for it began with ballet.
BDL: What led you to start choreographing and how did you make the transition from performer to choreographer?
WS: I started like most kids, creating dances on my friends in their basements. Then, as I got older, I was one of the few trained dancers in my school and the task of choreography fell to me for projects like Swing Choir or the school theater pieces. The idea of it being a job didn’t hit me until college, when the company I joined required all members to choreograph. After college, I moved to NYC to pursue a dance career but quickly realized choreography both satisfied and challenged me much more than performing. Once I made that leap, I never looked back. I began the long and wonderful journey of finding my style and voice as a choreographer.
BDL: What are three words that you feel describe your choreographic style?
WS: Story, comedy, and athletic.
BDL: Your resume is very diverse, including theatre, TV and film work. Can you talk a bit about the difference in choreographing for those different mediums?
WS: They all start the same for me. What story are we telling? Who are the characters, and what style of music are we using? For theater, story is the driving force, but in film and TV, it is mainly about steps and what looks amazing in the frame. Theater is a bit of a longer process spread out over the rehearsals, production, tech, and previews. TV and film, depending on how much movement/dance is needed, can happen in a matter of days. As I started in film/TV, the fantastic challenge was not being confined to a proscenium. Yes, you have a frame to build in, but the camera could be anywhere – on the ground just looking at the dancers feet, moving through and past them, even looking down from above. You have more control on what you want the audience to see. Maybe you want them to see a look or the flick of an arm. They might miss that in the back seat of a theater. As I begin to bring my work, Silent Dance Comedies, to film, I am delighted to see how many more choices I have to capture the dance. It is very exciting!
BDL: What interested you in working with BDL? Are you coming to the project with any specific goals in mind?
WS: I have had the pleasure of knowing Josh a long time, and I think it is a fantastic opportunity he has created for both the choreographer and the dancers. Rarely do we get the chance to just play around and workshop a piece. Usually we are on a deadline and don’t have a lot of chances to try different choices. The project I am bringing in is a piece I workshopped four years ago in a ballet lab in California, which I plan to be the opening scene of my feature film. Having the chance to revisit it through the lens of it being a filmed piece is incredibly valuable for me, and I am so grateful BDL gives me the chance to do so with the amazing company they have picked!
BDL: Tell us a bit about your process. How do you begin?
WS: It starts with music usually. A song grabs me and I can smell a narrative in it. Then I walk around my neighborhood and listen to it endlessly until it finally reveals the story and characters. Then we are off to the races!
BDL: Are there choreographers you look up to and admire?
WS: Agnes de Mille as she started the dream ballet concept with Oklahoma. She also brought in company trained dancers instead of chorus girls, to give the dance more strength and character. That choice helped Oklahoma become the game changer is was for musical theater.
I love Gene Kelly for helping move the idea of dance as a narrative forward with the amazing dream ballets he had in his films. I remember seeing Broadway Melody from Singing In The Rain and thought, “well why isn’t the whole film expressed like this?” He fought each time to have a dream ballet in his films as he knew the moviegoer was interested in it and wouldn’t get bored. Also, he helped bring dance to the people. It was for everyone, not just the elite. He was the everyman dancer, and showed that dance could be athletic.
And then, of course, Jerome Robbins helped to revolutionize dance as a main storytelling element, along with helping to further what Gene started by opening up the dream ballet to a longer form. He also showed men can be tough, sexy, and still be incredible dancers.