We sat down with BDL Spring 2017 Cycle choreographer JEREMY MCQUEEN to get to know a bit more about his background, process, and goals for working with us. Below is transcript of that conversation.
BDL: Tell us a bit about your background? How did you find your way into the world of dance?
JM: My mom took me to see the national touring production of The Phantom of the Opera when I was about 8 years old and from that moment I was hooked on all things related to the performing arts. She enrolled me in acting, singing and dance classes at San Diego Junior Theater, a local educational theater organization and from there my love for theater continued to grow.
My first job working professionally in theater was at age 15, at a local regional theater in San Diego. My first season I was cast in one production and my second season I was cast in three! I was so stoked to be onstage doing what I loved with such inspiring professionals, and also to have a little spending money to go shopping! I went on to study ballet in various summer programs with companies such as American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and Alonzo King’s LINES ballet before obtaining my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance through a program with The Ailey School and Fordham University in 2008. From there, I threw myself back into the world of theater and have been so blessed to have been able to dance on stages across the country and in New York in a number of Broadway tours and regional theater productions. And over the last few years I’ve been spending a lot more time offstage focusing more on developing and nurturing my choreographic voice. I also established The Black Iris Project which is a ballet collaborative that brings professional, Black ballet dancers together to create to new original ballets that are rooted in Black history and/or the Black experience. We just presented one of our new ballets about Nelson Mandela’s life, entitled MADIBA, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in D.C.
BDL: What led you to start choreographing and what was that transition like?
JM: I have always relished the opportunity to express myself through movement, though there’s always been an extra special interest of mine in creating my own works of art. After seeing Phantom, I distinctly remember going to Sam Goody and buying tons of Broadway soundtracks, including the one I had just seen live, and I would go home and start to create my own routines to my favorite musical numbers in my bedroom. It was what I did for fun. While other kids were out learning how to ride bikes, I was either dancing, singing, acting, researching, or all the above.
To be honest, the transition from performer to choreographer, in the last two years especially, has been challenging. As a choreographer and artistic director of a collaborative, there are so many responsibilities. Making dances is the fun, creative part, but the business aspects of putting yourself out there, fundraising, scheduling, marketing, and budgeting, is all very demanding and time consuming. On top of that I also teach dance. So dancing or performing myself, or even just going to take dance class, was forced to take a backseat for a bit because I have had so many business demands to support my career as a choreographer.
I’ve made a ton of sacrifices, but to be able to see my own voice and vision come to life onstage has been tremendously fulfilling and I have no regrets about the sacrifices. I still can shake a tail feather, though, and am looking forward to making a few cameos onstage soon!
BDL: Can you list three words you think describe your choreographic style?
JM: Versatile, athletic, and musical.
BDL: Can you talk a bit about the difference in choreographing for concert dance versus theatre?
JM: Choreographing a musical is different in that there is a spoken and sung narrative that leads the storytelling, and choreography helps bring the atmosphere or energies of the plotted environment to life. In concert dance it’s different in that we often use only our physicality to convey the emotions, plot, concept or feelings across to audience. So when I’m creating work for a musical I try to really dig deep into the actual words that are being spoken and sung. I think a lot about how the choreography I create can enhance and amplify those words and lyrics and not necessarily pull focus in a way that takes us away from the story. It’s easy to hear a catchy tune and want to just create something flashy to it. But I prefer to dig deeper and really say to myself “ok, how does this particular step or set of movements that I’m creating help carry the musical story forward?”
I work in a similar fashion in concert dance though I have a bit more wiggle room because the ballets I create generally have a plot and are some times based on factual events. I can use a lot more abstraction with how I put together the overall story arc – what the story is and what I want to highlight. In concert dance the dance takes center stage. And it’s not quite that way in theater. There’s a lot more to consider.
BDL: What interested you in working with BDL? Are you coming to the project with any specific goals in mind?
JM: The opportunity to explore with so many wonderfully talented dancers without the pressure to present a completed premiere is what really sparked my interest. As I mentioned before, we grow by really pushing ourselves. These moments that I have had to choreograph with a deadline forces you to learn, but there’s also something really wonderful about just having time to play and explore for fun.
BDL also didn’t tell me I had to do traditional “theater dance,” and I think that’s very progressive of them. Broadway is evolving so much these days and we are seeing a lot more on Broadway stages aside from just jazz and tap. The demands on dancers nowadays to be versatile is extraordinary. It’s exciting to me that we are evolving as a field because it means we are inviting more diverse stories to be told and attracting new audiences.
In terms of my goals, I want to focus on developing one musical number from one classic Broadway show for the whole week. Professionally I have choreographed only one complete musical and that was a regional production of HAIR a few years ago. I want to do more of the older classics on a professional level, so I figured now is a really great time to explore and work on that.
BDL: Tell us a bit about your process. How do you begin?
JM: When making work for concert dance, I’m generally sparked by a story that I’m eager to share or create. My work is very socially conscious, so I often draw from my own personal experiences or something that I have observed or have an interest in. From there I create a general outline for the story of the bullet points. Next I try to find appropriate music that helps me bring that story to life. This is often the challenging part, trying to find the perfect piece of music that inspires me and matches my idea/concept.
When actually creating the ballets structure I think a lot about how I want the audience to feel or what I want them to know at the end of the ballet. And then I try to work my way backwards so that the movement I create builds up to the climax. Then there are other times, especially if I don’t have such a hard deadline for a premiere, when I walk into the studio with dancers, with a few pieces of music I like, and we talk about what’s going on in our lives and in the world at that moment and start play around with movement.
BDL: Can you name three choreographers you admire and tell us why?
JM: That’s a tough question! There are so many choreographers that I admire. I think Christopher Wheeldon is brilliant with telling stories through movement. The way he transitions from one scene to the next and how the bodies move through the space feels so natural and fluid. I’m also always impressed by the versatility of his works. Every Wheeldon ballet I’ve seen feels fresh – like a new experience. You never really know what you’re gonna get with him, but it’s sure to be a great experience.
I like Rob Ashford, because he dances! I’ve never worked with him, but the guy gets his dancers dancing! I love going to see Broadway shows that really utilize dance in an intelligent way, and I am often left leaving his show feeling like, “Wow, I want to dance THAT!”
And then there’s Susan Stroman. The way she uses physicality of movement to paint dynamic moving pictures of time periods and stories is so inspiring. My first job out of college was dancing in a production of her musical Contact. I’ve gone on to dance excerpts from the show for her at various galas, and she is always a joy to work. She’s always so sweet and professional, and has become someone that I really look up to. Dance is hard. It’s really wonderful to work with choreographers that make you feel respected and valued.