The Process: Maggie Anderson, Choreographer

The Process: Maggie Anderson, Choreographer

Oct 13 2014

Professor Anderson discusses the challenges and rewards of choreographing at Temple Theaters

By Deneia Washington

The second production of the season, Brigadoon, the musical about two American tourists who stumble upon a Scottish village that is a tangible reality, only once every one hundred years, will be debuting in just a few days. Rehearsals and technical meetings have now kicked into high gear with six to eight hour rehearsals and minor adjustments being made to ensure clear storytelling throughout.

Over the summer, Assistant Professor and show choreographer Maggie Anderson got a jump start in the pre-production process for the big show. Just as acting plays an integral role to the fluidity of the play, dance is instrumental to the narrative. 

 “We always say ‘When a character can no longer contain the emotion in words, he must break into song. And when the character can no longer contain the emotion in song, he DANCES! My hope as a choreographer is that the dance always feels necessary, and never artificial,” says Anderson.

Once the school year officially began, it was time to get to business. Auditions were set in motion and the show cast was delicately chosen. For Anderson’s movement call auditions, she knew exactly the type of dancer she was looking for. “I choreographed specific dance sequences for skills that I needed to see. I was really looking for ballet technique, which you’ve either studied and have a lot of that under your belt, or you don’t,” says Anderson. “I needed people who were incredibly proficient and experienced in terms of their ability to execute pretty complicated ballet sequences.”

Technique and athleticism were not the only factors for Anderson; those cast also had to be able to become a visual narrator through their movements. “They needed to be able to really story tell to connect the steps together,” Anderson says. “So they really had to work hard to figure out where the intention of the choreography was and how to story tell through it.”

Once auditions were complete, Anderson began pairing movement to cast member, basing particular placement off of each actor’s strengths. As students have varying degrees of dance experience, it can be challenging to make movement accessible to everyone. “The choreographic process takes months of preparation. It's like putting a huge puzzle together, and sometimes the pieces evolve in size and shape and you keep tweaking and adjusting until everything comes together,” she says.

As music, dance, and blocking are all intertwined in this production, rehearsals were no different. “We try so that they can memorize the music first, then they can get the dance sequence the second, because those require a lot of rehearsals. Then we implement the blocking and then we piece it all together,” Anderson explains. “They have more information about the whole trajectory of what the journey is going to be and we bring the three parts together. So it’s a whole journey for everybody.”

Even with all of the preparation of dance sequences she created over the summer, there were some things that had to be reconfigured to match the abilities and skill sets of the cast. “I changed some sequences, formations, and stuff to play on the skills of the actors that I had, which is a traditional part of the process,” says Anderson. “So some of the storytelling through the dance numbers I manipulated how they were originally done so that they featured a different kind of a story,” she adds.

Professor Anderson believes that as a choreographer you have to use discernment when challenging your students to help them grow, while also making sure they are comfortable and can exude confidence with each step. “We do make adjustments along the way, especially if there’s a solo and I’m watching someone and they’re struggling,” says Anderson. “But I also want them to try because sometimes you don’t know what you can do right when it’s given to you. You have to really practice it and then come back.”

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Another important aspect of the dance numbers of Brigadoon were the duo sequences. Anderson says pairing the right dancers together is “an education itself.” In order for the storytelling to connect with the audience, partners have to build trust with one another. “If you’re trusting somebody to lift you over their head every night it takes both partners being on their game, completely focused, and then being fully committed to it, because if either person backs off a little bit, it’s not going to go well,” says Anderson. “Every little beat, in turns of timing is crucial.”

Just days before the show, the cast is able to rehearse with the costumes and fully embody their character. Anderson and costume designer Jeff Sturdivant were constantly communicating with each other about making sure the designs flowed effortlessly with the dance sequences. “He has a lot of experience working with dance companies, so he has a really good eye for all of that,” she says. “What type of shoe, what length of skirt, what type of undergarment, if there’s a quick change, all of that is sort of choreographed. It’s always done the same, night after night.”

Anderson sees the growth in students within the Department of Theater as they continue to put on more productions. “We keep raising the bar for musical theater and what we’re able to accomplish here,” says Anderson. “I’m really proud and pleased and surprised each year as the caliber of skill gets higher and higher, which allows me to be able to do more and more, which makes the productions really exciting." For these reasons, Anderson enjoys working with student actors and watching them grow as actors. “They are full of discovery and it's fun to stretch student performers beyond their notions of limitations and grow in their capabilities."

Brigadoon previews starts Wednesday, October 15 and opening night is Saturday, October 18. Tickets and information can be found here.

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