In defense of dance breaks

10.05.10 | 10 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, ideas, playwrights

Screw pricing conversations. DANCE BREAK.

Seriously, though, theater needs more dance breaks. I believe this very strongly. I’m willing to fight about it (in a stylized, West Side Story dance-fight sort of way). And I’ll tell you why.

I started thinking about this because I recently re-read Jason Grote’s 1001 – which I liked very much in performance, and even sent Mr. Grote a gushy fangirl facebook message after I saw it. One thing I wondered about when I read the script, though, was why Mr. Grote specifies so explicitly that even though he references Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” very obviously at one point, you are NOT ALLOWED to do the Thriller dance full-out. Oh, it’ll be tempting, Mr. Grote acknowledges. The actors will want to – why wouldn’t they? But, he warns, this will distract from the play in an ultimately destructive way.

With tremendous respect for Mr. Grote and his craft, I have to say: Poppycock.

Analogy: I see a production of Julius Caesar in London about five years ago. Despite its copious use of TV screens and modern dress, it’s mostly unremarkable. But there is one truly amazing moment: after the crowd attacks and hangs Cinna the poet, he hangs from the ceiling, bloody and dead, for a few scenes; then at a certain point, he descends, is given a microphone, and starts SINGING. And he has BACKUP DANCERS. Who are girls in SEXY, POLITICALLY INCORRECT ARMY FATIGUES. And he’s singing a song about war that bears no resemblance to anything Shakespeare wrote ever – it sounds more like “Glory” from Pippin than anything. And it’s wrong and it doesn’t belong in Julius Caesar and it is TOTALLY AMAZING.

Plenty of people were upset about Cinna the Singing Poet, of course. With good reason. But the worst part of the whole thing, in my opinion, was that that scene was by far the best part of the show.

No disrespect to Shakespeare. With a stronger production, perhaps this would not have been the case (though I must admit Julius Caesar has never been one of my favorites). But the problem – in my opinion – was not that the dance destroyed the show; the problem was that the dance highlighted how weak the rest of the show was.

This, it seems, would not be the case if we went all “Thriller” on Jason Grote’s ass. Not merely because I find it easier to engage with 1001 than with Julius Caesar, but also because 1001 is the kind of show where it seems ANYTHING can happen, and this would seem – to me – to include “Thriller.”

But, let’s say Jason Grote is right, and it will distract from the play. Well, then, what of it? What’s so important that we can’t forget about it for a second and enjoy “Thriller”? What’s more important than “Thriller”?

This may sound facetious, but I’m dead serious (pardon the pun). Having your cast do the “Thriller” dance will delight your audience. Remember how awesome 1001 is already? Now imagine 1001 plus “Thriller.” What’s wrong with this picture? Not a damn thing, if you ask me.

I strongly believe in using dance breaks in straight plays, and I doubt you can convince me otherwise. So you can use dance breaks to distract from a crappy play? Sure. Of course. So write a less crappy play, and then the dance break will be an enhancement rather than a distraction. Or if you’re already doing the crappy play, why WOULDN’T you want to distract from its crappiness?

So you’re “supposed to” be able to pull off a great play without “gimmicks” like dance breaks? Screw “supposed to” – you’re not “supposed to” eat the cookie dough when you’re making cookies either, and everyone knows that’s the best part. Who’s to say the dance break can’t be just as integral a part of a great play as a monologue, a kiss, a gunshot? (Side note: I use the term “dance break” to refer to any dance number, not just those that are breaks from the action and, by definition, non-integral.)

So dance breaks don’t belong in every play? Sure. Betrayal doesn’t need a dance break. Circle Mirror Transformation doesn’t need a dance break (though some of the acting exercises sort of are dance breaks, I suppose). And I certainly favor dance breaks that have been inserted by the playwright rather than the director. But if it’s a play where dance breaks are possible, why not?

Honestly, I can’t think of a time I saw a play where a dance break did anything other than make me extremely happy. There were dance breaks in this production of Ivanov on Lake Lucille, one of the most amazing pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. Were they related to the plot? Not that I could tell. Did I care? No. There was an enormous dance number to “On Broadway” in NTUSA’s Chautauqua, also mostly unrelated (though that piece was delightfully disjointed as a rule) – pure joy. There was at least one dance number in the Rude Mechanicals’ The Method Gun, including two of the most unusually placed balloons I’ve ever seen (hint: naked men were involved). Awesome. And one of my favorite moments in bobrauschenbergamerica is when the whole cast breaks into a “Hustle”-like group dance.

Yes, with the exception of Ivanov, these were all experimental-ish, ensemble-created pieces. I’m not sure, however, that that’s the only format (besides musicals) that should have the option of dance breaks. Dance breaks energize. They bring delight. Just try watching that Pippin video without getting a little goosebump-y – I mean, Ben Vereen, people! Just watch that man MOVE!

I admit, I’m biased. I use a lot of dance breaks. One play of mine, The All-American Genderf*ck Cabaret, has approximately 2,389,018,984,236 dance breaks at last count. Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story, in its current form, incorporates dream sequences involving “White Wedding,” the Electric Slide, and lots of Lady Gaga. And when I have had any control over the marketing copy, I’ve always mentioned the dance numbers…and, incidentally, had mostly sold-out shows.

Good for the soul. Good for marketing. Bad for…what, exactly?

Yes, dance breaks are an incredibly specific thing to ask for, and won’t always be a good fit. So widen your lens a bit: when you watch a dance break, what are you watching? Something goofy. Something a little lowbrow. Something that doesn’t take itself seriously. Something that doesn’t mistake stodginess for profundity. You’re watching actors have fun – a LOT of fun. You’re watching something sexy, or awkward, or frenetic. Something playful.

Theatre needs more of all these things. If Lauren Gunderson is asking for “Holy sh*t,” I’m asking for “Hells yes.” What can your play learn from dance breaks?

Yes, if everyone who read this post went out and stuck a dance break in their play, we’d have too many dance breaks. But wouldn’t that be an awesome problem to have? Instead, we have too many reconciliation scenes where the charmingly dysfunctional family puts aside their differences and hugs it out; too many “this is the thing that happened to me as a kid that explains who I am today” monologues; too many rich white clever people being rich, white, and clever; too many totally boring fill-in-the-blanks. If there’s going to be too much of something, let it be dance breaks. Let me at least watch someone shake it.

Give me joy and energy and laughter. Give me a reason to go to your show instead of staying home and watching a hundred women do “Single Ladies” in Piccadilly Circus (seriously, a hundred!). Or, give me the same crap and watch me get jaded about the theatre.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s Hammertime.

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  • Anonymous

    And … this is why I love you, I think.

    Everybody dance!

  • Jason Grote

    Thanks for your kind words, but I’m afraid that my note is road-tested. It’s not a mere instance of an anal-retentive playwright.

    There is a dance break in 1001, just later in the play. I also wrote a dance break right into my latest play, Civilization, and in this case it’s really a dance break, with nothing at all to do with the plot or characters. Generally, I agree with you — dance breaks are a time-honored tradition in downtown theater, and I stole the idea from Radiohole, The National Theater of the USA, and Elevator Repair Service, who probably all stole the idea from each other.

    The reason I put that note there is that three separate directors put the Thriller dance in, all independently of each other, all in productions where I wasn’t involved. We also considered it in rehearsal for the premiere (in which I was heavily involved), but determined that it was the wrong choice. These were all good productions with smart directors, but in every instance, the dance was a terrible dead moment where the actors were having a blast, but the audience was not — everyone was confused and annoyed, and not in a good way. The joke is very small and delicate — Osama bin Laden is on TV, he’s saying something familiar, wait, that’s from Thriller! — and then boom, we’re on to the next thing. Doing the whole dance overextends the joke far beyond its load-bearing capacity, and adds a good three minutes onto a play that must be done at breakneck speed because there’s no intermission and if the actors get overindulgent, it can easily run for two hours rather than 95 minutes.

    It’s very kind of you to say that anything can happen in 1001, but that’s an illusion — in fact, about 15 things happen in 1001, and I chose them all to create that illusion, and because each one of those things says something about my themes of Orientalism and globalization. Many audience members have missed this, and just thought the whole thing was a hellzapoppin grab bag of random events, but oh well — I’d rather leave people behind than talk down to them.

    The bin Laden/Thriller joke says something very small about this theme, deserving of a few seconds of stage time, while Flaubert and Borges say something more significant, and so they get a lot more time (a confession: the “Vertigo” scene doesn’t say enough to justify its length, but I could never figure out what to do about that). Putting in the Thriller dance warps the play in a way that ultimately isn’t constructive. Plus there was that dumb critic in Minneapolis who spent half of his column space talking about that viral video of the Filipino prisoners reenacting the video, but I suppose nothing can be done about dumb critics.

    • Thanks, Jason, for weighing in here. Glad to know that the idea was given a shot — I have no problem believing that something I think is an awesome idea in theory doesn’t work in practice (many of my favorite plays have been ruined by seeing them live and realizing that they were lovely on paper but didn’t play well, so I’m still learning the difference between what works in my head and what works onstage). In any case, congrats on convincing me that anything can happen in 1001…the illusion was successful, for me.

  • Oh, Mariah, thank you for this post! I needed this today!

    While I can’t see us ever turning Cinna into the Singing Poet, in many, many cases Shakespeare is all about the dance break (definitely all about goofy and lowbrow!) He put dance breaks into his work that people today purposefully cut out (to the detriment of the entire experience).

    Dance breaks are a long and proud tradition. Long live the dance break!

  • The huge dance break was the best part of Cherrywood in Chicago this summer.

  • Steve Spotswood

    I love this column. I’ve somehow managed to write in dance moments in something like five of my last six plays. It’s visually exciting and, if done well–with enthusiasm and not too much artifice–it gives the audience this swift, direct moment of joy. And dancing, like drinking, leads to unexpected moments between characters, with social and personal barriers being inadvertently crossed. In a play that dealt with a daughter coming to terms with her mother’s death, I had a scene in a country road house where the entire cast grooved to Aerosmith before line dancing to Bob Seger. The scene allowed the lead character to actively come out of her protective shell, and I had so many audience members say that they were delighted by it and were surprised that something like that could happen in “straight” theatre.

    I happened to see one of the Thriller productions of “1001.” And having seen a later, and much much much better production (done by DC’s Rorschach Theatre), I can see Jason’s point. However, that first production I saw was not in the best venue (large proscenium) and was missing a lot of the nuances that I later noticed in the Rorschach play. So the Thriller dance was a very welcome moment, and actually the moment that stuck with me strongest and longest. Which says more about the strength of that production than anything else.

    • thanks, Steve, for weighing in here. your dance breaks sound joyous and delicious. I’ve also seen the dance break used for horror, too: there’s a moment in Lucy Thurber’s KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY where the main character starts dancing as a kind of “fuck you” to sanity… hard to explain but really, really upsetting and awesome.

  • Anonymous

    I’m super-late to this party, but I am a big fan of the dance break, Mariah, and agree completely with Amy Wratchford that Shakespeare is all about the dance break, or often is (not so sure I’d be a fan of Cinna the Undead Singing Poet, myself): look at Act IV of Winter’s Tale, where a musical comedy breaks out in the middle of the tragedy-cum-romance. Or Much Ado, which has a built-in dance break, too.
    I am also a great big fan of eating the cookie dough with a soup spoon.

    • I’m so glad someone responded to the cookie dough comment! that was one of my favorite lines (which I came up with, incidentally, while baking cookies).

      also, I adore you.