Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Interview: Dana Solimondo on Chairs, Ballet Girls, and BILLY ELLIOT

Recently, choreographer Dana Solimando took on the monumental task of choreographing Billy Elliot The Musical for La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. The production opened to sold out crowds over the weekend and will run through February 8th. Here Dana talks about making the steps her own and how you’ve got to be flexible in the theatre because you never know what’s going to happen. Enjoy this behind the scenes look at bringing Billy Elliot to life.

Dana, congratulations on your terrific opening of Billy Elliot last weekend! Is it true that you rechoreographed almost the entire show?

Yes it’s true. I’m a huge fan of Peter Darling’s work (which made it kind of scary to tackle), but I knew there were other ways to tell this incredible story. The trick was how to do it without straying too far from what the writers had envisioned.

One major decision was to not use the chairs, as that was very obviously a concept that was Peter’s and not needed to tell the story. However, a few days into rehearsal we hit a little bump in the road. Our Billy was a bit overwhelmed by the idea of trying new concepts in such a short period of time so I was asked to try and leave as much of his solo work as is (per the original). Also, there are a lot of times the word “chair” would pop up in the script and lyrics to insinuate it was time for “barre work” etc., so all of that had to be taken into consideration.

Long story short, I was still able to incorporate new ideas but some of the concepts needed to remain, like the through-line for Billy. I had to find a way to allow him to still use the chair for a ballet barre but continue on the path I had already started with the rest of the show. It all worked out beautifully in the end, but it was definitely a challenge.

I can imagine how challenging it must have been for your Billy who came from the touring production and already had that choreography in his body.

Yes, it was a huge challenge! I’m sure you heard the story; we had two Billys for this production. The first Billy, Noah Parets, broke his arm during the designer run-through. The second Billy, Mitchell Tobin, learned the show in four days before a paid audience. Both were tremendously gifted and up for the challenge of learning new choreography! Once we came to a place where the boys knew we could keep some of the original material and that we wouldn’t mess with their chair through-line (both boys tell me this is essential in showing their character’s evolution) we were able to start giving them new choreography without them feeling overwhelmed.

From that point on, they were more relaxed knowing they had that security. As hard as that was for me, I knew it was the right thing for the boys and at the end of the day that is what is most important. Both boys are incredibly smart, gifted and professional and it started to become a fun challenge for them. 

Can you give us an example of a number you had fun making completely your own? 

“Expressing Yourself” was fun because there were so many avenues you can go with it. I decided I wanted to go into Michael’s imagination and make the dance number something that could be his fantasy. We ended up doing a whole Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Hollywood/Follies musical type montage. Michael winds up being the star of the number with a rhinestone dress and backup dancers, and Billy eventually becomes his Fred Astaire. It was a lot of fun to stage and has been getting a great response.

Jake Kitchen and Mitchell Tobin in "Expressing Yourself"

Do you work differently with a cast when your dancers are children?

Yes and no. I worked differently with the children in this show in that I had to be more patient and put my teacher cap on but I still approached the material from a place of storytelling rather than just dance steps. All of the ballet girls had homework assignments on character development. They were very dedicated and passionate. It was rewarding to see them grow every day and to see how honestly they approached their character work. We had a great time!

There are a lot of moving parts in this show. How do you use your choreography to help serve the director’s vision when youre only one member of the creative team?

I think it is important for the creative team to think in terms of the show as a whole rather than thinking only about your individual department. I was hired to choreograph Ragtime this past year and really had to not only think in terms of what I needed for the dance segments, but what was best for the overall show. That can be challenging sometimes, but when you work with a director and creative team you trust will approach it in the same way, it’s more rewarding in the end.

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Having seen the show I can also say that Billy Elliot is also incredibly satisfying for the audience as well. You can see Danas choreography and the companys outstanding work through February 8, 2015 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd, La Mirada, CA 90638. For tickets, call (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or visit www.lamiradatheatre.com.

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