Bright Star, the musical currently playing at Taproot Theatre Company, keeps toes tapping with the stories of two couples, Alice and Jimmy Ray in the 1920s, and Margo and Billy in the 1940s. Filling the stage with period-appropriate and lively dance numbers was the job of choreographer Katy Tabb, whose work has been seen at Village Theatre, Seattle Symphony and Showtunes, among others. Tabb talked to Encore Spotlight about how she tackled this show and how a solo moment amid couples dancing became her favorite.
Rosemary Jones: Bright Star tells two interrelated stories set in different time periods. How did you set the dances to reflect that?
Katy Tabb: Historical research is always a huge part of my choreographic process and certainly informed the movement in this case. The show flashes back and forth between the 1920s small-town Zebulon, and 1940s big city Asheville. At the Zebulon “Couple’s Day Dance,” I wanted to make sure that the dance truly felt like an exciting social event in a small Southern town rather than a highly choreographed or refined performance. The script details very specific steps as called out by the Dance Caller in this scene—it was a very fun challenge to decide how to interpret these commands. For the number “Another Round” I incorporated swing dance that was en vogue in 1940s America. It was important to me to accurately reflect what was happening in the dance halls as soldiers returned home from war.
Every show process starts with reading the script and listening to the score at least three times as I begin generating ideas for the choreography, followed by immense historic research. I will often listen to the popular music and watch film clips from the era (or eras) of a show to begin wrapping my head around the pulse and movement of the time period. Once I have some “big picture” ideas, I spend lots of time with the director discussing their vision and brain storming together. Typically auditions and casting follow—this step is always a very exciting part of my planning process. Watching future cast members in auditions always inspires new ideas! Actual movement invention and detailing of steps really begins in earnest after I know the cast and their unique skills. I typically have a very detailed plan for every number before heading into rehearsal, but my very favorite part of choreographing a show is exploring, changing and fine-tuning all of this brainstorming with the actors and creative team in the rehearsal room.
You regularly teach dance and also how to audition. What are your favorite classes to teach?
I absolutely love teaching Musical Theatre Dance—a class which allows me to explore the many styles of dance in theatre. On any given day, this class can explore a Jerome Robbins ballet, the specificity of Bob Fosse’s style, the athleticism of Newsies, the contemporary flavor of Wicked and beyond. Movement and dance in theatre requires versatility of its performers. Not only do actors need to be remarkable storytellers, they also need to have the “tools” to best tell their story. I find that the performers who continue to keep up with consistent training in a variety of dance styles (a tall order for a working artist) bring a greater wealth of possibility to a rehearsal room.
What type of training do you recommend for musical theatre performers?
Performers who have trained with a variety of dance teachers and choreographers tend to retain choreography more quickly and prove to be more adaptable to change and exploration during the creative process. I encourage all actors, whether they are a “trained” dancer or not, to take foundational ballet classes that will give them the dance vocabulary, fundamental technique, and connection to their physical instrument necessary for working with most choreographers in theatre.
Space is a bit of an issue on the Taproot stage—as is the closeness of the audience—so how do you choreograph in those parameters?
Interestingly enough, I find that having strict parameters actually frees space for creativity in my planning—these limits create structure for me to play within. I particularly love choreographing on Taproot’s Jewell Mainstage because it allows me to explore more interesting three-dimensional staging than I may be able to explore on a more traditional proscenium stage. On the Taproot stage, I constantly have to make sure that actors are changing direction to ensure that every audience member can experience the show completely—this requires a consistent flow of movement that is not necessarily required on the larger stages. Though space for dancing is more limited, I find that the opportunities for creative formation changes are particularly exciting in this space.
Which number was the biggest challenge?
Margo’s beautiful song “Asheville” was the number in this show that I most struggled with at first. The song itself is so beautiful, it could easily be done with Margo singing solo onstage in a spotlight, but I really wanted to utilize creative staging that would help to illustrate Margo’s experience as well as utilize the wonderful male backup vocalists in a unique way. I ultimately decided to play with staging a scene with the two customers (backup vocalists) in her bookshop; the movement “freezes” and “unfreezes” to highlight how Margo is feeling. Finessing this concept in tandem with specific, detailed lighting cues was very challenging. Despite it also being the most challenging number for me to create (and one of the more deceptively simple looking numbers), “Asheville” has become my favorite number in the show. The song is so sweet and I am proud of the full team collaboration and heart that went in to its creation.
Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish Magazine, Capitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.