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Three of the five characters in the bandaged place are dancers: Jonah, his daughter Ella, and her dance teacher Sam. Toward the end of the play there is a moment where the story progresses, but there is no dialogue. The stage directions read:

(Music. JONAH and RUBEN begin to move. They come together. They pull apart. It is a romance. It is a struggle. Eventually, JONAH dispels RUBEN. ELLA appears. JONAH watches her dance. It concludes with an elaborate bow. Then JONAH, finally free, dances alone. It is virtuosic.)

In those stage directions, playwright Harrison David Rivers describes a series of thoughts and decisions being made wordlessly by the characters. While there are no big song and dance numbers in the play as you might see in a musical, movement is an elevated facet of the storytelling because of its importance to the characters and their worlds.

Even when dance and movement are not specific plot points, movement or choreography is a foundational part of every piece of theatre. Recently, choreography and movement have been increasingly present in plays as a tool to further the plot, deepen or reveal more about a character, or to creatively tell a part of the story. Beyond plays, choreography in musicals has seen a transformation in its style and sensibility. It is indicative of the interconnectedness of art forms and a trend towards multidisciplinary artists refusing to be boxed into one field. What was once a single facet of an actor’s training is being valued in a different way.

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Movement as an Actor’s Tool

The body is an actor's primary instrument, one an audience may take for granted. In An Actor Prepares, Constantin Stanislavski articulates this importance:

As long as you have this physical tenseness you cannot even think about delicate shadings of feeling or the spiritual life of your part. Consequently, before you attempt to create anything it is necessary for you to get your muscles in proper condition, so that they do not impede your actions.

Movement is so fundamental to theatrical storytelling that there are several acting methods or tools that center around it. For example, Rudolf Laban identified eight different ways, or “efforts,” of moving and the sensations they incite. He himself was a choreographer and dancer and his method was initially a tool for dancers. In the 1980s and ‘90s actors began using it to explore character and to differentiate themselves from the character. The eight efforts Laban identified are: wring, press, flick, dab, glide, float, punch, and slash. These concepts that are grounded in movement can be used to extend an actor’s understanding and thus embodiment of a character.

Another example of movement training is Mary Overlie’s Six Viewpoints. Overlie, a dance and theatre artist and teacher, articulated six pillars an artist can use to explore how they interact with their space. An acronym for the Six Viewpoints is SSTEMS: space, shape, time, tempo, emotion, and story. When used in conjunction with one another, an actor can create a comprehensive profile of their character based on how they move in relation to their environment and scene partners.

There are many other examples of techniques and methods that prioritize how bodies move in a space to tell a story. Movement and choreography are inherently intertwined with theatrical storytelling. When theatre artists open themselves up to utilizing it beyond the natural extension of a character’s intention and motivation, it adds another layer with which the audience can engage and make meaning.

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Movement and Choreography in Plays

The infusion of choreography into a play can serve a few purposes within a piece. Here are four examples from the past five years: Teenage Dick, Skeleton Crew, Toni Stone, and Choir Boy.

Teenage Dick is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III, set in an American high school. The titular character is bullied for his cerebral palsy and creates a revenge-fueled plan to win the senior class presidency. Part of this plan includes manipulating cool-girl Anne into being his date for the Sadie Hawkins dance. This is where choreography comes in. Anne gently guides and teaches Dick how to dance, how to work with his body as opposed to against it. The choreography here is an entry point for the audience to not only see the protagonist soften for the first time, but also to answer a question they might not have even realized they had: what is it like to live in a disabled body? Anne tactfully asks the question as they dance, and he responds “You know how sometimes in winter, when you’re about to slip on an ice patch you didn’t know was there, you, like, brace yourself before you’re about to slip on the ice? Well, that is what it’s like for me all the time.” A highly guarded character lets his guard down while dancing.

In the 2016 Off-Broadway and 2022 Broadway productions of Skeleton Crew Adesola Osakalumi was a performer and choreographer. He did not appear in any of the scenes of the play, but instead wove the scenes together by dancing between scenes. The play, which is set in 2008, follows a group of auto workers in Detroit navigating the impending closure of their factory. Osakalumi is simply billed as “Performer” but he is really an embodiment of the factory and its workers. He notes that director Ruben Santiago-Hudson wanted to nod to both the auto industry and the musical legacy of Detroit while showing the Black body at work through dance. When asked by Dance Magazine what the importance of dance was to this piece, Osakalumi responded: “Two reasons: The energy of the piece – it’s set in Detroit, it’s a natural extension of the music, culture, spirit. And, the rote, repetitive nature of a stamping plant. There are parallels between the rote, repetitive nature of people studying dance and training.”

Roundabout’s 2019 production of Toni Stone featured the work of Camille A. Brown, who worked in dance before crossing over into theatre. The play is based on the real-life story of Toni Stone, one of the first women to play professional baseball in the all-male Negro League. In a play about baseball, the athleticism of its players and the action of a game is central. Brown utilized pantomime and dance to suggest some of the familiar movements of the sport rather than simply mimicking it. The sensibility of a choreographer can infuse the physical nature of sport with emotion in order to tell a story.

Choir Boy is a play with music, so dance was perhaps a more natural addition than in other examples. The 2019 Broadway production was also choreographed by Camille A. Brown. In an interview with Deadline, she recalls her reaction to the piece when she was first brought on board.

When I was hearing the spirituals [in Choir Boy] I was thinking about the historical context of them because they’re over 200 years old, but then looking at the men [in the cast] and how they are walking in life in 2019. I thought that this Juba, Step, South African Gumboot felt like a really good thing I could contribute to the work.

Her thoughtful consideration of which styles of dance would organically complement the storytelling and enhance the audience’s experience of the characters was highly effective. One review noted “A pair of step sequences choreographed by Camille A. Brown rivetingly captures the confinements of a school supposedly striving to maximize its students’ eventual freedom,” and after the cast performed on the Tony Awards ®, The New York Times critic Jesse Green reflected that it “...was a stark and beautiful reminder that music and dance are forms of drama, not to be kept in separate cages.”

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The Place of Dance in Drama

While Jesse Green’s reflection on not separating these art forms was in reference to a piece that already included music, it can be applied to other pieces where a dance sequence is more surprising – like in Teenage Dick, Skeleton Crew, or Toni Stone. These plays not only showcase a variety of ways choreography can be woven into a play but also center stories and voices that have not been a part of the canon. Perhaps the American theatre’s reckoning with its history of excluding stories outside of the white, able-bodied experience has led to a broader concept of how stories are told. Artists like Camille A. Brown now provide a model for moving freely between two professional worlds. Limits and demarcations are being knocked down. This moment of change and expansion is creating environments where artists can feel empowered to tell their stories by whatever medium feels right – even if that means mixing and matching forms. Just looking at the examples above, it is evident that dance is a tool that can invite an audience to get to know a character or a world better. It will be exciting to see where the theatre boldly goes next.

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Evans, Greg. “Choreographer Camille A. Brown Brought The Dance To ‘Choir Boy’ And Representation To Broadway – Tony Watch Q&A.Deadline. 6 June 2019.

Green, Jesse. “The Best and Worst of the 2019 Tony Awards.” The New York Times. June 10, 2019.

Woltman, Suzy. "Laban Movement Analysis: An Introduction for Actors." Backstage. 18 July 2022.

Wingenworth, Lauren. “This Double-Billed Performer/Choreographer Is Bringing a Surprising Amount of Dance to Broadway’s Newest Play.Dance Magazine. 11 Feb. 2022.