Jul 15 2019. view 309
One of the most popular musicals of all time; ‘Grease’ is a Broadway show that is known and loved by all. This year, ‘Grease’ hits Colombo as Cold Theatre 7 (CT7) brings this spectacular musical alive in special association with Theatrical Rights Worldwide at the Lionel Wendt Auditorium this August. Directed by Kevin Cruze with choreography by Umeshi Rajeendra and musical direction by Nishantha Warnakulasuriya along with some of Sri Lanka’s veteran actors – CT7 is ready to take you back in time.
And as much as Grease is about the music, it’s also about the dancing! Umeshi is the Founder and Artistic Director of Mesh Academy of Dance and Mesh Dance Theatre as well as a Visiting Dance Lecturer at the University of Visual and Performing Arts and the University of Peradeniya. Umeshi has performed and worked across the United States, mostly in New York, as a dancer, a choreographer and a collaborator. Umeshi’s Choreography incorporates elements of contemporary dance, postmodern dance, African diaspora, jazz, hip-hop and kandyan dance. In Sri Lanka, Umeshi has choreographed for Theatre Junctions’ production of Cinderella in 2017 and Asian International School’s production of Rock of Ages in 2019. ‘Grease’ is her third production.
In an exclusive interview with Daily Mirror, talks to us about what it’s like to choreograph one of the most popular Broadway shows in theatre today;
What are some of the important things you need to consider before beginning the choreography process?
It’s a long process actually. I first read through the script to get a feel of the story – what arcs are available for the character, where does it begin? Where does it end? What story does it tell? Then I try to get a sense of the structure like which song starts and how does it start? How does it build etc. Then I look into the level of talent in the sense, the dance level of the people that need to be in the number and if they are non-dancers, how do you make them all stand out? Then understanding the character; what characters are in each song and what moves would suit their characters and lastly, I’ll look at the purpose meaning the intention of each song, and the mood.
Choreography probably takes the longest to direct! When did you’ll start the choreography and what has the process been like?
So we began working with the cast towards the end of February. For Grease, I divided the choreographic process into four phases. First phase is the research phase where I researched the jive era, the 1960s to get a feel of the grooves back then, the history of each song and its lyrics, and then the Grease movie to get a sense of the types of spaces they used. During this time, I also worked with Kevin to get a sense of his vision for some of the pieces before I start. This then leads into the second phase which is me creating and developing movements into dance phrases by improvising on my body while leaving space for the dancers and actors to have their own interpretations of the movement. The third phase is where I teach all the moves and figure out what works and what doesn’t, and I allow actors to improvise based on their characters, and then finally, the last phase is where I compose, cut and chop and create the final formation of the work based on given set design.
What is the hardest part of the job?
The hardest part of choreography is also the best part and that is it goes through so many “versions” on its way to being completed. And with each you have to erase your preconceived notions and be willing to throw out things you love, while simultaneously translate the imagination into actor’s bodies that are not used to my way of working is challenging, yet equally rewarding, process. I teach, while I create, so my goal with this production was to be able to instill a new way of thinking about “practice” so that they can take it forward.
Grease has a lot of upbeat choreography. Was it challenging to put forward the energy of the dance while also keeping a steady tune with the songs?
Hmm…. yes and no. Energy comes in all shapes and forms – the body language, presence of the actors, and then how they use their efforts efficiently. I’ve encouraged them to think about these aspects when performing in order to bring out the energy that is in line with the tune of the songs. The cast have worked really hard, and have come a long way.
What song would you say has the best choreography?
This is tough to say. What is considered as “best” changes from person to person, and I look at a musical as one big choreography – each song and part is important for the next, therefore I will not able to single out one in particular as they are all contributing to each other in some form or shape. But what I can share is my favorite song from the musical – grease lightning!
You’re one of the very few professional choreographers in Sri Lanka, so what attracted you to Grease?
Working with non-dancers is something I enjoy and I love challenging myself to, especially for a musical like Grease. In addition, it’s part of my job to encourage and tap into talent as a way to help more people take this up professionally. The only way to do so is to continue working with young talent and keep showing the Sri Lankan audience what can be achieved locally if given the resources. Furthermore, I respect both the artistic director and the musical director, and collectively we want to see the arts grow. Cold Theatre 7 is built on that aspiration, and the cast has truly been wonderful to work with.
You are someone who has worked in the US arts scene and you’re currently shuffling back and forth from France for your dance career, how has that experience informed you as a musical choreographer?
Discipline and work ethic! I know what it takes and I have felt and seen the process of making it, so helping young talent through the journey of the physical life of their characters, while simultaneously helping them understand what “practice” means is something I try to bring in every day. I am tough, but for very valid reasons. Sri Lanka has a pool of talent, and we certainly can reach very high, so my goal is to keep instilling better ways of working with one another as much as possible. This cast has certainly been pushed and I am proud of how far they have come.
‘Grease’ – The Musical 2019 will take place from the 1st to the 4th of August 2019 at the Lionel Wendt Theatre. Tickets will be out soon.
Pictures by: Waruna Wanniarachchi