DIRECTOR, EDUCATOR & ADVOCATE
April 1, 2020
C = CHOREOGRAPHY
David Connolly (D) in conversation with Marc Kimelman (M) for Matinee to Z,
a series of Instagram Live Master Classes developed in response to Covid-19.
D: Hi, everybody. I’m loving this show because I get to talk to extraordinary friends and find out how they got to be so extraordinary. Friends like Marc Kimelman. For those of you who don't know, Marc is an exceptional human being, who is out to make the world a better place, and he does that sometimes through choreography. He has done choreography outright at places like Goodspeed and has a Dora Award here in Canada. You’ve had quite a year, Mr.
M: I have had a year. It's interesting to think back on it 'cause I never do, 'cause we're always thinking about what’s next... But now is a good time to reflect and I have that been really grateful over the past year for sure.
D: Well, in this past year, you became the Associate Choreographer for Jagged Little Pill.
D: There’s so much to talk about. Can you share how you got that job? Because I feel really inspired by the story.
M: It’s kind of one of those jobs that just manifested itself into my life. I've been a big Alanis fan, since I was a kid, and I heard that Diane Paulus was directing, and I had a few friends in the show out of town, in Boston, and I was like, "Okay there is no way that I'm gonna miss seeing this out of town tryout.” So I spent one night in Boston by myself and at intermission I texted my friend Kelsey, who’s the dance cabin, and said “You have to meet me in the lobby right now.” And she did… And I was like, "How did you do this, how did this happen?” I was so blown away by its message and its ambition and its execution and I thought, actually, how did they do it?
I wanted to know about the experience like I do to a lot of people whose work I feel passionate about, I reached out to the choreographer on Instagram and just said, how much I admire his work on this piece. That it was something I'd never seen in a musical theatre production before. He wrote me back within a day, lives in Belgium, and he was so grateful for that. Then I kept in touch with him, and started watching more of his work. And then I saw that they were back in New York, doing more workshops and asked if I could take him for tea or to dinner and I did, and we connected right away. He says we're energetically aligned which I love. I just kind of understood what he was saying, I understand his philosophy. And then we had tea one more time and then they needed another associate for the Broadway production. And he wrote me on Instagram and asked if it was something that I'd be interested in, and of course I jumped at the opportunity to be in the room and really see how they did it. I was even more happy that they were treating it like a new show. They had the ground work, but I really actually was able to be useful and have purpose in the room.
I really just put myself out there told somebody, how much I appreciated their work, and something in the world led me to be in that room. I remember the very first rehearsal and I thought, I'm supposed to be here. Even on the first preview I said to one of the producers, whether I was involved in this production or not, I would be here tonight, I would be at this first public preview, I believe in this show so much. And it was just amazing that I got to see it through to the opening.
D: Okay, okay, is everybody listening to that story? He reached out through Instagram to express his appreciation and respect. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend. And Marc, it is so in your lane, it just was meant to be, everything you're saying.
M: Yeah, absolutely meant to me. And the world works in mysterious ways, but it was a completely authentic extension of my love and admiration and it came back to become one of the most incredible experiences in my life.
D: Can you tell us a little about what an associate does?
M: Yeah, I love being an associate. I feel like the associate wears many hats. The first time I was associate was for Sergio Trujillo, another Canadian choreographer and he really taught me the ins of being a creative helper, like somebody that you can bounce ideas off of, somebody who's gonna come to the choreographer with ideas, make sure that our work is really organized and then also being really clear with other departments, and make sure that my boss, the choreographer, can really focus on the creative and not have to worry about the other logistical things that I could take care of to allow him or her to really work with the director to put the show up and then I can take things off their plate that involve costumes or props or backstage traffic or stage management or things like that.
I remember Sergio sending me to every department. I learned so much about every department from being an associate, and now when I choreograph, I can talk to those departments with so much more confidence.
D: A theme that keeps coming up in these talks is this idea of apprenticeship in what we do and how especially in choreography, there's not really a place to go learn how to do that. There’s not a course you can take that I know of anyway, correct me if I'm wrong viewers. So I think what you're saying is so important - that if you get to apprentice or assist or volunteer, that is the best training for when it's your turn to create. Then you're right, you have a language that isn't available to you any other way.
M: Yes, absolutely. And actually, you said to me once, when I was asking about, "Should I go to back to school?” 'cause I had my BA in Psychology and a diploma in Business and thought, "Oh I need to learn more about this craft." And you said just jump in, you're like, just dive in and you'll figure it out. And I was terrified but I did just that. I just took opportunities and became a yes person. You learn through testing yourself and you realize “I can do this” and if I have a question, I'll just ask somebody, and they'll explain it to me because we're all there to support one another.
I applied so many times to an observership program through SDC and was denied again and again, and then the one that I got was for the New York City Ballet, and I don't come from a ballet background so I was like, "Should I even take this?” But I was like, "Of course I'm gonna take this.” And Lynn Taylor Corbett was the director/ choreographer. Patti LuPone was the featured singer and it was danced by the New York City Ballet and I spent the first few days, literally sitting in a corner taking notes until they needed somebody to step in for something and I just slowly proved my worth in the room and became a full-on assistant within a week and I was giving Patti LuPone notes and I was up on stage and offering suggestions and coming into my own in an environment that I felt like I knew nothing about. But you realize that you can be an asset anywhere because you're open and you're adaptable, and you're creative and you’re listening and staying in your lane. But the observership was a great schooling for me, talking about education, that was a great opportunity for me to learn the ropes.
D: Here’s a question. When was the moment in your career when you decided to make the switch from performing to only creative. Did you do both for a while?
M: Yeah, great question. I liked performing. And David gave me a lot of opportunities but I realized quickly that I didn't get the same thrill as my peers and that I actually wanted to be part of the problem-solving that was going on on the other side of the table. I would hear questions and I would be biting my lip, but also thinking, "I think I know how to solve this spacing issue,” or, "I think this transition could be tighter and if this went before that…” and I was just paying more attention to that than probably my own track. But I did do a lot of performance work and a lot of it was to work with directors who I looked up to. My time at Stratford was unbelievable, because I got to work with amazing directors and choreographers who are still mentors to this day. When I moved to New York, I had the idea, that I would only choreograph or at least go for that specifically and the city was very welcoming to me and just because I guess it wasn't in my blood, it wasn't hard to give up performing.
D: That it seems like a pretty natural transition for most people because for some, like me, you get to a point where performing is too hard. The dancing thing is hard work.
M: Honestly, like I could do a show once. Larbi, the choreographer said, “I’d love to see you in the show, in Jagged Little Pill” and man, that it would feel so great. It is a show that, as a performer I’d want to do, but eight times a week? And then again the next week and the next? You dancers are incredible athletes and I have nothing but immense respect for all of you.
D: Question: Could you both speak about the processes about the differences between being a choreographer working with the director versus being a director and choreographer.
M: Yeah, you wanna go?
D: I love both. I think they’re entirely different but the core is the same: story. story, story, story, story. As a choreographer, how is everything that moves impacting the story? I need to make sure I’m on the same page as my collaborator as far as story (and also allow room for both of us to be wrong) And then, when I'm directing and choreographing, same thing, story, story, story, but the arguments I'm having are with myself.
M: Yeah, I get bored of myself, I guess. And it's like, I’ve worked with so many directors, you included on Newsies last summer, who make my choreography better. People who can remind me of certain missed opportunities or like you said, story. I remember working with you back in the day, and I think it was Miss Saigon maybe... And you let me set this a tiny section and you said Why? Why is this happening now? And does it support the story?
Sometimes I'll just want to dance, but then you'll have to ask yourself why. And sometimes I really want that director to edit me.
D: I will say that choreographers who are working with directors, are also directors. Now, it's different with every collaboration, it's different with every partnership... Everyone's gonna have different wants and needs as skill sets. But a choreographer is also directing those dances meaning you're going to advance the story and those characters shouldn’t do anything that those characters wouldn't or shouldn't do to support whatever the story is.
When starting a piece for a musical Marc, where do you start?
M: It’s always the text. I like to read it as a monologue, the lyrics and really understand what's going on. And then of course, it's the music. But I remember for one example, Billy Elliott last summer, my director asked me if I could narrow each piece down to one word, what would that mean? It was unbelievable, it was a great challenge and then I really just came up with a mantra for each song and then any time I would get lost, I would just go back to those words. And then we got to Electricity, the director was like, “Okay, so, this is all the words back to back.” And I was like, that is an amazing journey, and I was able to really section off that dance so that it felt like each of those stepping stones that it took for this character to get to this place was clear.
Something like Man of La Mancha that I did at Stratford… I did a lot of research on the time period,, I thought about what their musical influences would be. I took a lot of Flamenco classes and then I just started to forget about it and do what I do with that information in the back of my brain. Just to make sure that I was really still bringing my point of view to the story. So it often depends on the director I'm working with and hearing how he or she likes to work and the vision they might have for it, but I'll do a lot of work on myself and then I'll get into a studio and put the song on. Sometimes I freestyle and film myself because sometimes my first instinct is really correct it and then I go back to that video sometimes and be like, "Oh that must have felt right for a reason.”
Sometimes when you break things down to counts, you lose that spirit. Then, I usually like to come in with 70% done and then allow the rest of it to be a collaboration. I want to be inspired by the actors and see what I can bring up from them. Newsies was a lot of that, was a lot of who are these boys? How do they represent their physicality, what makes them feel confident, what makes them vulnerable? So a lot of that can't happen until you're in rehearsal but because we all think at such short rehearsal times, I like to know that I have things in my back pocket
D: Yeah, yeah, yeah I think sometimes we underestimate our intuition and get bogged down and imprisoned by whatever…counts or perfectionism … and we underestimate that we've been around long enough and have experienced enough that we have inspiration to draw on. There’s something in the bank, we don't have to start from scratch every time.
M: OK what's your advice for an aspiring choreographer?
D: Volunteer and do not be attached to fame or credit or money. Which is in no way saying that the services aren’t valuable. But I knew I couldn't get to where I wanted without having more knowledge, and the only way that I could get that knowledge was to be in the room, and most of the time, there wasn't a line item for me in the budget. So I was in many rooms in a corner, just watching, which led me to have the confidence to go into the next room and say, "Oh no, no, I've been here before. I'm not going to shut down out of anxiety because I don't know or I haven't lived this.”
I worked on Miss America because I stalked the choreographer. It was Anita Mann for those who remember, and I said, “Listen, I want to be there. I will fly myself there, I will house myself. I will carry your notebook, I will carry your coffee, I will do whatever it takes. 'cause I wanted to know about live television, so badly.”
M: I love that. I think it's partly the same - just get yourself in the room. Offer yourself to pre-production. That is a big way I also stalked people. I remember stalking Tracy Flye for years and I would reach out literally every few months. Three sentence email. I love what you did in this show this is what I'm up to. If you ever need anybody, let me know. You never know when it's good timing and that person is like... Andy Blankenbuehler and Steven Haggett, like dream goals would write back and say the timing is perfect, I need somebody tomorrow at 10 AM.
Also, I suggest working on your own content, figuring out what your point of view is as an individual. So, I would just challenge myself every week: I'm gonna create content, whether I put it out there or not, every week find a song that challenges me, that I would never use and get into a studio for an hour by myself or with friends and try something with nothing attached to it. There's no show attached to it, there's no money attached to it. I just wanted to see what I had to say. And I would do that every week for a while, with songs I loved and songs I didn’t… to figure out what my point of view as a choreographer was, and then I would watch those things back and be like, "Oh I do things like that a lot and I really like that and how that builds and how that doesn’t" and now, sometimes people see my work and are like, Oh I can tell it's “Kimelman” or whatever, but I never really know what that means.
D: You wanna segue into our challenge?
M: I’m going to call this the everyday challenge. Do something you do every day, but I want you to invent choreography for it, so whether it's getting out of bed in the morning, whether it's cooking, whether it's brushing your teeth… see if you can make a dance from it, and something I also tell people to do in auditions all the time is to spell your name with your body. If you get lost in movement start spelling your name with your body because it'll force you to move in a different way. The sooner that you can get out of the mindset of “I only do these things.” Well, that's bullshit. You do so many other things that you don't realize you just have to try.
Maybe find a song like you said, David, that is hopeful to the world right now and just create content, just make it and it doesn't mean you have to share with anybody but yourself, but maybe you want to, or maybe you'll try it again in a week and will feel better and you'll be inspired in a different way but... And maybe you don't want it, and that's totally fine, too,
D: Yes, friends. We want people to create and move and not be afraid. And if you think that you're not a dancer, or you think that you're not a choreographer and you’re stuck inside all these labels and things - now we have nothing but time to try to break down those really negative labels about something someone told you once and you believed them.
There are a lot of questions coming in.. Do you go for technique or personality? Do you go for actors over dancers? And my answer to that is that it's just someone’s subjective opinion, it's just an opinion and it's not personal. And if we go through life making these opinions personal, we will definitely eventually shut down.
M: Right now we have this time to be on pause, especially living in New York, especially in this business, when everyone’s always like, What's next? What’s next? The world is saying stop for a second, be authentic to yourself and maybe you can find something deeper within. You know who you are, right now and not have to be anything that anybody thinks you should be because we're all in this together, but we have time on hands right now. Just to be truthful to yourself, and that's it. So I don't know, I feel like this time could be useful creatively and personally.
D: I think we get in this rut, or in this lane but maybe it’s not who you are today, it may be who you were in college or who you were in grade 6. We're gonna come out of the other end of this with such resilience, that is going to impact this work that we do in such major ways. It gives me goose bumps.
M: That’s very beautifully said.
D: There’s a question about the organic nature of Jagged Little Pill, I guess. Are you allowed to talk about the groceries?
M: David is talking about song called Smiling, which if you listen, is a very gorgeous, sweet, earnest song and simple, and the choreographer had an idea to do the entire number backwards while being sung forwards.
So we go through a day in the life of our main character, MJ. But the entire thing is done backwards, because she has taken a new step in her life - that everything's gonna be different from now on. And that was one of those numbers that I saw for the first time and I was like... How did you actually do this?
And our choreographer who is a great friend and mentor now, forever, had this idea, and a lot of us can have these ambitious ideas, but how do we actually execute them? So, he really used the people in the room to create moments and improvisations, to see what would happen in the day and then create it backwards. I would get so stressed out. I've never been more stressed out at work on a number. Anytime we would start working on it, I would just be lost and Larbi would come up to me and put his hand on me and say, “Mark, just do it forwards first.” And I was like, okay, so I do something forwards and then I would do a backwards. It's a very bizarre thing, but every time I watch that number now, I think it's a masterpiece. He just went for something not knowing how it would work.
We have a lot of pressure with time. People often say like, “Okay, do this number, you have until 4 O’clock.” But you have to not be scared to take risks in those moments to be like “This might not be perfect," and that's okay. I'm gonna go for this, because it's worth it and I might totally fail, but we're gonna try as best we can, as long as everybody's on board. And we tried this thing and it was the hardest thing and everyone was stressed out. And then you look at it and even now when I go see the show whenever it's over I pace back and forth 'cause my mind is blown and it never loses it's power to me.
And he really gave himself the time to create through trial and error, through everyone, and it was good that it didn't work the first time. So many times I'm like, "Oh I want everyone to like it, right away. I want the dancers to feel good in it right away,” but that's not always the case. You want people to be challenged, you wanna be puzzled you want everyone to have to work together towards this common goal, and just be the captain of the ship. And allow us to make mistakes to make it better. So, he really challenged my instincts, doing that piece really challenged my instincts and I'm so grateful for it.
D: It is a master piece. I think that... and the number on the couch are transcendent. I just had never, in all of the musicals I've ever seen, experienced that. So again, if you haven't seen that show people, get there as soon as you can.
M: And speaking of ‘organic nature,’ a lot of that is allowing yourself to be present in the moment and working with what’s in front of you and letting that be the right response. I remember a lot of people would be like, "Oh well, what was the step before? What was it last time we did it?” And Larbi would say to me, "Let's think about what it is now.” It's important to have a memory, but let's just be really present and not overly prepared all the time, and just let yourself be there with each other and not be like “Here, are the steps, stand on this number go.” But I think that's why the show just feels different after 10 minutes. You're like something's different about this, and it is in that organic presentation of choreography. So thanks for that question.
D: Yeah, and I think that speaks very well to a few questions we've had about being in an audition or how to learn choreography and not retaining choreography very well… and I think that my answer to that is exactly what Mark has said, which is to be present, just stay present, because as soon as you get caught up in the gerbil wheel of “I'm wrong, I'm not good enough, This is going badly…”, then it's just going to exponentially get worse and you're gonna have no chance, but if you can just take a deep breath and control, alt, delete whatever just happen and try to just be in the room. And I think that's partly my answer to your question Christine... So what do you think, Mark, about Christine's question? Do you have any tricks for getting out of a choreography to block, whether starting a piece or losing momentum in the middle of the piece?
M: Begin. Just do anything. It happens all the time and I just think and think and think and I'm lost, and I don't know anything but just start something 'cause I bet the first things you do, aren't gonna be potentially connected or confident, but it will allow yourself to work through that and then find yourself again. I swear that’s the only thing that has worked for me - just get in a studio and start even if you have nothing and no idea is just begin.
D: And I think part of it too is to go back to story. For me when I get stuck, I usually have lost site of the menu of things that could be going on with these people. When is it? What are they watching on television? What just happened in the news this morning, what happened to their kid, what happened to their cat, what was in their inbox? It's always gonna be driven by a really human condition of what in the imagination could be possible. And then I get to imagine how those feelings would make them move. That's always super helpful is to go back to the humanity of who they are and when they are and why they can... Blah blah...
Any advice for people who have asthma or extra weight where sometimes you have to take a breather and don't want our dancing to way down in our career.
M: Yeah, I'd say be empowered by those things that you might think are weaknesses. Use them as your strengths, that is who you are, and that's a great thing. All we want are real people on stage all I wanna see is humanity. We come in all ships and sizes and I get so bored if I'm looking at anything that looks the same because that’s not the world.
So be aware of these things, be safe and be proud also.
D: And be in communication. I think that a lot of times people have this preconceived notion of what the creative wants or what they're expecting. When in fact we need you to let us know what is possible for you, whatever that means. We talked about body positivity last class and it's really about where the onus lies and the answer for me is: everyone. Every single person involved has responsibility to share what is possible for them. If you've got a list of things, share before the first day. As soon as you can, just be like, "Hey I can't do this, but I can do that if that's helpful.” We're gonna work at fire baton into that number if you do five baton.
M: But so many people create in their heads, before they walk into the audition room. You think you know what they're looking for and that is never the case. And sometimes all people want is to be surprised by something new and inspired by a new idea. Seeing Bruce Dow as the MC in Cabaret, and seeing anyone in Jagged Little Pill. You don't know what you have, until you put your best foot forward. And really embrace everything, you have to offer - fire baton included.
D: OK - so go stan Marc Kimelman if you don’t already. What’s the piece called on the chairs?
D: Watch that - it will change your life. There's also a sizzle reel of his Billy Elliot which is mind-blowing, it's so next level amazing. And I guess another little piece of advice is if you're looking to become a choreographer, then you should be seeking role-models to find out as much as you can about the people that you respect. And it's all available online, including their resumes. Many of them are online through their agencies. Go see how they did this, what their path was. There's lots of resources out there to guide us, that we maybe don't always access to the best of our ability.
K, bye Marc.
M. I’m so grateful to meet all these beautiful people and connecting to each of you. Please remember to move. It reminds me, who I am, because that's how I've always been able to communicate. So when you feel ready, I say Get up and start moving.