Our Buzz Extra writer, Alicia Hansen had the exciting opportunity to interview Michele Lynch, the Dirty Dancing tour choreographer. As part of our Broadway Buzz program, Alicia will take you behind the scenes of each KeyBank Broadway Series show and interview a member of the show’s cast, crew or creative team.
With the arrival of Dirty Dancing in Cleveland this month as a part of the 2014-2015 KeyBank Broadway Series, Northeastern Ohioans are already enjoying this theatrical re-telling of the 1987 film. From the memorable soundtrack to the classic story now on stage, audiences are captivated by the choreography set to tunes such as “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey Baby,” and “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.” The tour’s choreographer, Michele Lynch, shares some insight on her own path as a professional in the field while giving Clevelanders a look into the process of bringing this piece from the screen to the stage.
How did you discover dance, and how did it and the theater become a part of the path that lead to where you are today?
I took an unconventional route by starting later than most in this profession. I saw a show that inspired me and I felt like it spoke my language. I thought, “I’m going to be a choreographer,” even though I had never taken a dance class. I knew I wanted to choreograph, so I just started taking classes and then fell in love with it. I started as a dancer – landing my first job at Disney. I made my way to Broadway, then started assisting choreographers. I have been choreographing on my own for about the past ten to twelve years.
I went to school for something else, but made my way back to dance. I always think that if people want something badly enough, it just comes back to them. I tried to quit many times but it always came back because deep down, I just loved it. So I just started pursuing it. That is really the heart of what drives me and got me to where I am today.
It must have been intimidating working on such an iconic piece, especially Dirty Dancing. Can you speak to your process about the creation of the choreography: how you can be your creative self while honoring an existing piece, but making it something new at the same time?
I actually found this to be one of the most enjoyable and educational experiences: not in any way that you would normally expect, but because I had to put my ego aside. I think years ago I would have never said yes because I feel like I loved the movie so much and it spoke to me so much. There was a template that had been set because the movie was so iconic, and the stage version had been done before about ten years ago with an Australian choreographer. We were making it new for the US and were creating a cut-down version with new songs and new music, but I would still have to use some existing choreography.
I had tricked myself into thinking that this was going to be one of most challenging things I would ever have to do, and it really wasn’t. I just had to remember that I had to get out of my own way. Going into it completely egoless and just serving the piece freed me up in the most creative way and enabled me to just be there for all the right reasons. I thought it had been that way on other projects, but that reaching that level in this process was pretty remarkable to me. It was such a great experience.
I think this movie makes it okay to dance, to dance in a sexy way and to fall in love doing it. That is why it is such a huge hit because dancing is such a primal thing that we all do and this movie just normalizes it in a way. Also, I think it empowered men to be cool as dancers. There can be a stigma to dance and it is something I experienced in pursuing it.
As the show is up and running, touring throughout the world, how does your role as choreographer continue to come into play?
I do not tour with the company, but I do check on it periodically. I do enjoy visiting the tour when it is out on the road. We have two dance captains that look after it. They are so good at maintaining the specifics. They are in the show, and have a couple parts, so they are often busy.
Things can change gradually without anyone noticing because they are “in” it every single day, so they do not notice the movement of the slightest inch. But an inch over three months? I am going to notice. I see those changes, so I go in and I try to re-inspire the company, adjusting as needed or changing it back to what it was. For example, we have so many lifts through partner work in the show and it’s been taking a toll on the guys. We are in the process of modifying and taking out some lifts, and so I will work with the dance captains on how we keep the intention in tact while the show’s dynamics change.
That is the big picture, but it is a lot of storytelling. Everything is driven by the story. Sometimes the performers just need a reminder of why they are in a number, and a fresh eye to come and talk to them.
Are there specific moments of the show that are favorites for you? For the audience?
The part that gets me every time is when we go into “Do You Love Me?” and the first time the audience sees the dirty dancing. It is in your face. It is exciting and thrilling. I have worked on so many shows in theater where you are not allowed to dance like that. There is a style to it – a technique even. We’ve taken it to another level, which you don’t always get to see in any other show. I love to be in the audience and feel the audience – especially if you’re in a very conservative city and perhaps an older demographic that wasn’t exposed to this type of dance in their day – get a little uncomfortable, but also see them enjoy it at the same time.
Of course, the moment everyone looks forward to is when Johnny lifts Baby during the last dance number. That iconic lift at the end, to this day – even when I see the show or rehearsing it – is still exciting to me. That excitement never fails – even though you know it is coming – because it is not easy! It is as hard as it looks. It is always thrilling when that goes up, every night, even during rehearsal. I remember when we were in Australia with our very first audience, the actors playing Baby and Johnny did not get the lift, and the audience screamed, “try it again!” They tried it three times and they did not get it! It was devastating. Even when they were taking their bows, there were people around us saying, “try the lift!” You know if it does not work, there is a part of them that does not feel satisfied, so that last scene seems like the most important thing in the show.
What makes Dirty Dancing stand out from everything else that you worked on over the years?
I love that it was different from anything else that I had ever done. I think it is unlike anything you will ever see because it is not in typical theater format. It’s not your typical musical. It’s a theatricalized version of the movie. Baby and Johnny do not sing, so people who expect a musical in that way can get disappointed. We were making new rules in storytelling and parts of the story that didn’t make the movie are on stage. I think that is unique.
Also, working on a show that has been done before is another way Dirty Dancing stands out in my career. I’ve done productions like Little House on the Prairie and Happy Days, but those were shows that didn’t have iconic choreography that came with them. So I was able to invent it, but that comes with expectations. You have to be sure you meet those expectations, so that can be challenging. But I think we do – the audience reaction is unlike any show I’ve ever been on. They go nuts!
Dirty Dancing plays in Cleveland March 3 – 22 at the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square. For more information, please visit the show’s page on the Playhouse Square website.
Alicia Hansen is the writer behind Poise in Parma, a healthy balance blog for Clevelanders. A graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College’s theatre program, Alicia is a yoga teacher at Evolution Yoga, an event and marketing professional and proud Northeast Ohio arts supporter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.