When I think of the phrase ‘theatre dance’ it conjures images of Lycra-clad dance exams as a child. The syllabus was designed to “reflect the choreography seen in musical theatre” but it was nothing like the art form I’ve come to know and love (it consisted mostly of ‘parallel arm swings’ and the odd drag run). Somehow, I don’t think that was the ‘theatre dance’ that Drew McOnie had envisioned when he talked about how he wants to see “just how far musical theatre choreography can go” in his press release for The McOnie Company last year. But, it got me thinking (he’s a clever one for provoking excessive thought that McOnie). Why is that a phrase that I haven’t seen outside childhood dance exams? Those two words should be able to marry together – they both seemingly rely on the other for their shared success – but you never see them combined.

In fact, after Drew brought it to my attention, I realised that most theatres/arts venues direct you to search separate ‘theatre’ and ‘dance’ productions. No wonder there is a gap that needs to be bridged – before you even know what you want to see you’re encouraged to choose one or the other. If we exclude the wide variety of styles for a moment and just think about ‘musical theatre’ compared with ‘contemporary’, it’s apparent that there is a gap between the audiences and dancers alike. Intrigued by this, I did a bit of research on some perceptions of contemporary and musical theatre dance. This post’s title was inspired by the number of stereotypical responses I received regarding musical theatre – and is also fitting as Drew McOnie recently choreographed ‘Chicago’ at Leicester Curve.  I asked (I shall deem them) ‘normal’ people who don’t dance, and are potential audience members, as well as dancers from both disciplines. Here’s a selection of responses:

WARNING: If you’re a proud musical theatre/contemporary dancer and are easily offended don’t read the next bit.

On contemporary:

“Choreographed movement that explores contemporary behaviours and situations, often in great depth”

“Rolling on the floor, weird music and basically becoming a contortionist”

“Like pop music dancing? There’s a type of dancing I like that might be contemporary – it’s kinda arty, like tells a story”

“Where Musical Theatre is music led, contemporary dance is movement led…”

“A fine art”

“Rejection, inversion, collaboration, innovation, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch”

“A bit like energetic mime”

On musical theatre: 

“Jazz hands, step ball changes and kicks”

“Musical Theatre dance has always appeared to me to be two dimensional and too happy, just not real. But having said that I roll around the floor for a living!”

“Jazz hands and kick lines”

“Musical theatre dance may differ drastically from one show and even number within it because it’s bound to the music it is set to”

“A bit jazz hands…but I don’t always think that’s a bad thing”

“Cheap and cheesy”

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Please don’t get offended by this either.

Both forms (of art – need I remind you?) took a pretty impressive bashing there. However, I also had some glorious responses which are exactly what I was hoping to hear: How the bridge is getting smaller, “styles are changing and more contemporary and commercial influences are coming in [to musical theatre]”, and how the difference is only due to “theatre economics [as] musical theatre is largely conservative”. One summarised my thoughts entirely though, saying that “[musical theatre] shouldn’t be a term, because it isn’t one genre…it should be any dance that tells the story”, because of course all theatre, at its core, exists to tell a story. Plays tell a story, musicals tell a story, ballets tell a story, operas tell a story and contemporary dances tell a story! There shouldn’t be a gap to be bridged as all these art forms share this common goal whilst trying to entertain (by showing off their jazz hands or technique of rolling on the floor). I don’t know about you, but I am comforted by these responses and some even warmed my heart. One in particular said: “I don’t think there is any difference in anything we all do. It’s just different interpretations, we are all entertainers and slaves to our dream”. As Elaine Stritch likes to say: I’ll drink to that!

Which brings me nicely back round to the work of The McOnie Company. Their latest production ‘Drunk’ is aiming to “sit directly in the middle between musical theatre and pure dance”¹ and bring together the two ends of the dance world and their respective audiences. You’ll have to go and see the piece for yourself to decide if the two can marry together. I most certainly think they can and if anyone is going make it happen, it’ll be Drew McOnie. So get down to the Bridewell Theatre between the 5th of February and the 1st of March to see what all the fuss is about. I look forward to checking back with my ‘normal’ people and dancers to see what they think of this new ‘theatre dance’ happy medium. And as The McOnie Company say: “get ready; it’s going to be “theatre dance under the influence”.

– Happy Drinking! (aka attending ‘Drunk’)

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“Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it and the reaction will be passionate”

– Rebecca Ridout

¹Taken from the Evening Standard article by Lyndsey Winship – Read HERE

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