I Could Make the Chicks Dance

I often rave about our choreographer Robin Berger's work – and so do the critics – but I rarely get the chance to talk about why she's so great and why her work fits New Line so perfectly.

Robin has been choreographing for us since The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 2003. She's also choreographed New Line's productions of Reefer Madness, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Urinetown, High Fidelity, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Spelling Bee, The Wild Party, Evita, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Cry-Baby.

What makes her work special, and distinct from most of the theatre choreographers in the area, is that it always comes from character and story first. Always. Robin never – and I mean never – just puts steps together. Like Bob Fosse did, she approaches choreography as a storyteller more than as a dancer. Every move, every turn of the head is about something. She knows when the dance should look less polished and more spontaneous. She knows when everyone on stage should be in perfect sync but also when everyone on stage should be moving in their own individual way. She can get as vulgar as I can (and we both love doing that) and every bit as funny. But she can also create beautiful, wonderful moments that can take an audience's breath away. I'll never forget "Jackie's Last Dance" in The Wild Party. Really stunning. She can be both incredibly subtle and monstrously outrageous – the memory of the Reefer Madness dance number with Jesus and the nuns will forever make me giggle. Likewise the Indian orgy in High Fidelity. And significantly, she knows how to make men look masculine doing choreography, something many choreographers just don't know how to do.

Unlike too many other choreographers, Robin understands when dance is primary, when it's secondary to some other element, and when it's just background or atmosphere. In High Fidelity, most of the choreography Robin has done for us is essentially rock and roll back-up moves; in several cases, the people dancing are not the focus of the song. And Robin has no ego about that – she understands exactly how and why the dance fits. She serves the story.

She understands that it should always look like these characters are dancing, not like dancers are doing a show-off piece to convince you what a genius the choreographer is. Part of what delighted me about Robin's six numbers in The Wild Party was how brilliantly she can choreograph big, wild, thrilling numbers with very few trained dancers. With only occasional exceptions, when we're casting a show – even one with a lot of dance – we don't look for dancers. Hopefully, we end up with two or three, but we mostly want actors who move well, who can learn a combination, etc. We almost never want to create Leads and Chorus; we want to create a true ensemble. If there are fifteen people onstage, none of them is unimportant. And people like Madelaine True and the D'Armano Brothers (in The Wild Party) would not be trained dancers, so if they look that way on stage, that diminishes the reality we're trying to create to tell this story. Sometimes, Robin will literally tell the actors that she doesn't want precision, that a dance should look loose, spontaneous, even messy. I remember with Grease, it was really important to her that the Burger Palace Boys did not look like dancers when they did "Greased Lightning." It was exactly the right choice.

There are two revivals on Broadway right now that don't understand that, two shows in fact that Robin choreographed for New Line. These new Broadway productions of both Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita are just chock full of big, impressive, high energy dance numbers that look like they came out of a TV variety show, rather than being the language of this particular story. The dances don't advance the storytelling or reveal character; they just stop the show to impress us. Yuck! If I wanted that, I could go see Riverdance.

Which I would never do.

What Robin knows that too many choreographers working in New York don't know is that it's not about the choreographer. It's about the storytelling. Robin never gets in the way of the storytelling. And I mean never.

In short, she's just a really fucking good choreographer. And while all of the conceptual things above are important, it's also true that her dance numbers always look great. As good as she is at storytelling, she's also a hell of a entertainer. Here's what the critics think...

On Cry-Baby – Mark Bretz of the Ladue News said, “Cry-Baby rocks the room with an effervescent energy, exploding across the stage through an array of dazzling moves choreographed by Robin Michelle Berger.” Judith Newmark wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch“Berger's jailhouse romp, which sends the men rushing helter-skelter through the small theater, proves you don't need a big house to create a big effect.” Bob Wilcox at KDHX said, “Robin Michelle Berger's choreography peaks magnificently with the riotous ‘A Little Upset’ number for the men.” Chris Gibson at BroadwayWorld wrote, “It’s wonderfully directed, smartly choreographed, and marvelously acted.”

On Two Gentlemen of Verona – Steve Callahan at KDHX said, “And the dancing! It's the best I've seen in a long while at New Line. Choreographer Robin Michelle Berger does wonders.” Chris Gibson at BroadwayWorld, wrote, “Robin Michelle Berger's choreography enlivens the proceedings while bringing in the little bit of the Age of Aquarius that it demands.” Mark Bretz at the Ladue News wrote, “Robin Michelle Berger contributes the upbeat choreography, which adds to the show’s allure.”

On Evita – Mark Bretz at the Ladue News wrote, “Aided by the delicious support of choreographer Robin Michelle Berger, who accentuates the array of musical motifs with an eclectic mix of terpsichorean moves, the result is an engaging and absorbing account of not only one man’s interpretation of a time and place but a riveting theatrical experience.” Chris Gibson at BroadwayWorld wrote, “Robin Michelle Berger's playful choreography livens things up considerably.” Joe Pollack of St. Louis Eats and Drinks, said, “Robin Michelle Berger's choreography is splendid.”

On High Fidelity (in 2008) – Judith Newmark wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Robin Michelle Berger, the canny choreographer, invests [the ex-girlfriends] with more spirit than Rob could have handled.” Richard Green of TalkinBroadway wrote, “Choreographer Robin Michelle Berger keeps the dancing simple and believable, though a girls' chorus busts a move every now and then with free-spirited ferocity.” And Mark Bretz at the Ladue News referred to the “winning choreography by Robin Michelle Berger…”

On Urinetown – Calvin Wilson at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said, “The cast is first-rate, and Robin Michelle Berger’s choreography is gloriously in step with the story.” Kirsten Wylder at KDHX said, “The choreography by Robin Michelle Berger is side-splitting.”

You get the idea...

It's hard to find a choreographer who is as good, as smart, and as committed as our actors, musicians, and designers; and even harder to find one who is in sync with my approach to musical theatre storytelling. I cannot stomach dance numbers in shows that are nothing but dance steps strung together, with no structure, no point of view, no arc, no storytelling. And I think Robin hates that as much as I do. We're amazingly in tune with each other. Only two other choreographers ever delivered what I need, John Ricroft (who choreographed several early New Line shows) and Michelle Collier (who helped me stage the very first New Line show). But as good as they both are, Robin is the best I've ever worked with. I've never seen anyone else's work locally that compares. And I've seen a few shows on Broadway that could have learned something from her...

I'm very lucky. I love my job -- and a big part of that is how much I love my collaborators.

Long Live the Musical!