Choreography enjoying newfound respect and cachet


When New Line executives opted to re-create several sequences from its upcoming July release "Hairspray" for movie theater owners and journalists at March's ShoWest confab in Las Vegas, they did something few actually manage: They wowed a crowd of jaded industry pros. As member after member of the film's cast waltzed onto the stage to belt out songs from the film -- the new big-screen version of the Broadway adaptation of John Waters' 1988 feature of the same name -- the effect was electrifying. But the 20-minute presentation just wouldn't have had the same impact without the retinue of professional dancers executing precisely choreographed routines behind the actors.

Of course, no one understood that better than self-described "former chorus boy" Adam Shankman, who directed and choreographed the musical movie, which is set in 1960s Baltimore and follows the story of one relentlessly optimistic teenage girl who is determined to make it as a dancer on her favorite local TV program.

"Oh, God, I've wanted to do a musical forever," says Shankman, who has made a name for himself directing family-friendly comedies such as 2003's "Bringing Down the House" and 2005's "The Pacifier." "You know, I wanted to choreograph the play in the first place. And now that I got the opportunity to direct and choreograph the movie, it was like a shark tasting blood for the first time. My eyes rolled back into my head, and I fainted."

Fortunately for Shankman and other dance devotees, choreography doesn't look like it's likely to retire from the spotlight anytime soon. In addition, a host of new Broadway adaptations are in the works: Paramount's planned December release "Sweeney Todd" from director Tim Burton, "Universal's planned 2008 offering "Mamma Mia!" and the Weinstein Co.'s planned 2008 release "Nine," directed by Rob Marshall, the filmmaker behind 2002's Oscar-winning film "Chicago," which arguably launched the latest dance craze.

What's more, TV shows such as ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" are educating audiences about the difference between jazz and hip-hop, a pirouette and a chasse -- and Disney Channel's made-for-TV movie phenomenon "High School Musical" is spawning sequels and spinoffs, including a touring revue.

"It ebbs and flows, and we're definitely at a rise and have been for a while," says choreographer Marguerite Derricks of the current interest in musicals and dance. "Dance is joyous. It can make you laugh. It's beautiful. Especially now with everything that's been going on in our world, I think that people just want to feel good, and music and dance do that."

Derricks should know. She was the mastermind behind the uplifting conclusion of last year's "Little Miss Sunshine," and more recently, she handled choreography duties for Sony's summer blockbuster "Spider-Man 3," New Line's planned August release "Rush Hour 3" and the studio's planned 2008 basketball comedy "Semi-Pro," starring Will Ferrell. Derricks says that working on action movies and comedies can afford choreographers some unique and exciting creative opportunities.

"Not to say that dancers aren't great, but when you see an actor and actress move and see what they bring to it, it's just really special," Derricks says. "I love working with comedians because there's nothing that they won't do. Nobody moves better than these guys because the freedom that a comedian has and what they bring to the table is unmatched by anything."

JoAnn Jansen -- whose credits include 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and Lionsgate's upcoming Iraq War drama "The Return" -- echoes those sentiments.

"I just finished working with Rachel McAdams (on 'The Return')," Jansen says. "She's been shot, so she had to figure out how that affected her whole body. It's quite fascinating because I usually go through the entire script (and) earmark it with the actor. If you don't work that way with movement, it's just arbitrary. I've done it with her. I did it with Johnny Depp. I've done it with John Travolta (on Millennium Films/Samuel Goldwyn Films' April drama 'Lonely Hearts'). And the truth is, you do it all the time. Because even if you're making a heavy step kind of dance, there's something about the physicality that has to meld with the character. When you're choreographing, you're essentially directing a scene."

Although choreographers can play important roles in all manner of productions, it's the current dance revival that is elevating their status as below-the-line contributors and giving the art form itself newfound pop-culture cachet. Choreographer Shane Sparks, who also serves as a judge on "Dance," has witnessed that excitement first hand, recruiting performers for an upcoming sequel to 2004's "You Got Served," tentatively titled "Back Down."

"This time, it's girl crews, so it's gonna be so hyped," Sparks says. "We just had our auditions this weekend, and the girls were going berserk. It was off the chain."

Indeed, a whole subset of relatively low-budget dance films targeted to the teenage and urban markets have found success at the boxoffice -- 2006's "Step Up" and "Take the Lead," as well as Screen Gems' January release "Stomp the Yard," among them.

Jansen, who choreographed "Lead," says she's particularly excited that so many styles of dance are finding an audience and that the strict boundaries that once separated, say, hip-hop and jazz from ballroom dance are no longer quite so rigid.

"What it feels to me like, interestingly enough, is when I first started working in dance in New York, where the point of it was movement invention, not just displaying the form we already know," Jansen says. "I feel like it's a resurgence of dance in the most true way -- just to make it not a phrase that we've seen in every jazz class and every (episode of) 'Dancing With the Stars.' Now that these forms are clear to people, how do you up that ante? You go back to the original creation of it, and you try to reinvent it."

Adds Derricks: "The trend now is all dance is cool. We went through this period where it was heavily saturated with hip-hop, and you're not seeing that anymore. You're starting to see people appreciate all forms of dance, which is something that I'm excited about because I don't just do one style of choreography."

Many choreographers believe that Americans are trailing Europe and the international community in their appreciation for this brand of filmed, innovative dance.

"The art-form aspect of dance onscreen isn't that well developed here in the U.S. because we haven't had any funding," says Dance Camera West's executive/artistic director Lynette Kessler, whose organization is planning the inaugural Choreography Media Honors ceremony tonight at the Directors Guild of America building in Hollywood. "It all started in the '80s, and then people dabbled in it, and then the funding was cut, and people stopped. Meanwhile, the U.K. had strong funding throughout Europe. They showed a lot of this work on TV in Europe, and Europe, Canada and the U.K. are 20 years ahead of us."

Most industry veterans claim that Americans' interest in dance is probably more cyclical than anything else. And as long as the studios see dollar signs, they will keep greenlighting dance projects. But there is one never-before-seen factor fueling the current upswing that might not be going away anytime soon -- reality television.

Dance provides perfect material, with competitions, talent shows and special behind-the-scenes looks at the trials and tribulations of dancers trying to make it in the big time.

"They see it on TV, and people are just more aware of it," Clear Talent Group agent Tim O'Brien says. "And there's a lot of movies out there. So, it's just brought more focus to it, and that encourages more and more young people to come out here and try their luck at it. We have auditions probably three or four times a year. I remember having a big audition -- it would be 50 dancers coming out. Now, we have 400 dancers coming to our auditions. We literally had to turn people away."