Face to Face: Rob Ashford

Making Evita tango (again) on Broadway

In the 14 years since Rob Ashford switched sides of the musical theater table from cast to creative, he's forged an impressive resumé. He won a Tony Award for his first Broadway show (Thoroughly Modern Millie, 2002) and has since chalked up another six nominations. He's worked on original productions (Curtains), mounted revivals (Promises, Promises) and adapted from film (The Wedding Singer). For How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (currently running on Broadway), he wears both choreographer and director hats. The choreographer's newest project, a revival of Evita, opens this month at the Marquis Theatre. DT spoke with Ashford about the particular challenges of staging this show. 

Dance Teacher: When creating dance numbers for Evita, where did you start?  

Rob Ashford: The tango. There are few places in the world that when you mention the country, the first thing that comes to mind is dance. So the idea of the tango being a part of the fabric of the people and the way people move was our jumping-off point.  

DT: Do you find it more challenging to choreograph a revival than an original production?  

RA: Originals are a bit trickier to choreograph, because there isn't a previous production to compare it to. When something is completely original—when no one has any expectations—you have a wider palette. And that can be hindering, because the idea that the production could be anything is quite daunting.

On the other hand, revivals offer a unique challenge. Over time, originals become speciously beloved, and I often question how clearly everyone remembers them. Some musicals wouldn't be held in such esteem if audiences were seeing them for the first time today.  

DT: When did you discover your passion for choreographing and directing? 

RA: When I was a dance captain for Kiss of the Spider Woman, the directors were going to stage another company of it in Argentina. However, the choreographer, Rob Marshall, wasn't able to go, so he sent me in his stead.

I immediately fell in love with being on the other side of the table communicating to the dancers and actors what the dance represented. It was a joy to do that without any pressure of making up the choreography, since that had already been done by Rob. After that experience, I decided that I wanted to try the process with my own steps.  

DT: Do you still start the same way, first by communicating the story and then filling in the steps?  

RA: Yes, the steps are always last. When you do a new show, it's first about the story, what you want to get across at a particular moment, how the characters move—that's where the most preproduction time is spent—then the steps.

DT: Do you have advice for teachers who are choreographing musical theater numbers?  

RA: Focus on the storytelling. Get to the point. Tell the dancers what they're portraying with a certain step, pattern or series of moves, and you'll be amazed at what students can bring to that. Students' acting chops need to be challenged as well as their dancing—acting and steps go hand-in-hand in musical theater.

I work really hard to make dance an essential part in my musicals. Dance isn't extra; it should be part of the story. Audiences are smart: You only need about 15 seconds of dance to establish a mood or atmosphere. Too often I think choreographers go on and on in order to create an atmosphere, when in reality, the audience wants the play to keep moving.  

DT: What's next for you?  

RA: I want to try it all. In 2014 I'll be choreographing and directing an opera, more film ideas are in the air, and choreographing for a dance company—that's something I'd like to do. My journey has been similar to one in a ballet class: You do a perfect double pirouette and the teacher says, “Now do three.” I'll achieve one step of my journey, and then I strive to do something different to push my own boundaries. My main thing is to keep the creativity alive and challenge myself. DT

 

Photo by Ari Mintz, courtesy of The Hartman Group

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