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Theater

First Jumping and Jiving, Then Creating

'Swing!' choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett didn't just stick with the standards--she reinterpreted them.

November 26, 2000|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a regular contributor to Calendar. She is the author of "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work," published by William Morrow

NEW YORK — It sounded like a simple concept: a show based on swing music and dance.

Lynne Taylor-Corbett had already choreographed the classic "Great Galloping Gottschalk" for American Ballet Theatre, the musicals "Chess," "Titanic" and "Randy Newman's Faust," and the films "Footloose" and "My Blue Heaven." Why not tackle swing?

Three workshops and six Tony nominations later, "Swing!" opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday. Swing dance specialists and Broadway dancers jump, strut, tap, slink, slide, spin and toss one another to new takes on old songs and old takes on new songs. Pieces written expressly for the show by its Broadway cast members Ann Hampton Callaway, Everett Bradley and others blend with standards made famous by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

"My dad loved those songs so much, he used to sing them in the car," says Taylor-Corbett, a soft-spoken, self-effacing woman. "People ask why I think swing came back, and it must be that we need to feel better. Touching when you dance is fantastic, and it makes us feel good. You don't see anyone swing dancing without a smile on their face."

They certainly smile a lot onstage here at the St. James Theatre. New York critics called the show everything from "totally winning" to "exuberant," and typical was the Village Voice's Deborah Jowitt in calling it "a big-hearted, irresistible show."

While there are such bittersweet standards as Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal's 1938 classic "I'll Be Seeing You," the emphasis is on upbeat dances like the Lindy hop, jitterbug, tap and even a bit of reverse bungee jumping.

Taylor-Corbett, who was nominated for Tonys for her direction and choreography on "Swing!," has called herself a "kind of privileged curator," and putting together this show was far from easy. Broadway dancers accustomed to being in the chorus had to focus on dancing in couples, while competitive swing dancers had to learn how to be onstage for more than their five-minute routine.

Some of the work had already been done before Taylor-Corbett joined the show. Marc Routh, one of the show's producers, credits Paul Kelly, a director and friend, with the original idea. The two men were already visiting swing dance competitions and listening to recordings from the period by the time Taylor-Corbett joined them. They brought in Ryan Francois and Jenny Thomas, winners of American Swing Dance and U.S. Open championships, as well as Francois' mentor, Frankie Manning, one of the original Whitey's Lindy Hoppers featured in the 1937 Marx Brothers film "A Day at the Races."

With the help of word of mouth and swing dance Web sites, Taylor-Corbett and associates began assembling a cast, first for workshops, then for Broadway. Los Angeles-based casting director Pamela Cooper estimates there were 500 to 750 people for the first day of auditions in Los Angeles. Since then, Cooper adds, she and New York casting director Carol Hanzel have auditioned thousands of people for the show's workshops, and Broadway and touring productions--all for about two dozen spots per incarnation.

Taylor-Corbett knew immediately that "the incomparable" Thomas and Francois--an associate choreographer--would "play a pivotal part" in the show. She later found a couple who were world-champion western swing competitors, and another who were experts in hustle and Latin swing. She visited "gurus" in various swing specialties in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and started pairing swing experts with versatile Broadway dancers.

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Casting and what she calls "construction" of the show went hand in hand, the choreographer explains over coffee in her producers' office in Manhattan. "I was working in many cases with people's preexisting routines, reshaping them and having music written for them," she said. "The challenge was finding little contexts, stories and fragile through-lines that could unite the cast so it wasn't just a bunch of people coming out and doing their thing."

Producer Routh calls Taylor-Corbett "a wonderful collaborator. In this company, every single person is a principal. There are no chorus people, and Lynne has a wonderful eye for talent. She drove us and the casting people crazy about getting the absolute best people, but she was trying to put together an evening where each of the individuals stood out and had a star's moment."

Taylor-Corbett's inspiration, she explains, came from the spirit of swing in the '30s and '40s. "In all the books I read on swing, one thing really stuck with me: They made it up as they went. If they went to the ballet the night before, they would imitate a ballet step and that would become swing. Everybody was trying to fuse really disparate talents, and I thought that's what I want to capture.

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