Steven Hoggett, musical choreographer of the micro-musical "Once." (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK — It may be the understatement of the theater season when the choreographer Steven Hoggett, says, in the quiet British way, "It's a very interesting time for me."
But understatement is not actually his thing. The emphatic flailing and ecstatic flying he devised forGreen Day's"American Idiot" are pumping up audiences at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 22. The stamping, stomping, full-out dancing actor-musicians of "Once," the downtown hit based on the 2006 indie film of the same name, have been rapturously received on Broadway. And Hoggett is now putting the finishing touches on the piratical swashbuckling and mermaidical kick-line of "Peter and the Starcatcher," another off-Broadway success that's moved uptown and opens Sunday.
The kick line isn't characteristic either — the one in "Starcatcher," a Peter Pan fantasy that Rick Elice based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is strictly for laughs, with male mermaids sporting an assortment of kitchen paraphernalia where their breasts should be and fishtails made of paper fans.
A leading exponent in Britain of physical theater, the genre that combines expressionistic, stylized, often unison movement with text, music and design, Hoggett is a choreographer who stretches the definition of the term. He's never been a dancer and he has no technical training — he doesn't so much design steps as elicit them from his performers.
His agents fret about whether to label him a director, a choreographer or a movement designer, though he is clearly all three. "The whole idea of what movement does on stage is becoming a wider world," he says.
Just how wide was evident last Thursday evening, when Hoggett paused for a glass of wine between the taping of David Letterman's show, where the cast of "Once" was the musical guest, and the second preview of "Peter and the Starcatcher," where he would be assessing which moves needed tweaking before opening night.
He had just spent three days auditioning dancers for next year's new production of "Rigoletto," which reunites the "American Idiot" creative team at the Metropolitan Opera House and which may require a kick line in earnest — it's set in Las Vegas in 1960. And he was about to make a quick trip to Los Angeles to look in on the show at the Ahmanson.
"I'm lucky," he said. "I don't get jet-lagged."
Good thing. The international success of "Black Watch," the movement-driven drama about Scottish soldiers in Iraq (it came to the Freud Playhouse in 2007) made Hoggett something of a hot property, and he's been commuting between his London-based theater company, Frantic Assembly, and freelance projects like "American Idiot" ever since.
In fact, it was his Olivier Award-winning choreography for "Black Watch" that persuaded Michael Mayer, the director of "American Idiot," that Hoggett was the person he needed to achieve the kind of non-dance dance he envisioned for the show's nonstop music.
"Michael was very, very clear," Hoggett said. "I knew I couldn't make a show that had MTV-style choreography in it. If you're going to tackle a Green Day show, you have to stay true to the spirit that made that work. Lines of dancers would have ruined it."
With "Once," lines of dancers were not even an option. The idea was to have everyone in the cast acting, singing and playing one or more instruments — Hoggett would have to work with whatever dance skills they happened to have.
But that's not the reason he almost turned the musical down. When the director, John Tiffany, showed him the script, Hoggett recalled, he felt that the show's three big songs, one of them the Oscar winner "Falling Slowly," would be "invaded" by choreography.
"I told John," Hoggett said, " 'If you ask me to do the job, I will not choreograph anything for those songs. I'll stage them with you, but none of them will have any movement." Tiffany, who directed "Black Watch" and who has been a friend of Hoggett's since their teenage years in the West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, agreed. "That's when it gets exciting," Hoggett said.
A choreographer who gets excited by the prospect of numbers that don't dance is rare indeed. "Push the story forward," he said. "That is what I am about." He uses movement "to communicate meaning," he said, "rather than primarily an aesthetic." That said, "Once" is filled with rousing dance sequences, all the more remarkable because the dancers accompany themselves.
"I can't play a mandolin. I can't play a violin," Hoggett said. But after spending a week just watching the cast work on the show, he said, "I just communicated as if I knew what the fingering technique was and said, 'This is how you might move your body at the same time,' as if I'd done it 100 times before. And they fell for it. They amazed me — putting musicians on stage is nothing new, but you realize we don't push them to put it all together."