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Hoofers enjoy record employment on B’way

Jobs plentiful, best in decade

The Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation has something extra to celebrate at this evening’s gala, “TwentyOne for the 21st.” It should come as no surprise to anyone who eyeballs the current dance-driven Broadway season: Employment for director-choreographers in the first three-quarters of the year has already set a record for the decade, with 141 union members securing jobs nationwide in 1999. Last year, the figure stood at 137. The employment data, released last week by the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers to Daily Variety, shows a steady climb since 1990, when 95 director-choreographers found paying gigs.

Employment in 1999 for the union’s choreographers currently stands at 182 jobs, as opposed to last year’s decade high of 233. This year’s figures, however, do not include those from the fourth quarter, which will almost certainly push the numbers higher. In 1990, members filled only 111 jobs.

Actors Equity did not have corresponding numbers to support a possible upturn in employment for dancers. The thesp union keeps records of the number of chorus members employed on Broadway, but does not break those figures into dancers and singers. But Actors Equity exec director Alan Eisenberg did note a definite increase in calls for dancer-singers, as opposed to singer-dancers, in a number of this season’s new musicals. Including understudies, or so-called swings, they total 21 in “Saturday Night Fever,” 18 in “Tango Argentino,” 14 in “Swing” and 22 in “Contact,” which will be hiring an additional four swings when it transfers to the Vivian Beaumont Theater next year.

“We’re definitely in a major dance surge now,” said Wayne Cilento. The choreographer for Disney’s “Aida” pointed to what many observers consider the last heyday of dance on Broadway: In 1975, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett battled for the best choreography Tony for their respective musicals, “Chicago” and “A Chorus Line.”

“Luckily, I was in both the Fosse group and the Bennett group,” Cilento said of the dancer camps that worked for the two legendary director-choreographers. Cilento appeared in Bennett’s “A Chorus Line,” as well as Fosse’s “Dancin’,” among other shows. When those two men died in the 1980s, the director-choreographer as star nearly disappeared, Tommy Tune being a notable exception.

“It was pretty grim there for a while,” said Cilento. The Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince musicals of the period featured minimal choreography. When Sondheim collaborated with James Lapine on “Sunday in the Park With George,” they employed no choreographer for their show. Schonberg and Boublil’s “Les Miserables” did not credit a choreographer. Andrew Lloyd Webber did not feature extended dance sequences in any of his musicals besides “Cats.”

“The British invasion was about environmental pieces, spectacles that were not dance-oriented,” said Cilento. “For choreographers and dancers, it was not good. Fortunately, that has all changed.”

Kathleen Marshall, choreographer for the current “Kiss Me, Kate,” put forth one theory on why dance has made a comeback in the 1990s. “It’s slowly grown over this decade, but I think the real turnaround happened with ‘Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,’ which opened in 1989,” said Marshall. Three years later, “Crazy for You” and “Guys and Dolls” completed the one-two-three punch-kick. “Those three productions showed that audiences were hungry for dance-driven musicals,” she explained.

Marshall says 1999 is another watershed year. “It’s fascinating, with ‘Swing’ and ‘Contact’ — these projects have director-choreographers (Lynn Taylor-Corbett and Susan Stroman, respectively). They were created out of nothing, are totally dance-driven and not based on a movie or a book. Dance is the engine that drives them.”

Marshall is artistic director for the Encores series, which is staging the musicals “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Tenderloin” and “Wonderful Town” at City Center in spring 2000. With regard to employment for dancers, she believes the good news is also the bad news. “When we get to casting dancers for the Encores series next spring, it is going to be difficult,” said Marshall. “They’re all working.”

“TwentyOne for the 21st,” the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation’s annual gala, will honor Vinnette Carroll, Zelda Fichandler, Peter Gennaro, Gillian Lynne, Marshall Mason and Andrei Serban. To be held at Florence Gould Hall, tonight’s event is co-chaired by Joy Abbott, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gwen Verdon.

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