Choreographers sashay into directing

Anne Fletcher gets behind 'The Proposal'

In “Dirty Dancing,” Patrick Swayze vowed, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

The same could be said for choreographers, who are increasingly breaking out of the cinematic shadows and landing the top job on a film set.

Led by Rob Marshall, Adam Shankman, Anne Fletcher and Kenny Ortega, an increasing number of choreographers are segueing from assembling dance numbers to directing high-profile bigscreen pics. From hoofing wunderkind Kevin Tancharoen (who has moved from choreographing the likes of Britney Spears to helming MGM’s remake of “Fame”) to “Flashdance” choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday (who will replace Ortega at the helm of the next “High School Musical” installment), Hollywood is more willing to hand the reins of a major film to the dance gurus.

“I think we’re really good at telling people where to go and how to get there,” jokes Fletcher, who has made the improbable transition from dancer to choreographer to one of the few in-demand female helmers of studio fare. “For me, life is a gigantic piece of choreography. Even when I’m in a coffee shop, I’m watching how everyone is moving around. And ultimately that’s a big part of directing.”

Or as Shankman notes, the job of the choreographer is essentially one step away from helming.

“Directors got addicted to having me around. I could stage a scene,” recalls Shankman of the first act of his career, which included choreographing such films as “The Flintstones” and “She’s All That.” “By the end, I was, in fact, directing.”

Since the days of Busby Berkeley, there’s been a history of choreographers becoming directors, explains Neil Meron, who along with partner Craig Zadan helped launch one-time Broadway choreographer Marshall’s Hollywood career when they tapped him to direct the ABC telefilm “Annie.”

“But the history is pretty spotty. You have ‘High Society’ director Charles Walters, and you have Gene Kelly and, of course, Bob Fosse. But you didn’t have clusters like you do now.”

Fletcher, whose film “The Proposal” opens June 19, provides a backstory that seems reminiscent of any number of dance classics, from “Flashdance” to “A Chorus Line.” Raised by a single mother, the Detroit native began dancing professionally at 15 and moved to Los Angeles as a teenager to pursue a terp career.

She landed as Shankman’s assistant choreographer and worked on such films as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and Danny Boyle’s “A Life Less Ordinary.” Once Shankman made the leap to helming bigscreen pics like “The Wedding Planner” and “Hairspray,” Fletcher inherited much of his clientele. And Shankman pushed Fletcher to take a meeting with Summit’s Paul Feig for her debut helming project, “Step Up,” the hit teen dance flick that Shankman produced.

“I was doing (the dance sequences for) ‘Catwoman’ in Vancouver when I got the call from Adam about ‘Step Up,’ ” recalls Fletcher, whose directing credits also include the Katherine Heigl starrer “27 Dresses.” “He kept saying, ‘You have to direct. You’re going to love it.’ My only goal when I took the job was to not have egg on my face.”

The film connected with teen audiences, spawned a franchise and launched Fletcher’s helming career. Though Fletcher has earned the trust of the studios to direct comedies (like the Sandra Bullock starrer “Proposal”) as well as dance-heavy pics (such as Disney’s “The Matadors,” to which she is attached), others have stumbled in making the transition.

Choreographer and Broadway heavy Susan Stroman seemed poised to be the next Marshall when she brought a much-hyped adaptation of Broadway’s “The Producers” to the bigscreen in 2005. But the film nose-dived at the box-office, and the multiple Tony winner has yet to land a follow-up Hollywood helming gig.

The same fate befell veteran choreographer Patricia Birch, who made her directorial debut with “Grease 2” and never returned to the director’s chair. She continues to create the dance sequences for such films as “The Nanny Diaries” and “The Stepford Wives.”

“Dirty Dancing” choreographer Ortega nearly suffered the same destiny when his feature helming debut, the 1992 musical “Newsies,” tanked at the box-office. Though he directed “Hocus Pocus” the following year, his bigscreen directing opportunities dried up for the next 15 years. But following the three “High School Musical” pics, the third of which was also a box-office hit, Ortega began fielding offers for films. He will helm a “Footloose” remake, which Meron and Zadan are producing.

“Movies are all about movement and timing,” explains Meron, who along with Zadan is also producing such upcoming musicals as “Damn Yankees” and “Hairspray 2.” “It’s sort of a natural fit for great choreographers to succeed as directors.”