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The Sadder Side of Vaudeville Dance Inside the subtle choreography of Broadway's "The Nance"

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

It's an incredibly sensual wedding. In a shimmering white gown, a bride drapes across her husband, who's resplendent in a top hat and tails.  We can just see their profiles as they caress: His arm slides up hers, her leg quivers with anticipation, and the music matches the erotic energy of their dance.

Then we realize this couple isn't a couple at all. The seduction features just one performer, dressed on one side like a bride and on the other like a groom. The dance is a ruse to make us think one person is two.

And the story goes deeper. The wedding number is an interlude in The Nance, the new drama from Douglas Carter Beane that's now on Broadway at the Lyceum. The play follows Chauncey Miles, a vaudeville performer in 1937 New York who makes his living playing "nances," or effeminate parodies of gay men.

The trouble is, Chauncey's gay in real life, too, in a city that's arresting homosexual men as a sign of political power. When he's not on stage, Chauncey (Nathan Lane) is trying to have a serious relationship with a man named Ned (Johnny Orsini), but the cruel laws (and Chauncey's own self-loathing) keep thwarting his heart.

The vaudeville numbers reflect this story. After the opening scene, for instance, when Chauncey picks up Ned in an automat, a trio of showgirls performs a coquettish burlesque about hookers trolling for tricks.
And after Chauncey and Ned spar about being monogamous, we see the wedding routine, where a woman plays the bride and the groom. The charming number becomes a bittersweet statement about looking for love outside yourself.

When he started writing the play, Beane didn't expect the dances, stripteases, and burlesques to be so meaningful. "Originally, they were just crossovers," he says. "They were written to give us a little break between scenes. Then [director] Jack O'Brien said, 'I want to hire a choreographer,' and I thought, 'Well, let's really use the numbers.' So in the next draft I wrote, all of the numbers were commenting on the action. Whether or not the coin drops for people that they are commenting on the action, it's there in your subconscious."

Once the new draft was written, choreographer Joey Pizzi joined the team, but while he'd worked on musicals like Catch Me if You Can, he'd never created dances that had such a specific dramatic function. "We kept having to remind ourselves this is not a musical, it's a play," he says. "We're not going to go for the landing of numbers. We're not going to go for the big applause."

In other words, Pizzi fought his instinct to turn number into showstoppers: "I had to do a lot of things with thirty seconds.  I had to establish where we were, help define the characters, and define what was coming before or after."

Plus, he needed to make the dances look believable for characters on the lowest rung of the show biz ladder He explains, "It's important that the steps not be steps people were doing in Broadway shows [back then.] I didn't want to do kicks and leaps. I wanted them to do things that were in the vocabulary of social dancing."

But for all those challenges, Pizzi also found a unique opportunity in "play choreography." That's especially apparent when we see the final burlesque number, which essentially falls apart on stage. "It's our most abstract moment," Pizzi says. "Maybe that's not exactly what happens on stage, but emotionally, that's what they're going through."

He continues, "I really wanted an arc to the choreography. The first time you see it, it's very ebullient and joyous. Yes, it's commenting on what we're doing, but it has a certain lightness to it. As the evening progresses, though, we're trying to get the worlds even more connected and murkier and abstract. That final dance is the end point of that. You wouldn't see that number on a stage. It's more of a scene. It's a wordless scene of what's happening to these ladies. Their world is crumbling down."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus