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A Dark ‘Oklahoma!’ Brings Barefoot Modern Dance to Broadway

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

How long has it been since a dance changed the temperature of a Broadway show?

In Daniel Fish’s unnerving production of “Oklahoma!,” the second act opens with a rumble of electric guitar. Its brooding, sexy sound fills the space until a familiar melody takes over: “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.’”

But is it really a beautiful day? By this point, a fog machine has created enough haze to sink a ship.

And then comes an odd yet arresting sight: A dancer, Gabrielle Hamilton, walks to the center of the plywood stage. She lingers long enough to gaze at audience members, who ring the performance area on three sides. Soon she sets off, galloping around the perimeter with her hands in front of her body crossed at the wrists. Her glittering white top grazes her mid-thigh and reads “Dream Baby Dream.”

For the show’s choreographer, John Heginbotham, the shirt is an instruction for the viewer. As he put it in a recent interview: “Please, now, take this time to dream.”

When Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” was first unveiled in 1943, its dream ballet, masterminded by the choreographer Agnes de Mille, was a game changer. Instead of incorporating dance as filler, it advanced the plot by showing the emotional trauma of the heroine, Laurey, who is being wooed by two men, one seemingly wholesome (Curly), the other sinister (Jud Fry). The year before, de Mille had explored the theme of sexual awakening with her ballet-drama “Rodeo.”

The new dream ballet, which Mr. Heginbotham called an “expressionist explosion,” also unlocks Laurey’s sexuality. But Mr. Heginbotham, 48, has revised it for the modern world, making a dance about outsiders that brings to mind issues of race, inequality and the treatment of women. Both visually and sonically, it’s different from anything else in the show. Mr. Heginbotham, a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group before forming his own company, has brought barefoot modern dance to Broadway.

[Read about the theater auteur Daniel Fish’s unlikely debut on Broadway.]

It fits with this nontraditional staging of “Oklahoma!” The band is onstage, chili is served at intermission and the first row of audience members sits at picnic tables, part of the action. It’s like being in a barn. There is a purposeful roughness to Mr. Fish’s production — the singing, the dancing, the acting and even the costumes.

“These people are trying to survive,” Mr. Heginbotham said. “What does it mean if you’re trying to survive and you have a dream? What does it mean to sexually awaken when everything is so uncertain?”

That’s a point that the dream ballet explores. But it is hardly the only reason dance is crucial to the show. One of Mr. Heginbotham’s most impressive achievements comes in “The Farmer and the Cowman,” the party scene that melds the Texas two-step, as well as a brief square-dance sequence, with the narrative. “I wanted the party to be chaotic,” he said. “It was just really fun to limit my vocabulary to social dancing.”

It’s a stark contrast to the surreal dream ballet, which has gone through many iterations since Mr. Heginbotham began working with Mr. Fish at Bard College in 2015. At that time, Mr. Fish wasn’t sure what role dance would have in the show. Mr. Heginbotham worked with the actors and the musicians — there were no dancers — trying out a variety of scenarios, including one in which Jud and Curly disrobed and changed costumes.

“Throughout all of these experiments, the idea was really around trying to capture something narrative in the dream ballet,” he said. “That is so much a part of the Agnes de Mille version. Even though there are surreal elements to it, you’re still seeing versions of the characters play out a literal narrative. Whenever we tried to incorporate those narrative ideas in this production, it never felt satisfying.”

Then, in 2017, before “Oklahoma!” opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse, where it became a big enough hit to warrant a move to Broadway, Mr. Fish returned to a previous question: What if there was a ballet? What if actual dancing happened?

They decided to bring in dancers for a three-day workshop. Mr. Heginbotham was a bit skeptical: “I was like, We’re going to walk in and within 10 minutes it’s going to be frustrating, and we’re not going to want to continue with it.”

Instead, they started building a choreographic vocabulary that, to Mr. Heginbotham, seemed to be in line with what Mr. Fish wanted to accomplish with the dream ballet. “Change the space,” Mr. Heginbotham said. “Change the way we experience the show.”

Mr. Heginbotham met Mr. Fish through mutual friends when Mr. Fish was working on the Bard SummerScape version of the show and needed a choreographer. “Musical theater was something I grew up with and was very loved by me and our family,” Mr. Heginbotham said. “I was like, Oh my God — I’m going to have an opportunity to maybe work on a musical?”

Mr. Fish asked him questions about the role dance might have in the show, “which was very undetermined back in 2015,” Mr. Heginbotham said. But now it’s easy to see how the dance acts as a bridge between Act I, which while haunting is full of humor, and Act 2, which becomes increasingly menacing.

The dream ballet has also changed for the better since St. Ann’s. Part of that has to do with the size of the stage: At Circle in the Square it is slightly smaller, which lends it more intimacy. At the same time, it has an openness because the entire stage is visible. This is a landscape ballet, which suits the setting: It’s kind of like looking at a prairie. And the captivating Ms. Hamilton — bald, African-American and just 5-foot-1 — holds it.

At St. Ann’s, she was the main dancer; now, she is the only one, so she is both the outsider and an embodiment of all the characters.

The dance, at around 13 minutes, is one of endurance. Ms. Hamilton contrasts gallops and runs with moments of delicacy and sensuality. She touches her face in self-discovery. She confronts members of the audience with a firm gaze. At one point, her face is projected onto a wall.

“You see my skin, you hear my breath, the exhaustion,” Ms. Hamilton, 23, said. “And then toward the end, it’s like rage and an explosion of every emotion that just arises from my body and in the air and there’s no stopping it.”

It’s not easy. During the entire first act, Ms. Hamilton meditates and prays “just to clear out my channels and realign myself,” she said. “Who am I that night? What do I want to give and what do I want to receive from my audience members? This is an experience for all of us.”

Mr. Heginbotham said that what struck him about Ms. Hamilton was her ability to give a potentially aggressive action — like the wide-legged scoots that she performs in the dream ballet — a sense of ambiguity.

“There was maybe a sense of pleasure in the midst of this destructive action that’s happening, and vice versa,” he said.

At St. Ann’s, Ms. Hamilton’s narrative for the dance was different; she thought of herself as a representative for all women. On Broadway she has expanded that. “Now it’s everyone,” she said, “I am everyone’s happiness, I am everyone’s sadness, I am everyone’s anger, and I’m also my own person.”

To attain that, she said she approaches the dance with complete curiosity. “I don’t think the dream ballet holds any value when I become comfortable in it,” she said. “It’s true when it’s still new to me.”

Keeping it so personal is perhaps what makes the number seem universal. It is, like Mr. Heginbotham said, a space for dreaming. At one point during its creation, Mr. Heginbotham questioned a choice Ms. Hamilton had made and asked Mr. Fish, “Is that how that character would behave?”

Mr. Heginbotham winced at the memory. “He looked at me incredulously, and he said my name — which I knew was really serious: ‘John, what’s the difference?’ But what he meant was, what do you mean, character? It’s Gabbie. We’re watching Gabrielle dance.”

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