Kicking Out the Chorus Boy

NOV 8, 2018

How choreographer Sam Pinkleton is breaking the mold.

by Elizabeth Amos

Limbs flying, hips gyrating, and endless sequences of jumps, flips, and turns—if you’ve witnessed dancers close enough to sweat on you doing all the above, you may have choreographer Sam Pinkleton to thank. Pinkleton is known for shaking up the Broadway chorus with his unique choreographic vision focused on collaboration, athleticism, and a well-developed sense of play.

Pinkleton rejoins the A.R.T. this season following his success with the now Tony Award-winning Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, for which he himself received a Tony nomination. Exuberant and expansive— in both the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center, then in Broadway’s massive Imperial Theater— the choreography for The Great Comet has signaled the arrival of a whole new generation of musicals, including Pinkleton’s upcoming project, Burn All Night.

Open, engaged, and humming with energy—even after a long morning of meetings— Pinkleton embodies the intensity and quirkiness of his work. Perched at a cabaret-style table overlooking OBERON’s dance floor, he animatedly expresses his excitement about the space and Burn All Night’s team and score. “I heard this music and I lost my mind,” he explains. “I thought, ‘this can’t possibly be from a musical. It’s music I want to listen to on the subway and go out dancing to.’ It’s insane.”

Pinkleton operates in a different way from most choreographers. His dancers must be armed with dynamism, drive, and a willingness to take risks, but technique is more of a bonus than a requirement. “I’m trying to bring the best and the weirdest thing out of every human, whether they’re a technically trained dancer or not,” he explains. “The thing I love about being a choreographer is the thing I love about people dancing at weddings—REAL dancing.”

Pinkleton’s dreams of becoming a Broadway chorus boy swiftly changed course when it became clear during his time at New York University that a directing track, rather than a dance major, would make better use of his abilities. “I love dance, but I never had the skill or the interest, honestly, in taking on the technical part of it,” he says. Attending NYU allowed the young artist to become immersed in New York’s downtown theater world, where opportunities began to greet him. “I found myself in a series of rooms that needed a person to make dance happen, and I was the one who jumped around the most, so I became that person.”

Those chance opportunities have developed into an eclectic résumé of choreographic achievements involving events and productions on, off, and far away from Broadway. From Manhattan Theatre Club’s Heisenberg and Roundabout Theatre Company’s Machinal, to Rimbaud in New York at BAM and collaborations with dance companies like The Dance Cartel (ONTHEFLOOR at OBERON in spring 2017), Pinkleton’s experience is multifaceted.

Across this range of subjects and venues, his choreography seeks opportunities for connection, for audience members to make eye contact with performers and be welcomed into a mutual experience through dance. The presence of the audience in his choreographic vision, including Burn All Night’s invitation to audience members to mingle and dance with the performers, adds a thrilling element of unpredictability. “There are all these amazing variables. That, to me, is why live theater happens: there’s an element of chance.”

For the choreographer, these moments of connection are integral to a larger mission of making the arts a more inclusive experience: he seeks to create art that can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their education, occupation, or theatrical knowledge. “I not only believe in, but aggressively want to support populist theater because I think making something for as many people as possible without compromising the integrity of the work is a beautiful challenge,” he says.

This challenge goes hand in hand with another goal of his: cultivating diversity on stage as well as in the audience. “Representation is not just political. I believe that it holds profound emotional and narrative payoff,” he emphatically asserts, going on to explain that he wants viewers to be able to recognize their communities in his casts and choreography. “The spectator’s ability to say at any production: I can see my world there, I can see myself there, and there is an equality in the performer’s movement that reminds me they are individuals rather than a beautiful cast of machines—that is the thing that I would say can unite all of my work.”

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at A.R.T.

Elizabeth Amos is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.


Image Credits
Sam Pinkleton leading rehearsal for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812: Evgenia Eliseeva
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812: Irina Danilova

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