Rent to Buy

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Dance, Posts.


Larry Keigwin is bouncing between interviews during a press
event in the subterranean lobby of New World Stages, just before the opening of
the new Off-Broadway revival of Rent,
which he is choreographing. It’s not a scene he’s ever experienced in the
contemporary dance world in which he usually works. A publicist introduces him
to one theater website’s writer, gives them some time, then leads him to the
next waiting tape recorder. But this has been a year in which the inventive,
prolific choreographer—whose work can be witty, sexy, fashion-conscious and
full of attitude while also being haunting—adds musical theater to his résumé.
First, he was the choreographer for a brand new musical,
Tales of the
City
, which had its world premiere at San
Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater in June. Now, he’s been tapped to
provide the moves for this production of
Rent, which puts forward a new generation of performers
as the now-iconic Mark, Roger, Mimi and Angel with original director Michael
Greif back at the helm.

Keigwin seems to have entered this new world with his usual
ebullient energy and creative ingenuity. He marvels at the experience of a
month of previews—dance events generally open cold to reviews, with no such
thing as a preview. “What I think grows the most are the individual
performances—the fact that the performers are sitting with these characters for
so long. Without them even knowing it, they’re maturing.”

Collaborating on musicals has been a marked contrast to his
experience working with his own troupe of dancers. “I’m not always leading,
which is wonderful,” he says. “It’s a great education to see how directors
work. There’s something about Michael’s creative process that I feel is similar
to mine, in that he’s quick at editing. He’s very interested in having the
performers improvise their way through the part at the beginning, and that’s
the same way we work.”

Nicole Wolcott, who began dancing in Keigwin’s works 10
years ago and has often assisted on his company projects, is his assistant on Rent; she was at auditions while he was occupied in San
Francisco. “This is a rock opera; its not like there’s a stop and a dance
break,” she notes as she joins Keigwin for the interview. “We’ve really had to
work with Michael on storytelling and how to not use clichés. Most of the
movement supports the story; there are only a few places where it is the focus.
The characters are communicating with each other the whole time as they’re
singing and dancing, so it’s not as abstract as modern dance.”

Keigwin’s back-to-back musical theater experiences have
certainly provided contrast; one is an untested, brand new work while the other
is a long-running hit with a devoted following. He appreciates what each has to
offer. “Knowing that a large part of the puzzle is finished is reassuring. With
Tales, there were a lot of moving parts
that were not settled—that can be unnerving,” he says. “I think there are
pluses and minuses to both experiences. With
Tales there are endless options, and that’s really a
wonderfully creative place to be. This revival of
Rent is a great creative assignment: to take material
that has existed, a show that people know. The contrast is really great. This
has the anchor of the music and the story already being done, so there’s a lot
of time for staging. With
Tales,
the music and story were in development along with the staging.”

Keigwin was not one of those who saw Rent dozens of times the first time around. He had seen
the show once and owned the cast recording. But he was quick to come on board
when the revival’s producers, Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller—whom he
originally met when he performed in
The Wild Party at Manhattan Theater Club and who had been following
his company’s work—invited him to join the creative team.

Wolcott feels Keigwin is a good fit because he’s the right
age to relate to the characters and situations. “We were both the age of these
characters or a little younger at the time it’s set [1991]. I was living on
10th & Broadway,” Wolcott says. Keigwin recalls, “In 1994, I moved to the
East Village. I was living there at the time Rent premiered, and it felt very familiar.”

He has juggled the theater productions with his company’s
busy schedule; the 12-member ensemble recently had major performances at
Jacob’s Pillow and SummerStage and will appear in a new work at the Guggenheim’s
“Works and Process” series in October. Next June, they’ll offer another
premiere at The Joyce Theater.

Meanwhile, he and Wolcott are applying their zest and
creative energy in this new, more collaborative milieu, coping with the stress
of readying a big musical for opening night. “We’re having fun; we’re laughing
a lot,” he reports.

Rent

New World Stages, 340 W. 50 St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), www.siteforrent.com; $65 .

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