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    Bursting Into Dance: Gentlemen, Assume the Superhero Stance!

    “Spirited,” a revisionist “Christmas Carol,” leads with tap, thanks to the choreographer Chloé Arnold and her team, Ava Bernstine-Mitchell and Martha Nichols.The trailer for “Spirited” arrives feet first. Two silhouetted bodies trade syncopated riffs in a lively tap showdown. “It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas,” the title cards announce, before the dancers are revealed to be the film’s stars: Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds.“How did you know all that?” Ferrell’s character exclaims, panting slightly, as the dancing concludes. “I didn’t! I was just following you!” Reynolds’ character shoots back. “Tap is new for me. It’s a very expressive medium.”It’s rare, these days, for a major motion picture to lead with dance. But the dancing in “Spirited” — a revisionist take on “A Christmas Carol,” in theaters Nov. 11 (and streaming Nov. 18 on Apple TV+) — is more than holiday window dressing. A self-aware musical in the vein of “Spamalot” and “Schmigadoon!,” “Spirited” aims to charm musical theater skeptics by poking gentle fun at the genre’s oddities. The film’s elaborately choreographed production numbers offer a new way for Ferrell and Reynolds, neither of whom had previous dance experience, to explore the winkingly self-referential humor they’re known for as actors. They are constantly bursting into dance, and constantly cracking jokes about how strange it is for people to burst into dance.That they’re often in tap shoes can be credited to Chloé Arnold, the extraordinary tap dancer who led the film’s choreographic team. The director and co-writer Sean Anders fell for Arnold’s work after watching videos of her Syncopated Ladies ensemble online. They featured “some of the most intense, badass tap dancing I’d ever seen,” Anders said in an email. “I knew she was the secret weapon I was looking for.”To help manage an ensemble cast that featured several dozen dancers, Arnold brought in two associate choreographers, Ava Bernstine-Mitchell and Martha Nichols, entertainment-industry standouts with backgrounds in an array of dance styles. Together, they created pull-out-all-the-stops numbers of ebullient variety: If a crew of tappers is dancing atop tables, aerialists might be spinning in hoops above them while a ballet group whips through a pirouette sequence on the floor below.Tap it out: Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in “Spirited.”Claire Folger/Apple TV+They also helped coach the top-billed actors, working for several months with Ferrell, Reynolds and their co-star and fellow dance newbie Octavia Spencer. “I’ve already asked this incredible choreography team to be best friends,” Reynolds wrote on Instagram during filming. “Just filed the paperwork and I’m excited for our new life together.”The resulting film brims with dance. Nearly every extra is a dancer, even in nonmusical scenes — look for the three choreographers in bit parts — and dance spills over into the film’s marketing. “Tap! In the trailer!” Arnold said. “When I saw that, I cried.”The significance of a trio of Black women leading a creative department on a big-budget movie has not been lost on Arnold, Bernstine-Mitchell and Nichols, all of whom are making their choreographic feature film debuts.“In the art of dance and the art of tap in particular, Black women have almost never had a position of leadership, proper recognition or proper compensation,” Arnold said. “There are so many times when, you know, your spirit is challenged. So for this creative group to bring us in, and not try to silence our voices, that trust was so beautiful.”Arnold, Bernstine-Mitchell and Nichols gathered on Zoom to talk about to talk about the dancing in “Spirited,” diversity in musical theater and choreographing for the stars. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.This is the first time the three of you have worked together. What was the chemistry like?CHLOÉ ARNOLD Ava and I both come from the school of Debbie Allen, and we’ve worked together in TV a lot, on James Corden’s show. We have a very symbiotic work flow, so I knew she had to be part of this. And Martha and I know each other from teaching at [the dance convention and competition] New York City Dance Alliance — whenever I had a free moment, I’d take her class.AVA BERNSTINE-MITCHELL Our three personalities are the perfect balance. Chloé wants to move fast, she jumps first and thinks later. Martha moves very slow, like a scientist, she wants to look carefully at every piece. And I’m the organizer, trying to keep everybody on track.There were a lot of dancers to keep track of. How did you approach casting?ARNOLD That was wild, because it was during the pandemic, so we had to do it virtually. And we had 1,000 submissions. 1,000! Unreal. We had Zoom callbacks for 400, and then deliberated and got it down to an initial core 30 — later that went up to 90. We called upon our old friends, people we trusted. And we met new friends.I’m very thankful that I was able to bring all of the Syncopated Ladies into the movie. Because they’re a backbone for me. Having your people with you, that’s one of the best gifts of life.MARTHA NICHOLS Watching Chloé and her heavy hitters — Pam Yasutake, Anissa Lee, Gisele [Silva], Maud [Arnold, Chloé’s sister], the whole crew — to see tap done at such a high level on a film, with this many individuals, was super, super special. Because when you have something as specialized as tap, it’s much more common for the number of participants to shrink. And in this, it didn’t shrink. It was magnified.Chloé, were you brought in because the team wanted a tap movie? Or did it become a tap movie because you were brought in?ARNOLD It definitely wasn’t a tap movie to start! [laughter] It was going to be, like, Will and Ryan would do a little tap number, we’ll have a bit of dance here and a bit of dance there. But it ended up being eight or nine full-throttle dance numbers.And you know, having this big-movie budget, we kept asking for more. “Could you build a two-story scaffold that we could tap on?” “Can we cover the floor with water?” And Sean would always say, “Let’s go!”The choreographers on the “Spirited” set.Claire Folger/Apple TV +Of course, dancers want more dance everywhere. But why was dance important to this particular project?BERNSTINE-MITCHELL What’s great about the script is that dancers, our role in the movie was very integral. We weren’t “added happiness.” We were part of the storytelling.A lot of dancers ended up with speaking parts too, right?ARNOLD All the dancers were allowed to audition for acting roles, which is really special and really unusual.BERNSTINE-MITCHELL And all of the dancers got to name their characters — like, with a name that shows up in the credits. We all had a purpose for being in this world.The film tries to strike a balance between earnestness and we’re-in-on-the-joke nods to the audience. How do you do that in dance?BERNSTINE-MITCHELL I think that’s something dance can actually do pretty naturally.ARNOLD If you take it seriously, but it’s absurd, it works. And Will and Ryan are obviously great at being silly, but they were also like, “All right, if we’re not supposed to look silly, and we do, you’re going to tell us, right?” There was a lot of trust there.How do you teach actors — who happen to be big stars — to dance?NICHOLS It was about speaking to them in a way that bridged the gap between dance and the physical vocabulary that they already have, to make it seem less daunting. Like, we don’t need to say “stand in jazz second position” to Ryan Reynolds. Superhero stance! He knows what that is.BERNSTINE-MITCHELL Ryan wasn’t able to touch his toes at the beginning, but we got him there.ARNOLD That was a milestone day! Their willingness to be beginners, as these masters of their craft, was great.They were also really good at disarming everyone on set. Will started his rehearsal period right around National Tap Dance Day, which, you know, he hadn’t known there was such a thing as National Tap Dance Day, but as soon as he found out, he was walking around going, “Hey, guys, happy National Tap Dance Day!” “Did you know it’s National Tap Dance Day?” [laughter]When Octavia Spencer first met us over FaceTime, she cried. Because she didn’t know we were going to be Black women. She was like, “I’m so proud of you. I know I’m in good hands.” That’s a beautiful thing to feel — knowing we’ve got to lead her through this journey, that we’re starting from a place where she already sees us, she’s already connected.How did your perspectives as Black women shape the film?ARNOLD I think that you won’t see, generally speaking, a lot of African dance influence in traditional musical theater. But that’s the crux of my movement, my natural movement, coming out of the land of tap dance, which has the African influence in it.BERNSTINE-MITCHELL The way we heard the music was very different than how I think other people would hear the music. We found funk in all the songs.NICHOLS There’s always a pocket.ARNOLD And we created a cast that is diverse in every way, shape and form — the cast we want to see in musical theater in the future. Because growing up, our reality was not seeing that. So in this film you’re going to see dancers from ages, I think, 7 to 74. You’re going to see people from all types of cultures. You’re going to see all different body types in all their glory. And I hope that unlocks more possibilities, more ways to expand how films present work and how they hire. More

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    In New York, Masks Will Not Be Required at the Opera or Ballet

    Many arts groups, worried about alienating older patrons, have maintained strict rules. Now “the time has come to move on,” one leader said.Masks are no longer required in New York City schools, gyms, taxis and most theaters. But a night at the opera or the ballet still involves putting on a proper face covering.That will soon change. Several of the city’s leading performing arts organizations — including the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic and New York City Ballet — announced on Monday that masks would now be optional, citing demands from audience members and a recent decline in coronavirus cases.“The time has come to move on,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in an interview.The Met, Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic will end mask requirements on Oct. 24, along with Film at Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School. The David H. Koch Theater, home to City Ballet, will follow on Nov. 1. Two venues on the Lincoln Center campus, the Mitzi E. Newhouse and Claire Tow theaters, will maintain their mandates.The decision is a milestone for classical, dance and opera institutions, which had been among the most resistant to relaxing mask rules — wary of alienating older patrons, who represent a large share of ticket buyers. As coronavirus infections have declined and masks have vanished from many other settings, arts groups are feeling pressure from audiences to make a change.At the Met, for example, only about a quarter of ticket buyers said in a survey last month that they would feel uncomfortable attending a performance if masks were optional. Over the summer, that number had been close to 70 percent.“People’s attitudes are changing,” Gelb said. He hoped that relaxing the rules would help make the Met more accessible to “younger audiences who really don’t want to wear a mask.” With the elimination of the mandate, the company will also reopen its bars, many of which have remained closed during the pandemic.Proof of vaccination, as well as masks, were required to gain entry to many venues starting last year, when arts organizations returned to the stage after a long shutdown. Over the summer, however, as hospitalizations and deaths declined, many groups began to ease their rules. Broadway theaters (with a few exceptions) dropped the vaccine requirement on May 1, and the mask mandate on July 1.While most classical, opera and dance groups eliminated the vaccine requirement this fall, many kept in place strict mask mandates on the advice of medical advisers. The question of masks posed a challenge for many groups; they risked alienating some ticket buyers, no matter how they proceeded.At the Met, stage managers have delivered announcements from the stage before each performance reminding audiences to keep masks on for the duration of opera. At Carnegie Hall, ushers have checked each row and called out people who were not wearing masks.Clive Gillinson, Carnegie’s executive and artistic director, said that the hall kept mask rules in place this fall because of lingering concerns about the virus among some medical advisers and audience members. But it decided to make a change after medical advisers said it could operate safely without masks, and after complaints from the audience were growing.“Ushers were finding it actually quite difficult because a lot of people were very annoyed having to still wear masks when in most of their lives they’re no longer doing so,” Gillinson said in an interview.By eliminating the mask rules, arts leaders hope they can help restore a sense of normalcy at a time when many groups are struggling to recover from the turmoil of the pandemic. While live performance is flourishing once again in New York and across the United States, audiences have been slow to return.Deborah Borda, the president and chief executive of the Philharmonic, said in an interview that the mask rules could change if the virus emerged as a deadly threat once again.“This is an ever-evolving situation,” she said. “We will stay on top of whatever the current medical protocol dictates.”But for now, she said, it is time to change focus.“We feel it’s important that we do our part to help the city return to a much more normal state of affairs,” she said, “and to encourage people to come back into the city and to reinvigorate the economy.” More

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    A Pioneering Black Ballerina’s Life Story Comes to the Stage

    HOUSTON — When Lauren Anderson was promoted to principal dancer at Houston Ballet in 1990, she made history as one of the first Black women to be a principal at a major American ballet company.“My goal was just to get in the company,” Anderson, 57, said in a recent interview. “My dream was to be a soloist. I didn’t expect to go past soloist.”But she did, dancing the lead in ballets like “Cleopatra” and collecting accolades. Reviewing “Cleopatra” in 2000, the critic Clive Barnes called her “the superb, stunning Lauren Anderson” and “an authentic star.” (The snake headband she wore is in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.) Now Anderson has another kind of starring role: as the subject of a new show, “Plumshuga: The Rise of Lauren Anderson,” which opened last night at the Stages theater here and runs through Nov. 13.Written by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, the first Black poet laureate of Houston, “Plumshuga” — the title riffs on one of her signature roles, the Sugarplum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” — features performers from the Ensemble Theater, Houston Ballet and Houston Ballet Academy. The show, which charts Anderson’s rise and career in ballet, also examines her personal life, including experiences of abuse and her struggles with alcoholism.Anderson as Cleopatra and Dominic Walsh as Marc Antony in Houston Ballet’s “Cleopatra” in 2000. Geoff Winningham/Houston Ballet
    “In approaching this work, I considered three paths,” Mouton said in an interview. “Who is she as an artist, who is she as a woman and who is she as an addict? And how do those things give us a more whole and complete understanding of Lauren Anderson — the person?”Anderson, whose repertory included works by George Balanchine and Kenneth MacMillan, was a pioneer in a field that still struggles with diversity. One of the few Black women to follow her as a principal dancer in a major company, Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theater has credited her as an inspiration. Copeland’s stardom is a welcome sign, Anderson believes, of needed change in the industry.“I think when it comes to changing things that need to be changed, the young people got it,” she said.After Anderson, a Houston native, retired from dancing in 2006 (and after revelations about her addiction became public, in 2009, when she was pulled over in Houston for speeding), she set out on a new professional path, though one in which dance remains central: She works as the associate director of the Houston Ballet’s education and community engagement program, a role that allows her to cultivate the next generations of dancers.In a recent conversation at Houston Ballet, Anderson spoke about “Plumshuga,” being a ballet pioneer and being frank about addiction. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.from “Plumshuga,” on opening night.Take me back to 1990. What was your initial reaction to your promotion?So let’s get this right. In 1990, I didn’t know my promotion was historic. I thought my promotion was that the miracle happened. I didn’t think I’d be at the top of the company. I was thinking that’s probably impossible. And lo and behold, it happened. I knew I was the first Black person to be a principal dancer. But I wasn’t thinking history making; I was just thinking, “I got to the mountaintop.” Now I know. And throughout my career, I’ve understood the gravity of it.You said in an interview, “My blackness never bothered me, it bothered other people.” How did Houston react?I’ve been here my whole life, for 57 years. The city of Houston has seen my face on the stage since 1972, because I was in Houston Ballet’s first Nutcracker. However, in 1983, when I did my first Sugarplum Fairy, when I turned to face the audience, they let out this huge gasp, because they just hadn’t seen this. And then, at the end of the show, we got a standing ovation. From that moment on, the city of Houston has had their arms open, and they have given me a giant hug.The staff had to deal with some things, though. Whenever there’s hate mail or anything of that kind, the F.B.I. opens a file, so I know Houston Ballet’s F.B.I. file on me has to be a mile high. Annie Mulligan for The New York TimesDeborah D.E.E.P Mouton, the first Black poet laureate of Houston, wrote “Plumshuga” after talking with Anderson over three years.Annie Mulligan for The New York TimesYou’ve been recognized as a groundbreaking dancer with regard to race, but also challenging norms of visibility for dark-skinned Black women in the arts. How did you grapple with racism and colorism in the industry?It wasn’t an issue here at the Houston Ballet; it was an issue in other places. Because we’ve had every color brown here. But there has definitely been a longstanding issue. Beige ballerinas are allowed to be more things than dark-skinned ballerinas. There’s definitely more beige ballerinas that are at the top of their company than there are those who are dark-skinned.I see the way little girls look at me, and I’ll never forget the way the little brown girls look at me. It’s with that look of “I could be her.”How did you arrive at the decision to allow someone else to tell your life story onstage?Deborah Mouton is someone that I absolutely respect, so when she came to me and said that she’d like to write a piece about my life, I was like, “Are you sure?”What was the process?You could just really piece the pieces together, but she said, “No, I want it in your words.” So we did three years of interviews.She took my words and made them sound like cursive. She makes me sound so good. So much so that when I read it, and I hear it, some of it hurts. I get to relive and reflect and have all the feels. That’s how in my words it is.Deborah wrote it, and I changed things like the floor wasn’t wood, it was linoleum; or the wall wasn’t green, it was purple. We did a drive-through of some of the places we talked about around Houston.A scene from “Plumshuga.”Annie Mulligan for The New York TimesWhat were some of those places?We went to where Houston Ballet was when I first walked through the doors in 1972; it’s now a drive-through Starbucks. We drove by Lamar High School. We went to the house I was born in. We went by my dad’s house.You’ve been candid about your struggles with addiction. Did you feel any hesitation about that period of your life being on display in this manner?If I was going to tell my story, how could I leave that out? It was awesome in the sense that I was full, and I got to empty myself to Deborah after a certain amount of trust. One day I emptied so well, I stopped seeing my therapist. And I was scared. But when I talked to my therapist about that decision, she said, “We’re supposed to get divorced honey, it’s OK.”Are there any aspects of the performance that might surprise the audience?Everything. Some people will know these sides, but nobody knows what I was thinking or what I was feeling. I didn’t let people know what I really thought and really felt when I walked into my first dance studio. It’s the feels all the way through.Destiny McGlothen, 7, and her mother, Danielle, as the Lauren Anderson character is awarded prestigious roles early in her career.Annie Mulligan for The New York TimesYou’ve been cited as an inspiration by Misty Copeland, your fellow Houstonian Solange Knowles and other Black artists. Do you feel a sense of surprise or pride for inspiring so many Black women?I’m absolutely full anytime anyone says that Lauren Anderson inspired them. But I’m just me, I’m just Lauren Anderson from the Third Ward in Houston.I remember speaking with Tina Knowles years ago at an event and she told me that she brought her daughters to see me perform. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the Solange post [crediting Anderson as an inspiration]. The last time I saw Solange, who went to school with my stepdaughter, she was a kid!How has ballet changed since you retired, and will those changes improve conditions for dancers from marginalized communities?Young people are louder than we were. Oh, this generation feels their feels, honey, and they let you know how they feel! And I love that.What keeps you in Houston?My roots are deep. The Houston Ballet, my family’s here. My parents are here and are getting older, and I want to be with them as much as possible.After the performance wraps, how do you intend to continue sharing your own story?The thing about being in recovery is that you recover by giving it away. You keep your sobriety by giving it back, just like dance. How do I keep performing? How do I keep ballet? By sharing it with the next generation. More