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Disney, Britney Spears, Romeo and Juliet, and Karate Kid: The Many Projects of Keone and Mari Madrid

Meet the two choreographer/directors who are taking the theater by storm.

Keone and Mari Madrid in Beyond Babel
(© Aidan Gibney)

When the world shut down, many couples had to adjust to working and living in the same space, but Keone and Mari Madrid were used to it as partners not just in marriage but also choreography. "We're two people who just really enjoy being together 24/7. I think not every couple is like that and that's totally fine," says Mari. "I think we're a little weird. We really genuinely like to be around each other a lot."

Their comfort level is evident in the way they finish each other's sentences and continue each other's thoughts. And they obviously have a good thing going professionally given how in demand they are these days. They choreographed Disney's first animated short in five years, Us Again, their show Beyond Babel returns to the Gym at Judson on September 30, and the Broadway-bound musical they will choreograph and direct, Once Upon a One More Time, starts performances in Washington, D.C. in November.

Beyond Babel, the Madrids' first full-length Off-Broadway dance show, was in an extended run when, like every other show playing in New York in March 2020, it had to abruptly shut down. The couple headed back home to San Diego and as it became apparent they would be there for a while, they got busy developing a virtual learning platform for their training program Building Block. "We told ourselves that we want to come out of this with our tools sharper than ever," Keone says. "We're the type of people that are just always on and always working project to project. When are we going to get the chance to just focus in on ourselves and become better storytellers and better directors?"

During this time, they also kept dialogues going with the teams on their various shows, and they were already used to working virtually because that is how they developed Us Again before the pandemic. They had just had a baby, which made it hard for them to travel from San Diego to Disney's animation studios in Burbank. "We were Zooming before Zoom was popular," Keone jokes. "We were so trendy," Mari adds.

Us Again played in theaters (the few that were open) before Raya and the Last Dragon and also premiered on Disney Plus on June 4. In it, an older couple relive their youth through dance. Even before they were hired, Zach Parrish, the writer and director, used the Madrids' YouTube videos to pitch the short (above, there is a video in which they dance as an old couple). "Being able to be part of [Disney's legacy] in any tiny little bit is amazing and to also have Disney give a chance to let dance be such a big voice in it. We got to represent dance, we got to represent our style of dance and so many other people's, and also have people of color as the leads," Mari says.

Because of the way the Madrids work, they needed the music to be as complete as possible (to "use their superpowers best," as Mari puts it), so even though that is usually one of the last steps in film/animation, composer Pinar Toprak made a temp track for them to work off of that ended up being very close to the final. They would go in section by section, working off the music and storyboards, and send videos to Disney.

Though working with animators was new, the process between the two of them was fairly similar to other projects in that it's about taking a piece of music and trying to figure out how to tell that story in movement. They often like to freestyle to start. Sometimes they'll divide things up depending on whose style works better and sometimes they'll work together. "Mari's style of movement is very contemporary and she's way more flexible and diverse than I am. I'm very athletic and have a lot of masculine fast footwork. Then we meet in the middle with gestural storytelling," Keone says. "I'm definitely someone that's more outspoken in the room so that can be advantageous where Mari's the one that's reserved, analyzing the room and then when she speaks it'll really hit the cast hard because she's got something to say."

Mari adds that an advantage of their different energies is that people will naturally gravitate towards one or the other in the rehearsal room. They'll soon be in rehearsals for Once Upon a One More Time, a musical using Britney Spears's catalogue of songs to tell the story of fairy tale princesses. That should utilize their skills with pop music, having worked on music videos for artists like Justin Bieber.

They are used to working with dancers, but this time they will be directing actors as well, so they also took time during the pandemic to learn more about acting, even hiring a private acting coach. "We always say dancers are soldiers. They go, 'What do you need?' They don't question anything. But actors, there's so much that goes on inside of their minds. There's so much nuance. So just learning how to speak that language a little bit more," Mari says.

Before jumping into Once Upon a One More Time, they'll re-open Beyond Babel, appearing in shows at the beginning of the run. The work, inspired by Romeo & Juliet, explores the divisions between people and communities. "Unfortunately, our story for the show is timelier than ever," Keone says. "Humans have been doing this throughout history. And it's a way for us as humans to look in the mirror and see how we can be better." But it's also about connecting and they're looking forward to gather with humans again in that space, though they joke that it is probably disgusting with sweat towels and water bottles left behind.

If all of these projects weren't enough, they are also attached to a musical based on The Karate Kid, which is set to premiere in St. Louis next spring. And they hint at even more in the pipeline that they can't talk about yet.

Though they were already a successful duo, Us Again gave them even more confidence to take on more directing and more projects with storytelling in both film and stage. "I think we just felt more affirmed in our place not just as choreographers and directors, but also filmmakers," Keone says. "Disney was very collaborative in allowing us to come in early in the process and have us be involved in the story aspects of the piece and not just say, 'Hey, here's music, here's a scene. We need choreography,' which is usually the process. And for them to see us as story partners was huge because that's what we're very passionate about and what we're trying to move forward with in our careers."