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Larry Keigwin: Moving Between Mediums

The esteemed choreographer discusses his new full-length piece EXIT, working on the new musical Tales of the City, and getting ready to tackle Rent.

Larry Keigwin
(© Matthew Murphy)
The worlds of modern dance and musical theater have long been interconnected, from pioneers like George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins through such modern masters as Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, and Bill T. Jones. The latest choreographer to make this leap -- and in particularly spectacular fashion -- is Larry Keigwin.

On March 8, he will formally debut his first full-length dance-theater piece, Exit, for a week-long run at New York's Joyce Theater. After that engagement, he will turn his focus to choreographing the world premiere musical Tales of the City, which bows at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre on May 19, and the new Off-Broadway production of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent, which begins previews at New World Stages on July 11. "My goal in life has always been to move between these mediums," says Keigwin.

Exit is an hour-long piece that deals, in part, with the nature of addiction. At one point, Keigwin was going to call the work, Bad Habits, but decided to go in a different direction. "I think the title Exit has a larger scope and more room for interpretation," he says. "I actually love titles and I think a good title is a great asset. I find it frustrating to go to an art museum and see something called 'untitled,' because then I don't have a way in to the work."

The genesis for Exit was a 15-minute piece he did last year in a large theater in Santa Barbara. "Everything on the stage had been stripped bare, and I noticed this exit sign in a corner of stage and that was my inspiration," he says. "A lot of people can relate to exiting a bad situation or a bad relationship."

Over the past year, Keigwin has worked with his troupe to expand the piece, which he admits was quite intimidating. "Since I've usually done shorter dances, I wasn't able to put the puzzle pieces together at first. But ultimately, I realized this is just a lot of short dances put together - an hour is really six 10-minute dances. The most challenging part was sifting through all the material I created and finding what really resonated. I wanted to tell a non-linear story about dependency, but I didn't want people drinking beer or shooting heroin on stage."

Kristina Hanna in EXIT
(© Matthew Murphy)
One of the most unusual aspects of Exit will be the music, which was composed by Chris Lancaster for the acoustic cello and which will be mixed and manipulated live each night by pianist Jerome Bergin. "It is like a ride with many peaks and valleys; in some ways, it's like being on drugs: there's anticipation, climax, and withdrawal. It sounds very urban, but the strings will give it a more emotional, melodic line. It's very different for me; it's more environmental, atmospheric, and collage-like than what I usually use."

For Tales of the City, which is based on the series of books by Armistead Maupin, Keigwin will be working with a score by Jake Shears and John Garden of the glam-rock band Scissor Sisters. The show had an in-depth workshop last year, but there's plenty still to be done, he notes. "We only staged four songs out of the whole score. The workshop was much more about double-checking how the story and music fit; the choreography was just there to find a palette," he says.

Since much of the story is set in the 1970s, Keigwin will be incorporating some disco dancing into the show -- but his job is much more than recreating the Hustle. "Choreography is about more than just the moves," he notes. "I think I'm good at creating human traffic and behavior on stage, and I look forward to working with Jason Moore [the show's director] on implementing my ideas."

As for getting the chance to work on Rent, he says he couldn't be more excited. "I know it's not a traditional dance show, but this music and material is my generation," he notes. "I can't wait to look at the work again and then create choreography that will work in this intimate setting. And because the book and music are already done, there will be a lot of time to focus on the staging. I already have so many ideas in my head."


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