With the hit musical “Hadestown” about to take the stage at the Ahmanson Theater, Oct. 3rd – 15th, multi-award-winning choreographer David Neumann was kind enough to take the time to talk with LADC this past week. “Since 1999, Neumann has worked behind the scenes to craft plays, operas, films and multi-disciplinary performances.” His work can be seen in the films “I Am Legend,” and “Marriage Story.” He is a tenured professor at Sarah Lawrence College and has taught at Julliard, NYU, Princeton and Yale, among others. He is also the, Artistic Director of “Advanced Beginner Group,” a three-time winner of the Bessie Award. His path has been a fascinating and eclectic trip, from B-Boy to Broadway.
David spoke with me via Zoom from his leafy backyard in Westchester, New York.
TW. Please tell us a little bit about your work and your background.
DN. I came to dance late, I was and still am a theater artist, I direct and devise theater as well as choreograph. Basically, I studied dance in a way that was like a survey of dances from around the world, as well as more formal training in modern dance and ballet. I started as a B-Boy, here in the New York area.
TW. I know there are a lot of great B-Boys working everywhere but to move into choreography at the level you’ve achieved is rather extraordinary.
DN. Yeah, I know it’s kind of funny to find myself here. I never really aimed for this but I’m certainly grateful to be here. It’s been a fascinating, strange and circuitous path.
TW. I’m curious as to when you joined the team for “Hadestown?” I believe it was quite early maybe 2010?
DN. Yeah, quite early. Anais Mitchell, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, asked me to work with some of her colleges and friends up in Vermont. We were part of a larger community of theater makers, puppeteers and musicians and they had cobbled together a touring version of the show. I knew some of these folks through the world of puppeteering and the downtown show I do in NYC. So, they called me in to help out with an early version of the show, before the current creative team was involved. It was very exciting I got to know Anais and we got along very well, so she brought me in to the workshops and meetings and I choreographed the first show and everything subsequent to that.
TW. I know that in its first iteration there were no dancers only the main actors and the “Fates.” When was the decision made to add dancers?
DN. In 2015, after doing a NYC Workshop, we were invited to perform at the “Citadel Theater,” in Alberta Canada and that’s when we added the “Worker” ensemble of five dancers.
TW. The style of the choreography, in my mind, is organic and freestyle even though the choreography is specific and set. I am wondering if this was asked for by the director, Rachel Chavkin, or strictly your choice.
DN. I think that we were all in agreement that we wanted to see human beings onstage so, instead of doing a literal depiction of working with props, for example, the work was within the dancing itself. When they are the workers below ground the movement is more rigid, while above ground there is more freedom for personal and individual expression. We wanted the feel of a community of people instead of a singular idea of a chorus line. I enjoy that in my own work too, I like seeing how individual people move. It’s far more interesting to me to see different interpretations of movement. This is a poetic work as opposed to literal. So, the dance is sometimes more subtle yet, it requires intense rehearsal and tremendous energy.
TW. How closely did you work with the Director?
DN. Quite closely because the whole show is choreographed. The entire show is scored including the speaking parts, which are written within the bars of the music. It’s very specific so we had to work very closely as a tag team and it worked very well.
TW. The swinging lamps in the underworld are an impactful addition to the scene. What was the impetus behind this idea?
DN. This is actually a lovely story from our composer Anais. She was driving home late at night from a concert she had given and was really missing her husband. As she was driving, she was making up a song that would become “Wait for Me.” The street lights going by at regular intervals helped her find the cadence of the music. So, something about lights moving was embedded in its creation and Rachel Chavkin, our director, really took to that idea and was inspired to bring lights into the show and this is what it became. It took hours and hours of tech to get the timing exactly right.
TW. Now that the show has been running for quite a while and you have dance captains and stage management are you still involved in the upkeep of the show?
DN. Oh yeah. I come out as often as I can, once a month if possible. We also recently implemented a rehearsal process for new members of the touring company of first doing a workshop in NYC. The creative team works with them, and we lay in the dramaturgical work and the background and answer their questions directly, so that they are armed with a sense of the same rehearsal process that every cast has been able to have. When they join the tour, because they’ve learned most of the material, they can be easily integrated into the cast.
TW. What is your audition process, particularly for the Fates, since they need to be multi-talented?
DN. We go through a casting office and they send out a call. Non-binary or female identifying is fine for a position of a Fate. They should play a violin or accordion and sing well.
TW. I love that the “Fates” are beautiful singers as well as musicians. For me they are a highlight of the show.
DN. Yes, we definitely need musicians because the whole play is a kind of concert, its staged but it’s a song cycle in a way, almost an opera.
TW. Yes, that is an apt description. Once the show was a “go” after all the workshops etc., what was the process to get it to Broadway?
DN. We had done the production in Canada where the stage was almost all in the round, a horseshoe with the band on one end and the audience three quarters around. It was great. Of course, we couldn’t easily do that on Broadway and we didn’t have the budget anyway, so we went back to Canada to try working in a proscenium and learned some big lessons in the process. Then we went to The National Theater in London before finally coming to Broadway. And that’s where we found the show. We had six weeks of rehearsal and because it’s England we had a lot of support. We were able to have a turntable in the rehearsal room and that really saved us because we discovered how to use it musically and with intention. At first, we had it rotating in every scene until we realized okay, enough is too much!
TW. With the success of “Hadestown” you must be very busy, so what’s next for you?
DN. I’m working on a new piece at the Washington National Opera starting next week and I am working on another new musical, also in Washington D. C., immediately after that. It’s written by The Avett Brothers, the folk-rock band, and we’ll be at the Arena Stage. I have a lot of projects in the works. One of them is an original piece in collaboration with a former student of mine, Marcella Murray. We have been embarking on a multi-year conversation around race. She is African American and we are both from the South. We are working on the third piece of what will become a trilogy. I’m also continuing to work with “Hadestown.” of course. We, the creative team, are bringing it to the Westend in London. It’s very exciting.
TW. When you were a young B-Boy, did you ever think that one day you would be an “in demand “choreographer on this level?
DN. I never saw myself as a choreographer although I had a hunch that I would be in the arts and theater but I didn’t know I would end up here. It’s still a surprise.
TW. A good one for sure.
TW. Thank you so much David, for taking the time to chat with me, it’s been a pleasure and I know the LADC readers will be excited to learn more about you and your work.
I anticipate we will hear a lot more from choreographer, David Neumann but in the meantime if given the opportunity to see “Hadestown,” go!
Connect to David’s web page click HERE.
To learn more about the Ahmanson Theatre and to purchase tickets for “Hadestown”, please visit their website.
Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: J. Antonio Rodriguez and Company in Hadestown North American Tour 2023. Photo by T Charles Erickson