Michael Callahan was a bit out of breath when I caught him between rehearsals last week for a brief interview: with opening night at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa just around the corner, his time is incredibly valuable. As dance captain and swing for the national tour of Disney’s Aladdin, Callahan has more to learn than the show’s average dancer. He knows several, if not all, of the dance tracks in the production—and not just steps. Callahan spared a moment to speak with me about dance captain duties, tour perks, and cast dynamics.
Callahan was brought on with the start of the national tour, which followed Disney’s Broadway production. He jumped straight in as both dance captain and swing—the choreography was already set from the Broadway production, so the learning process was quite the crash course.
“It was a crazy learning curve, learning everybody’s track,” he said. “It’s a difficult job, but so rewarding. My dream growing up as a dancer was to know a show in its entirety, and how it all clicks together, and what the director and choreographer intended both stylistically and artistically.”
Since the Broadway show’s director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw stayed with the national tour, the choreography is primarily the same. Callahan enjoys being able to communicate Nicholaw’s intention to the tour dancers, to explain why certain steps take on certain qualities and what Nicholaw means to convey with each one. This is particularly imperative, he tells me, because the choreography incorporates several dance styles: classical jazz and musical theater jazz, a big tap section, a ballroom section, two separate Bollywood sections, and more. Mastering all the styles is quite the challenge, but Callahan teaches the nuances as well as the motivation behind the steps.
“I like to give a reason why things need to be executed sharply or softly,” he said. “It’s been a blast seeing new people come in and start to perform and really understand.”
Once the cast has learned their tracks, rehearsals are scheduled to add in more and more external factors until the dancers are ready for the stage. Sets and costumes are layered in—but one at a time. According to Callahan, learning how to dance in costumes can take a whole day.
“There are one hundred quick changes in the Prince Ali number alone,” he said. “Our costumes are gorgeous and beautiful, and we want to incorporate them rather than fumble with them onstage.”
Men must adjust to a Cuban heel—unusual for men trained in jazz—and women must learn how to avoid stepping on their long, billowing skirts. Fortunately, Callahan says, it’s a team effort, and with the whole team on board, the process goes much more smoothly.
“We’re doing a huge, beautiful production every night, and if you don’t have people onstage with you that you trust it becomes disconnected and not interesting to watch,” he said. “Kids always ask if I hate being in the ensemble, but the show wouldn’t make any sense without it. We create the world that Aladdin lives in.”
This kind of camaraderie only comes with night after night on tour together, and a good amount of the cast has lasted long enough to form a cohesive team. The tour’s current Jasmine (Lissa DeGuzman) and Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan) began as understudies and danced in the ensemble. Their understanding and respect for the dancers has contributed heavily to the community environment.
“It’s wonderful having young people lead our company who have respect for being a dancer,” Callahan explained. “We have a couple older principals who have been in the business for so long and really experienced leaders, and they lead us through their professionalism and expertise and advice.”
The mix of older and younger in the cast mirrors the mix of older and younger in the audience: there is a generation that loved the animated feature in its heyday, and a new generation of children whose parents taught them the story. Callahan also teaches young students along the way: Disney sets up opportunities for master classes, and he’s taught choreography from the show as well as his own choreography at some of the tour stops.
“It’s important and inspiring to see those young dancers begin to see their careers ahead,” he said. “It wakes you up to what you do. I was that young dancer once—I never thought I’d be a dance captain on the national tour of Aladdin, but here I am, and I couldn’t be happier.”
When performing the same show each night grows tedious, he tells the dancers, look for the little girl in the Jasmine costume in the third row, and dance for her. He finds a solace and renewal in meeting young audience members that remind him of his young self.
“Every once in awhile we see a boy dressed up as Aladdin, and it’s like, ‘That was me! And I made that kid laugh and smile, and I hope that did something,’” he said.
Aladdin opens Wednesday, March 6 at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa. For tickets, click here.
For more information about the Segerstrom Center’s performance schedule, click here.
Featured image: Segerstrom Center for the Arts – Disney’s Aladdin – Arabian Nights Men – Disney’s Aladdin – ©Disney – Photo by Deen van Meer