By Richelle Sutton, dramaturg
Just as we were able to work with the composer of Wonderland, Frank Wildhorn, we had another special opportunity to have a guest choreographer travel from New York to Provo to help set some of our dances. Nick Palmquist is a well-known and widely popular choreographer. I asked him some questions in between choreography sessions with the cast. A portion of that interview appeared in the program study guide. Below is the full interview.
Richelle Sutton (RS): What is your general experience with Alice in Wonderland?
Nick Palmquist: I think music theater in general, when a story is somewhat fictional or fantasy involved, is easier for a choreographer to have a license to create this world where people are joining into song and dance together just out of nowhere. Everybody knows the same words and they’re all singing and dancing together. That, to me, is the magic of Wonderland that I’m trying to create. That the people on the street hear the music that’s happening in the orchestra the same way that the people in the audience do. As a choreographer, I want people to be able to personify these sounds. So when you hear a guitar, how do we put that into a body so that people that have never heard the song before are relating to that musicality? And that’s what Alice is missing. She’s not hearing this magic on the street. That’s what Wonderland is: these people are spontaneously breaking out into something that they all hear, and [Alice] as this somewhat serious writer and adult that feels like she has to be all of these things. It’s taking her a while to be able to break into that childlike idea. We get a taste of that throughout “Welcome to Wonderland”. And then throughout the rest of the show, she’s slowly, more and more, being able to be a little bit sillier, take herself a little bit less seriously. Which is what your inner child really is – it’s being able to laugh at yourself, laugh with other people. That has been the joy of being able to create that. Sometimes it’s weird and it’s obscure. Sometimes it’s full of joy and all of those emotions Alice should be able to feel as an adult, and children should be able to feel it as well. Fear, joy, and all of those things. So trying to combine them in one number and then through the whole show is kind of a challenge for me.
RS: And what has been your experience with doing a world like this? Something non-realistic or fantasy-like, since it’s kind of like a dreamscape type of world?
Nick: It’s actually not something I do a lot. I teach classes in New York a lot, and what do is teach people is how to get dance into their real lives. So I’m constantly trying to find a realistic application of dance. Many songs are about love, dramatic love songs. A lot of times, I try and spin it on its head a little bit and try and find a different way to interpret a song. With a fantasy world, it’s that same idea of trying to open up an idea that is applicable to anybody, even though it’s a fantasy. It should still be something that you can relate to your real life. Finding your inner child is still a serious idea and something that the world can gain a lot from. Even though it’s different, it’s not really that different than trying to find a more serious and non-fantasy idea. It still has to be related in some kind of human emotion. Just because this is a fantasy story doesn’t mean that we’re not still trying to find how someone can apply that to their real life. Alice is maybe how the audience feels. They’re real people. And she’s in this fantasy world. We still have to combine real and make-believe. So not having that experience as much has been really fun because then I get to play and it doesn’t have to really relate to anything because it can be fantasy. I can have them leap-frogging over each other and we can pretend that that’s how they would normally walk down the street. If that makes somebody smile, it’s because they’re remembering doing that as a kid. So it still has some kind of application, even though it’s in fantasy.
RS: Has that been your favorite part of doing this type of non-realistic dance?
Nick: In general, I don’t really have a favorite anything. I don’t have a favorite style of dance or genre of storytelling. I just love live theater. I love real instruments and trying to put those sounds into someone’s body. I love that these kids – they’re creating everything. They’re creating the sounds in the orchestra, they’re creating the sounds in their voices, the shapes of their body. That, to me, is what’s so amazing about music theater. I’m up for anything, in any kind of genre. But it has been really fun to be able to be really silly and be fun with these kids. (They) just have so much energy when you walk in there. Tapping into that is not really a challenge for them, so it makes it not a challenge for me either. That’s been really nice because I think the genre lends [itself] to that – to being able to harness that full exuberance.
RS: On top of that, how has your experience been, working with BYU students on this?
Nick: It’s been amazing. My first experience with the BYU students was when I choreographed a show called Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Music Theatre Wichita. I had five or six BYU students. They were just so prepared always. They were never the people in the room that needed to review anything. They always came prepared. They always were really open. And their questions were questions that I needed to be asking myself as well. The fact that they were asking those questions showed that they were really taking it seriously. I’ve come here for master classes and now I’m actually getting to set something. It’s just really nice to come in and you don’t have to force somebody to take something seriously. I like how the classes start out with a scripture and with trying to apply some kind of faith-based way of thinking into performing, because when you’re blessed with a gift, like singing or dancing or something, and you’re able to share it from some kind of higher power, it doesn’t have to be a scripture that is speaking to somebody, it could be dance. I think for a lot of people, song and dance is the best way to get through to somebody. So it’s been amazing to not have to walk that line. I’ve taught at other universities where there is that separation of church and state. With this, it’s really nice to be able to have that joy come from faith because I think it alleviates a lot of the stress that having a career or a major that’s in the performing arts can sometimes have. So I love it. It’s been really great. I will always come back anytime.
RS: I have a question as a dramaturg looking through this play. There are so many layers that the script writer and that the composer Frank Wildhorn have put into it. How do you approach or choreograph a piece with this many layers, and how do you put that into the dances?
Nick: You know, it’s been a challenge, because there are all those layers, and then they’re changing as well. There’s a different script every day. It’s actually a big challenge because I am a very musical choreographer. But also lyrically, I’m trying to interpret what they’re saying in dance. When that’s changing, that has been the challenge for me. My approach is always to try and give the audience who’s hearing the song for the first time some kind of advantage. To me, that’s in the dancing. If I can give the rhythm that’s in the music that somebody’s never heard before a visual, then maybe they’re hearing that little trill that they wouldn’t have noticed if somebody weren’t dancing on it. To me, it’s always highlighting the musicality.
When I came, I was lucky enough that Frank was here on the first day that I got here. We kind of overlapped and he was sharing with me the most important thing to come across to the audience. And for him, it’s obviously Alice’s story. But before I was choreographing, I was performing in the ensemble. I think the ensemble is the best role because you’re getting to play 16 different characters in one show. There’s sometimes a tendency to check out of that, but then there’s also a real responsibility that if somebody decides to watch you through this whole number, do you have a story that you’re telling throughout the whole thing? Or is it just the eight counts where you have something to do? My approach is to try and make the ensemble feel important. Especially with “Welcome to Wonderland”, it is their job to set-up: What is this world? How do I immediately understand the zany-ness, the kind of manic energy, and where’s the joy within that as well? And how can Alice tap into that, even though she’s scared to death when she first walks into it?
So my approach is always highlighting the music and then making sure that the joy, the feeling is coming across in whatever dramaturgically is supposed to happen. So if it’s a feeling of anxiety, if it’s a feeling of fear, the dancing should mimic that. For me, it’s never about tricks or perfect lines, or what people can do with their bodies, or throwing it to the back of the house. It’s about creating a world that makes people want to lean forward in their seats. We live in an age where an Instagram story is 15 seconds, and that’s sometimes too long for some people. So I try to create patience in a number. Especially in “Welcome to Wonderland”, [where] it’s layered and layered and layered. Trying to get people to really engage in that comes from the ensemble because it takes a while to learn who Alice is. It’s going to take that whole story. She has a whole arc, but we have to hit [the audience] with that first number and have people care enough to stay invested and try and figure out what this through-line is. That’s the ensemble’s responsibility.
RS: I think that that’s all the questions I have, is there anything that you would like to share?
Nick: I think I have a really great time with this age of people, where they’re on the cusp of having to dance or sing to pay their bills. There comes a different relationship with your gift when you rely on it. I just learned from Tim [Threlfall, the director] that the LDS church has made it a very affordable school for these kids to go to. I graduated with all kinds of debt. So immediately the weight of having to have the best, flashiest show that was going to pay everything and make it all worth it was this huge responsibility.
For me, the most important thing is for people to always find joy in their dancing and their singing because it’s such a relatable feeling. You don’t have to be able to do that yourself to be able to watch somebody that really loves what they do do it. Anytime I come back, my sole purpose is trying to get them to tap back into this idea that when you were 10 and you were discovering that this is something that you loved, there wasn’t any shame involved in if you were good at it or not. It was just joy. [I enjoy] having the opportunity to come back and work with students that are in that kind of precarious place of “Am I good enough? Am I going to graduate and be on Broadway right away?” But there are so many kinds of success. I’m saying that to you when I need to be saying it to myself. So it’s really nice to be able to come back and be able to say to somebody else what I need to almost be saying to myself and have them so eagerly approach it. That makes it something that inspires me, it really does. I just feel a lot of gratitude and I’m glad to be in such an open environment. It’s really, really nice.
RS: Thank you!