November’s production of West Side Story, a collaboration between Lincoln Academy and Heartwood Theater, will add a new element to Lincoln Academy’s fall musical: choreography straight out of Broadway.
Michelle Bruckner, a New-York based dance teacher, choreographer, and dancer with Broadway credits, is working with the cast of more than 35 high school students to make West Side Story a true triple-threat production. Bruckner travels weekly from New York City, where she teaches at the American Music and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) to run two or more dance-intensive rehearsals a week for the West Side Story cast.
The rehearsals are no joke. Cast members warm up and start dancing, learning new routines and drilling old ones for three solid hours after a full day of school. By opening night on November 3, the cast will have put in more than 45 hours of dance instruction with Bruckner, and not a moment of it wasted. “When you have 35 high school kids you have to keep their attention; you have to move fast.”
They do move fast, and the students love it. “It is really fun to work with Michelle,” said Thiri Aung, a Lincoln Academy junior in the cast. “She teaches the dances in a way that is easy for people who have not done much dance before to understand. We are learning very quickly, but people are really keeping up.”
“Michelle is a really good choreographer, and she goes fast, but makes sure everyone knows what they are doing at each step along the way,” said junior May Halm, who has been studying dance for more than six years. “She takes videos and sends them to us by email. That really helps because you can go home and work at your own pace.”
Bruckner fell in love with Maine the summer after she graduated from college, when she was hired as a summer stock dancer for the Carousel Music Theater in Boothbay. In the years since that first summer, she has sought out opportunities to work in Maine.
“There is something about how the light and air are here. There is a little more space. I have spent so much time in New York City, and you get used to the crowds and the rush, but it is still stressful. When life in New York feels uncomfortable, I think about Maine. Here, I don’t feel the same stress.” Long term, after her teenage daughter leaves for college, Bruckner hopes to build a life in Maine.
Bruckner met Griff Braley, theater teacher at Lincoln Academy and director of West Side Story through a mutual friend, and Braley hired her to help with the Choreography for “Centerstage 16,” last fall’s Lincoln Academy musical revue, as well as Heartwood Theater’s summer 2017 production of Into the Woods. “We have always used movement in our productions, but I have been wanting to incorporate more formal dance training for a while,” said director Griff Braley. “Meeting Michelle gave us the perfect opportunity.”
Bruckner grew up on Long Island “in a dancing family,” she says. She attended BOCES Long Island High School for the Arts, and went on to earn her BFA in dance from Adelphi University, also on Long Island. Her professional dance career took her to regional theaters (including Maine State Music Theater) all over the country, and around the world as a performer for the Holland America Cruise Line and the national and international tours of A Chorus Line and Chicago. After years of touring, Bruckner ultimately landed a place in the Broadway cast of Chicago.
Following the birth of her daughter in 2001, Bruckner returned to regional theater. “My first show back after maternity leave was playing Velma in the Maine State Music Theater production of Chicago,” she recalls. She continued to juggle performing and motherhood for five years, doing two or three regional productions a year until her daughter started kindergarten. At that point Bruckner made the transition from performing to teaching and choreography.
Since 2006 Bruckner has been on the AMDA faculty, teaching dance in the school’s two-year conservatory program. She acknowledges that teaching in conservatory is a whole different challenge than teaching high school students with a broad range of dance experience.
“In New York I mostly work with experienced dancers; people who grew up dancing and want a career in the performing arts. My students there spend all day in the studio training. In this show, I have one afternoon a couple of days a week. I worry about how much they can learn in a short time. Will they remember what they learn from rehearsal to rehearsal? So far, so good! They are so into it. Yesterday I just had boys, and they are fantastic. I never have to ask them to pay attention, they are totally focused.”
To help the West Side actors practice their dances between her trips to Maine, Bruckner has deputized LA junior Katherine Tolley as the show’s official “dance captain.”
“I love working with Michelle,” said Tolley during a challenging rehearsal when the cast was learning a particularly difficult ballet sequence in the song ‘Somewhere.’ “She’s great. She challenges all the kids, but she does it in a nice, encouraging way.”
Asked to describe the role of dance captain, Tolley said, “I need to know all of the choreography and know all spaces where people are supposed to be. I run review rehearsals when Michelle isn’t here, and I can also run one-on-one rehearsals with kids who are struggling.” Although Tolley has many years of dance experience herself, this is her first time teaching and managing choreography, and she has learned a few things. “I have learned to speak up when Michelle isn’t here, and I have learned to remember everybody’s spots, not just my own.”
Both Tolley and Bruckner acknowledge that one of their current challenges is that the girls in the cast started with more formal dance experience, on average, than the boys. “Most of the boys have no background in dance, but they are improving with every rehearsal,” said Tolley. “Especially in ‘Dance at the Gym.’ It helps a lot to have a partner that has dance experience.”
“I think the boys are doing a really good job,” said May Halm. “They are learning quickly, and it has been fun to see their progress. Everyone is taking their critiques and doing a good job using them to improve.”
Bruckner teases the boys as she teaches them. “I know this is not in your wheelhouse,” she told one boy, who was concentrating intensely, “but try to be happy.”
“I just can’t say enough how much fun it has been so far,” emphasized Bruckner. “This production is such a team effort. Everyone involved is really going for it. I think it is going to turn out to be an amazing show. I can’t wait to hear the orchestra! I think I will probably cry when I hear the orchestra.”
West Side Story opens in the Poe Theater on November 3. Tickets are moving quickly, and are available through the Heartwood box office: firstname.lastname@example.org or 563-1373.