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An All-American Dance Off

'Soft Power' Choreographer Sam Pinkleton Designs an Iconic Pop Culture Mash-Up


L-R: Kristen Faith Oei, Raymond J. Lee (obscured), Austin Ku, Daniel May, Geena Quintos, Jon Hoche, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante (obscured), Maria-Christina Oliveras and Kendyl Ito in “Soft Power.”

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

What does American musical theatre look like if all I have is a bunch of Youtube videos? This was one question choreographer Sam Pinkleton used to guide his process in choreographing Soft Power, David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s World premiere musical fantasia playing at the Ahmanson May 3 – June 10, 2018. The play’s “reverse appropriation” premise—a musical written from a Chinese perspective 50 years in the future on US current events—provided an interesting challenge for Pinkleton.

Trying to choreograph a new musical is no small task. Trying to do so in emblematic American style is a whole other beast. As Hwang and Tesori set about crafting a quintessential American musical in prose and song, respectively, it was up to Pinkleton to reverse appropriate a wealth of inspirations into an American pop culture concoction mixed up and distilled from a non-American perspective.

Here is a handful of the ingredients Sam used for inspiration: a bunch of Youtube videos.

  1. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in ‘I Won’t Dance’ from Roberta

  2. What better place to start than with a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance number? The duo is best known as the stars of numerous classic musical films made by RKO Pictures during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I Won’t Dance was one of several references used for the number It Just Takes Time in Soft Power, in which a Chinese executive, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), tries to explain the nuances of Mandarin. And don’t let the title of the video fool you: Fred Astaire does eventually get his feet moving in the clip.

  3. Eleanor Powell in ‘Fascinatin Rhythm’ from Lady Be Good

  4. Pinkleton was also inspired by the closing number of Lady Be Good, another Golden Age musical featuring the prolific Eleanor Powell. Pinkleton highlighted the juxtaposition of Powell’s stunning choreography with the unexcited ushering of the back-up performers (~3:20 in the video) as a key inspiration for I’m With Her in Soft Power, a piece featuring a certain well-known political figure vying for voters’ attention. Maybe seeing politicians work it with this kind of talent could invigorate more interesting political debates?

  5. Royal Family Dance Crew at the 2017 Hip Hop International NZ Nationals

  6. While this killer dance crew may not be US-based, American hip-hop moves have become beloved and even iconic throughout the world. Pinkleton says he focused quite a bit on dance crews, with that influence settling into an early dance number, Welcome to America, featuring a dance crew greeting Xue Xing upon his arrival at the fictional Hollywood Airport. Let’s just say the pseudo-welcoming party turns out to be a little less than welcoming.

  7. NSYNC’s ‘I Want You Back’

  8. Anyone who was in and around the pop scene of the early 2000s probably rocked out or was subjected to (sorry, 2000s parents) NSYNC. The prolific group, along with its successful breakaway lead, is well-known for its choreography and classic boy band flair. Surprisingly, Pinkleton names this piece as a primary inspiration for I’m With Him, which features a destructive angry mob. Maybe they were going after Backstreet Boys fans…

  9. Diane Horner’s Country Hip Hop

  10. Any exploration of iconic American dance should touch on the wonderful blends and amalgamations of styles that have led to new dance traditions (see: breakdancing). This video—one Pinkleton shared with the ensemble as a general, if somewhat comedic inspiration—is not one of them. Maybe 100 years from now, some other culture will develop amazing mash-ups of hip-hop and country as testament to US diversity and creativity. For now, we’ll just have to make do with instructional dance VHSes from the 1980s.

  11. BONUS—Hillary Whips, then Nae Naes

  12. Ok, maybe politicians dancing for votes isn’t as fantastical as we might like to believe. Mrs. Clinton put in the requisite effort for this brief segment on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and who’s to say we would fare any better if put on the spot by Ellen? But if this short clip piques your curiosity as far as what a Clinton rally heavy on the musical numbers would look like, you’ll just have to come see Soft Power.

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