2014 Best Choreographer Nominee Interview: Michelle Chassé for The Boston Conservatory's "On the Town"

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Photo by Eli Akerstein

Photo by Eli Akerstein

Michelle Chassé transforms the next generation of Broadway performers each day in her classes and through her leadership at The Boston Conservatory.  Her brilliant guidance, sharp knowledge of dance and movement, and kind support was evident in her stunning choreography and direction for The Boston Conservatory's On the Town.  In her Interview, Michelle discusses her dance background and history; her love for On the Town and visual storytelling through dance; and some of her upcoming projects, including a program at The Boston Conservatory this summer!

Michelle, can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi! My name is Michelle, and I am the Chair of Musical Theater Dance and Resident Choreographer in the Theater Division at The Boston Conservatory. I live in the South End with my husband and our puppy, Ivy. I’ve traveled all over the country and the world, and I still find Boston to be one of the most beautiful and culturally rich cities I’ve seen.

When did you start dancing? When did you know that you wanted to make theater and dance your life?

I started dancing at the age of 5, at the Gladys H. Rubin School of Dance in Maine, and, by the age of 12, I was studying ballet at the Boston Ballet and the School of American Ballet in New York City, the training program of the New York City Ballet. I earned my BFA in Dance Performance at The Boston Conservatory. I’ve always known that dance was going to be part of my life – the reason my parents took me to dance classes as a child was so that I would stop destroying furniture in the house by chainé-ing and chassé-ing into lamps and walls! I’ve always been more graceful in the studio and on the stage than walking down the street. As far as theater goes, I’ve always been very “theatrical.” As a kid, I would recall The Carol Burnett Show and recreate every scene to make my family laugh; Shakespeare started rolling my socks up and down in high school and still does today.

Why is dance important? What style(s) of dance speak strongly to you? What style(s) do you prefer to dance? To choreograph?

Dance is important because one single, simple gesture can transport an audience completely. In the context of theater, it can bear the great responsibility to advance plot wordlessly – it makes me a little crazy when people call it a “dance break,” because I see it as the “dance continuation of the story.”

Ballet has always spoken to me, as well as good old-fashioned theater dance in the style of Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Gower Champion, and so many others. Those happen to be my favorite styles to perform as well!

I enjoy the artistic challenge of choreographing within multiple styles, not just within the theater world – everything from concert dance and contemporary dance to commercial dance and theater dance.

Talk to us about On the Town. What is the musical about? How or why is dance important?

Photo by Eric Antoniou

Photo by Eric Antoniou

On the Town, beyond the story of three sailors looking for love and adventure on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City, is about people looking for themselves by experiencing the same place in very different ways. It’s about friendship and dedication, not only to each other but to service and their country. For example, the main character Gabey rescued his friends and fellow servicemen, Chip and Ozzie, from certain death by drowning (‘the drink’) at some point prior to the musical’s action, and, in a subtle but powerful way, that sense of gratitude and indebtedness informs so much of those characters’ relationships.

It’s also one punchline after another, a silly, playful romp these three young men take through one of the great cities of the world. Along the way they meet three strong, vibrant, modern women, and the various entanglements around the six of them getting to know each other form the bulk of the musical’s plot.

For one thing, there is a gigantic amount of dance in this show! So much of it, though, far from being merely decorative, stands alone without dialogue to deepen our understanding of these characters and to advance the narrative with great power and beauty. Not all musicals provide such a window into the mind of their characters through dance.

“The Times Square Ballet” at the end of Act I takes us on the sailors’ journey with them, as they explore the sights and sounds of New York City, sometimes taking a right turn into a wrong neighborhood. By contrast, the way I chose to choreograph the “Dream Coney Island Ballet” towards the end of Act II shows us Gabey’s struggle to feel at home on land, and his struggle between his sense of duty and finding love.

Have you seen the Broadway production? Will you? Why do you think the musical is being revived now?

I haven’t seen the Broadway production that opened at the same time as our On the Town at the BoCo, but I did see the Barrington Stage production in the summer of 2013 that featured much of the same cast and creative team, including BoCo alum Alysha Umphress as Hildy. As to why it’s being revived, I think that American audiences are hungry for a musical that incorporates various kinds of storytelling. And who doesn’t love Bernstein’s score?

What are some of the joys of working with student performers? What are some of the challenges? How do you think that the BoCo students are setting themselves apart?

Student performers are willing to try anything. They tend to be fearless in their creativity and they also have lots of energy! They tend also to be spread very thin on account of their class schedules, and sometimes lots of energy can make rehearsals pretty noisy. And, of course, many young people have not experienced so many of the life events that bring great depth and character to a mature artist’s performance and presentation. While every theater program aspires to train true “triple threats,” I feel that the BoCo students really reach astonishing heights of achievement in the three disciplines of singing, acting, and dancing, and their work ethic is beyond compare.

Do you ever perform? Are there any roles that you would want to perform?

Not as much as I used to, but I miss it! The Girl in the Yellow Dress from Susan Stroman’s Contact is definitely a role I would love to perform.

What is your favorite movie? Why? If you could change anything about it, what would it be? Would you want a sequel? Why or why not?

My favorite movie is Jean De Florette because it absolutely rips your heart out of your chest. I would not change a single thing about it! (OK, maybe I would add a warning to have tissues at the ready.) As it happens, there already is a sequel, Manon Des Sources.

Photo by Eric Antoniou

Photo by Eric Antoniou

What is your biggest pet peeve as a director? As a choreographer? As a person?

As a director, my biggest pet peeve is when things don’t happen on time or people are unprepared. No matter what the rehearsal process is or what it’s for, you never ever have enough rehearsal time, so to have to waste time waiting for anything – props, people not being prepared, whatever – really grinds my gears.

It’s really about the same as a choreographer! I need my dancers to show up on time (preferably early), be prepared, be respectful, and be ready for us to make the absolute most of the time we have together.

As a person, my biggest pet peeve is people that are unaware of other people. I’m peeved by people who let doors slam in front of the person behind them, or cut in front of you in line, or any other of a whole list of self-centered behaviors that unfortunately we all see every single day.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

I’m currently working on the Boston’s Gay Men Chorus production Smile, their 30th anniversary celebration performance which also coincides with their annual Pride concert. I’m providing stage direction and choreography for the performances, which will take place at historic Symphony Hall. In the fall, I will be choreographing Threepenny Opera at the BoCo.

Do you have anything else that you would like to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

I’m the director of a summer program at the BoCo called the Musical Theater Dance Intensive, a three-week immersion experience with faculty, consisting of BoCo theater alumni as well as current Theater Division faculty. Please check out www.bostonconservatory.edu/extension-programs/ for more information!