by Lauren Warnecke, MS
Choreographing for children’s musical theatre isn’t my dream.
I can’t sing. I never liked jazz class. I’m an ex-bunhead turned squishy modern dancer… musical theatre just isn’t my bag.
Almost ten years ago I got a job at a Jewish Community Center north of the city teaching dance to little kids, and part of the gig happened to include a choreographic residency with their youth theatre company. With a hefty season of three full productions and eight weeks of summer camp, I went from Isadorable to queen of the jazz square – and quickly.
Sometimes you have to let go of your artistic integrity just a little bit when you’re working with kids. I often reflect on all the letting go, the undoing, the molding, the careful nurturing of the seed that would later become the artist I am today.
But then I remember that kids are missing part of their brains and it makes the jazz squares a little easier to swallow.
As time went on I guess I learned to enjoy it – Ok, that’s a lie – I learned to love it.
I was fortunate to have like-minded collaborators who helped to build shows that far exceeded my idea of what children’s community theatre should be. As time went on we created meaningful work that challenged our audiences and struck a balance between my selfish need for artistic expression and the reality that musical theatre is, by nature, meant to be entertaining. I learned how exciting it is to work with artists outside the dance world and how you can support your choreographic vision by working with scenic designers, directors, lighting designers, and costume designers.
As a small, independent choreographer with a budget of about $5, the JCC was an awesome opportunity to work with a team toward the same goal. Sure, there was still plenty of frustration, plenty of challenges, and, yes, there were always lots and lots of jazz squares, but as I embraced the process and infused the dances with a teensy bit of thought and artistry, the kids and parents began to respond positively and show more of an interest in dance.
My departure from the JCC was sentimental, but I was certainly ready to move on and do something new. Then, almost as soon as I left, I missed it. I missed the rush of anxiety, the not knowing if the show will be done by opening night, the challenge of making kids with zero dance training look like they’ve been dancing for years. Yeah, all that stuff is part of why I left, and what I missed the most once I did.
So, I didn’t say no when given the opportunity to return to the frustrating, exhausting, exhilarating world of children’s musical theatre. I’ve been in Gillette, Wyoming for the past three weeks as Assistant Choreographer for “PAW” (That stands for Performing Arts Workshop). PAW is equivalent in many ways to what I did at the JCC, but consolidated into an insanely intense process. The kids work up to 12 hours a day for three weeks, and in that time put up a full-length, fully produced musical.
It’s crazy, actually.
For many of the kids who attend PAW, these three weeks are the only time of the year they take dance classes, the only time they engage with professional staff members outside their schools, the only time they give something everything they’ve got.
We talk a lot about what it is to be an artist, and the responsibility they have for creating joy and provoking thought in others. So whether or not the pieces I created here stand up against the greater body of “art” is really irrelevant. My purpose in this strange world of community theatre has become much more about the process, about creating opportunities for aspiring artists to find themselves earlier than I did, and about infusing my work here with threads of integrity regardless of the steps being performed.
Some of these kids will go on to careers in the arts; most of them won’t. But, if nothing else, bringing my time and ability to a place like PAW gives me the opportunity to foster future patrons and advocates for the arts. What we emphasize most here is far more important than technique or artistry. PAW is a place for personal transformation. PAW is a place where a bunch of rugrats from Wyoming can get together and be themselves, share hard work and fearless dedication to a process, and see the tangible results of that work.
It’s not possible to put up a full-length musical with 80 kids, most of whom have little or no experience, in three weeks.
It’s not possible; it’s PAWsible.
Contributor Lauren Warnecke, M.S., is a Chicago-based dance artist, educator, and writer. She trained at the Barat Conservatory of Dance before earning a BA in Dance at Columbia College Chicago. In 2009, Lauren completed her MS in Kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a concentration in Motor Control and Learning. Lauren is a Visiting Instructor for the department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at UIC, and teaches master classes and seminars in ballet, modern dance, creative movement, and dance pedegogy. She is certified in ballet by the Cecchetti Council of America and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine.
In addition to teaching at UIC, Lauren owns and operates Art Intercepts, under which she creates, informs, and writes about dance. The primary mission of Art Intercepts is to bridge the gap between the scientific and artistic communities to present programming that is informed, inventive, and evidence-based. Lauren is a freelance writer/blogger and maintains monthly columns at Danceadvantage.net and 4dancers.org. and is featured on a panel of nationally reputed dance writers at the 2012 Dance/USA conference. She also works periodically as a grant writer and production/stage manager for artists in the Chicago dance and performance community, and volunteers for initiatives encouraging Chicagoans to engage in local, sustainable, and active lifestyles. Lauren likes to hike, bake scones, and dig in the dirt.