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Dance captain of ‘Spring Awakening’ reveals what keeps dancers on their toes

For dance aficionados, a primary reason to see the musical “Spring Awakening” at the Orpheum Theatre this weekend is the choreography by Bill T. Jones.

The iconic and often polarizing choreographer is best known in performing-arts circles as the co-founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company. In Minneapolis, he’s enjoyed long and fruitful collaborations with the Walker Art Center and Northrop, and is perhaps most notoriously known for the premiere of his theatrical, polemical work “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in which he demanded that (nearly) everyone perform nude.

Since the early 1990s, however, Jones has been branching out into the more mainstream terrain of Broadway. “Spring Awakening,” which is based on the 1891 Frank Wedekind play, examines sexuality and morality in provincial late-19th century Germany.

“Mr. Jones’ choreography for ‘Spring Awakening’ creates a seamlessly integrated, vivid gestural vocabulary that gives force and life to the repressed physical urges of its teenage characters,” wrote Rosalyn Sulcas in the New York Times. “Only their bodies, it suggests, can express those feelings, for which they have no words. In some ways it’s a perfect fit for a choreographer concerned with storytelling, the power of gesture and sexual identity.”

Because this weekend’s show is a touring production, dance captains are in charge of keeping the dancers’ on their toes and the choreography flawlessly performed. Erin Burniston is one co-dance captain of this production, and talks about her job: teaching steps to replacements, running rehearsals, working with the understudies.

MinnPost: What are the responsibilities of a dance captain in a touring production like "Spring Awakening?"

Erin Burniston: As dance captain, I am responsible for knowing all of the choreography in the show, as well as each individual's "track" in the production numbers; meaning I am responsible for knowing where each person in the cast stands, travels and dances throughout the entire production and in large group numbers. When we travel to a new venue, I also assist our stage manager with any spacing and blocking issues that may arise to make sure our show can adapt to each new theater. I also give notes and provide assistance to any actor who needs extra help, or to review a section of the show — for instance, understudies that may go on at a moment's notice.

MP: How many dancers are you working with in this production? What are their biggest challenges?

EB: In “Spring Awakening,” all cast members do the same amount of dancing. A lot of the choreography is done through improvisation, so the biggest challenges that the actors face are making sure that they are staying safe and not damaging their bodies when they are jumping around the stage, and climbing over walls, chairs and ladders.

MP: "Spring Awakening" is notable, in part, for Bill T. Jones' choreography. Describe the role of the choreography in this production.

EB: In this production, the role of the choreography is to express the actor's inner thoughts, struggles and emotions throughout the show. There is a set of movements we do in almost every number that starts with the actors’ hands barely touching their faces, and then making their way down to explore their whole body. In each song, this movement provides different meaning: sometimes the exploration is a matter of question, sometimes a matter of yearning, sometimes a matter of rebellion and sometimes even a matter of self destruction and guilt. However, no matter what the intention, the sequence remains the same and provides the actor with the perfect way to express their feelings through movement.

MP: What are the most difficult and most rewarding aspects of performing Jones' work in "Spring Awakening?"

EB: The choreography calls for a lot of improvisation, so when the actors find themselves completely in the moment, they can sometimes get carried away and injure themselves. Although dangerous, this is something about the choreography that I actually really enjoy. It’s not every show that you can jump around the stage expressing exactly how you feel through movement. The most rewarding aspects of performing Jones' work are that every night we are able to perform Tony Award-winning choreography, express our true inner emotions through movement and have the time of our lives doing it!

"Spring Awakening." 8 p.m. Saturday, 6:30 Sunday. Orpheum Theater, Minneapolis. Tickets $15-$60. 1-800-982-2787.

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