Professional productions of Fiddler on the Roof traditionally feature the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography from the original production. The 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof was the first major production to get permission to use new choreography, created by Hofesh Schechter and his company. That revival is now on tour across North America, with the choreography restructured by Christopher Evans, Schechter’s associate choreographer.
Evans has a long working relationship with Shechter, having worked with him since 2005, and was instrumental in the process of developing the choreography for Broadway. I caught up with Evans in the week leading up to the national tour’s stop in D.C. at the National Theatre.
What intrigues you about Israeli styles of dance – particularly Hofesh’s style?
CHRISTOPHER EVANS: I met Hofesh at such a young age [Evans was a student at the London School of Contemporary Dance] that I wasn’t really that hardened by training yet. I could still kind of go anywhere with my training, I hadn’t been fully disciplined, there wasn’t a lot of “unlearning” to do with me. And I think, naturally, that kind of grounded, slightly animalistic way of moving really suited me because I was into martial arts. I always found dance to be just another kind of movement that I had been doing previously. Martial arts is just movement and dance is just movement. I wasn’t interested in particular styles or vocab, I just liked moving.
[Hofesh] came from a folky background but then got involved with Batsheva and Gaga. His way of moving was more about turning imagery into flesh, rather than having very recognizable technique. For me, when I first met him, it was like watching him through the Wild West, I couldn’t categorize it, so I was really enjoying that. Learning how to move like that whilst making a piece was really useful because it meant you could really understand what was going on, not just do the movement thing, but how it’s used to communicate.
Fiddler on the Roof is at the National Theatre from December 10-15, 2019. Details and tickets
How does the choreography differ from the original Jerome Robbins choreography for Fiddler?
EVANS: It feels, as far as I’m concerned, very far away from what I would consider musical theatre vocabulary, or how [that vocabulary] can sometimes present itself: that kind of cleanliness or the frontal nature of how that dance could be. For me, Hofesh’s movement could be very grounded in detail and grounded in community. When people watch Hofesh’s work, whether they’re dancers or not, they always get the slight feeling like, “I can do that, that looks like something I could do,” it doesn’t look like that kind of virtuosity that’s flashy where you enjoy it because you could never do it. Like, this is connected to something quite human, which I think is perfect for Fiddler because I think it’s ultimately about a community of people who celebrate being alive at every opportunity and any opportunity to dance, and move, and be physical.
What [Hofesh] enjoys communicating with Fiddler, is that in every movement [there] is this feeling of “we are together, and there is something above us, there’s something bigger than us.” In some moments, it sits slightly more into the ancient or timeless, almost tribalist, message of “we are humbled by something bigger than us, in service to something great.” And in other moments, it has that kind of bravado [and] virtuosity, that comes, in my opinion, in a very small, undulating, articulate way.
What I always loved about Jerome Robbins’ choreography is its strength, and drive, and its lines, and its very sure, defined gestures. The power that can come from his choreography is a lot about definition and throwing energy in very specific directions, whereas Hofesh’s work’s power comes mainly from its use of unison: how you can get a whole group of people to do very very tiny things that are actually quite smoky and you’re seeing a lot of unity onstage but you’re not seeing clones of people, you’re seeing people who are sharing some very specific idea, but they don’t have to be exact movement in the same way. So it looks very complex and quite organic. I guess that’s the best way I could articulate dance over the phone. (laughs)
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Which moment do you think defines that the most in the show?
EVANS: I would say probably “L’Chaim” is one of those great examples. There are two conflicting energies in the room and it is obviously loaded with tension because of the politics and the context of the story, but all of those tensions subside mainly through this idea of “we’re gonna loosen up and we’re gonna dance, we’re going to enjoy life and we’re going to show off.” What I like about that scene is that it gives the opportunity for virtuosity to be the thing that two opposing groups can share. So it’s a nice opportunity for swingy, smoky, slightly messy, tumbly style of the Jews who are just going to get up and dance slightly drunk, but we’re going to show off. Then there’s the very clean, powerful, sure movements of the Russians. And of course it’s all going to be amalgamated into a big number and it’s just purely about enjoying life.
What are some of your favorite elements of the choreography?
EVANS: In terms of a pure feel-good wave of energy coming towards you, I love “Tradition” because it’s one of those rare opportunities when the entire cast is dancing together and people of different ages are dancing with the feeling of “we are dancing now because these are the moves we have always had, these are the movements that represent this community and God” and it’s nice that everyone has that at the beginning of the show.
How did you restructure this new choreography for the tour?
EVANS: I think of all the things that were streamlined, the dancing element, because it always had a feeling of being a flexible style to work with, I feel that the dancing got changed. There are very, very small spacing changes that we have because the show now has to accommodate different kinds of venues. I have preferred watching shows on tour in a slightly more compromised space sometimes because I think Hofesh’s style lends itself to that feeling that you’re in the room with the dancers, and there’s not huge leaps or crosses. I’ve enjoyed seeing the dancers being more particular and more skillful with their bodies and space.
But restructuring things for the tour, it’s been pretty glorious and I guess the biggest, biggest, biggest change was an enormous staircase that came up the back and underneath the stage. On Broadway, they came from the bottom of the stage as a shadowy, ghost of the past up and it’s a lovely image but trying to negotiate and find the same punch to start the show up was a cool challenge. I think what we settled on, now having watched it many times on tour, I really can’t remember how the beginning of the Broadway show would have gotten anywhere near the same kind of punch. We have such a percussive start to “Tradition” now. It’s one of those creative challenges where you have to make it work, I think it really does.
How do you feel about this cast?
EVANS: For me, my visits now get less and less frequent. And I think what strikes me is the cast that we have for the tour, I’m always completely staggered by the quality and integrity of the people who absorb every drop of information. I’m so impressed by the cast that we have now. I was blown away by what they achieved in the time I was there. I think it has something to do with the touring mentality; it’s not just the show these people see, these people really travel and they see a lot together and accumulate this wealth of experience together, which for a show like Fiddler on the Roof about such a tight-knit community, it just matures and strengthens. I think the touring life comes out on the stage. Every time I see it, it incrementally gets better.
As associate choreographer, how much of a say did you get in determining the choreography when it was on Broadway?
EVANS: The first time, my job was to audition all the dancers, understand and work out which people are going to understand that world of dance very quickly. Once we had that group of people, there was a beautiful two and a half weeks where it was just me and them and my job was to lead them through the style, unlearn a few habits and help them unlock parts of the body that are really crucial to execute the movements like the pelvis as an anchor to get your agility really from the floor. I think it’s amazing how we can train our bodies to be very specialized. And during that journey of training up for a few weeks, we also played with choreography while waiting for Hofesh to arrive. We’d already started playing with compositions musically and in the movement, so by the time Hofesh arrived, we’d not only had the training in place but we had little pockets of things for him to look at. I personally felt very integrated into the process and we were very closely working together to work out this code of moving which has lasted all this time.
Why should people see this production of Fiddler?
EVANS: I really think the choreography is incredible. It’s just very, very high quality movement that slightly sits just outside of what you expect in a musical theatre setting. Hofesh is a contemporary dancer and he created basically a small dance company within a musical, which I think is quite rare. But also I just think Bart [Sher] is a very clever man and he made a show that is about what it is to be a human being, he managed to achieve the action, the beat and the rhythm, the important stuff that gets it right into that naturalism.
This review was made possible through the support of the Arts Journalism project at Day Eight.