The TONY® Ceremony is coming up on June 11th, so over the next few weeks, we at Dance Network are going to take the opportunity to shine a spotlight on each of the nominees for Best Choreography. First up, the dynamic duo behind Broadway’s Groundhog Day: Peter Darling and Ellen Kane.
Ellen Kane and Peter Darling/IBDB.com
Since the turn of the most recent century, only five times has a TONY® nomination for Best Choreography gone to multiple artists working on the same show. This year, Ellen Kane and Peter Darling share the nomination for Broadway’s hit new musical Groundhog Day, and with their dual recognition comes a long history of collaboration, deep friendship, and fervent creativity.
Peter Darling’s career has been lucrative, innovative, and full of variety. Darling began as a performer, making his West End debut in Fiddler on The Roof in 1994 before moving over to the other side of the proscenium arch when he made is choreographic debut with the West End’s Oh! What A Lovely War. In 1999, Darling’s star really began to shine when he received his first OLIVIER® Nomination for choreographing Candide at the National Theatre. The blaze only grew, when the following season he landed both the choreographic duties of the original West End production of Merrily We Roll Along— for which he received his second OLIVIER® Nomination— and the job of providing movement for the film Billy Elliot. Darling’s long career has taken him back and forth between the stage and screen, but it was the 2005 stage version of Billy Elliot that transformed Darling into an international star. All told, Billy Elliot garnered Darling his first OLIVIER® and TONY® awards, and more importantly, brought him together with his creative partner Ellen Kane.
Ellen Kane worked for many years under Peter Darling, serving as his associate choreographer and choreographic supervisor on the West End and Broadway versions of Billy Elliot and Matilda. A choreographic and creative genius in her own right, it seemed only natural that Kane would move on to create her own work, but it would be the beauty of collaboration and a deep seeded friendship that would keep this talented twosome together at least one more time on Groundhog Day.
Known for their specific, direct, energetic, and physically demanding movement, the choreographers always ask a lot of their ensembles, and those physical requirements are no different this time, in Groundhog Day.
“We needed to use [the ensemble] as the heart-beat of the town,” explained Kane in an online magazine interview, as she described the company tap dancing in ‘snow boots, coats, and ski pants’.
It’s this type of demanding yet thoughtfully specific movement that earned co-choreographers Kane and Darling OLIVIER® Award nominations for Best Theatre Choreographer already this season for the West End production of Groundhog Day. As they head into the TONY® season as top contenders, Dance Network had the opportunity to speak with some dancers who knew, from an insider perspective, what it’s was like to work with Darling and Kane.
Anne Tolpegin, a Broadway actress and a member of both the Chicago and Toronto companies of Billy Elliot, shared her thoughts about her time working on the show.
“I absolutely loved it - as a ‘mover’ more than a dancer, I was intimidated initially by the intense choreography, but after I had learned everything completely I really cherished the challenge each show to get the precision and emotion spot on that Peter was looking for in his work.”
Tolpegin added, “Peter’s choreography is so smart; I never thought I would have been able to tap dance and skip rope at the same time, but I did!”
Patrick Lavallee, dancer, acrobat, and actor who also worked on Billy Elliot talked to Dance Network about Darling’s creative process.
“Peter knows exactly what he wants. He does an incredible job at conveying imagery to extend his thought, theme or idea. So much so, that when you are performing his choreography, you are transcended to his vision— completely encompassing his illusion.”
Colin Israel, a member of the original Broadway company of Matilda spoke with Dance Network on what it’s like to work with Kane and Darling.
“Peter, Ellen, and those who work with them demand a level of commitment to their work which requires an energetic as well as physical commitment. They’re certainly concerned with the technical nature of their work, but are more interested in what you’re saying with your movement —and will absolutely let you know when you’re not saying anything.” laughed Israel. “Dance is, for them, a direct form of character work and acting, and their movement is never for its own sake. Those qualities make it challenging as an actor and a dancer but once you hit the level they ask for, you are, in fact, much better than you were. They are artists who genuinely want to make their dancers better through their work.”
When asked what it was like performing Matilda’s physically and energetically demanding movement eight shows a week, Israel responded, “Thrilling. There were elements of Matilda which had never been on a Broadway stage and likely won’t be again.” He added, “Every time I got to swing out over an audience then lay down and look up to the rafters as I ‘dreamt’, I always felt how special that was. Our last show I willed the seconds in that minute, or so, to go slower so I could fully take it in a final time. Their work has stayed with me and always will.”
Sean Montgomery, an actor who has worked on Broadway in Matilda and, currently, Groundhog Day, discussed Darling and Kane’s vocabulary of movement and the source of their artistry.
“Peter and Ellen have created such an incredible choreographic vocabulary together. I find their choreography to be uniquely 'their style' while always serving the characters and the narrative of each production. Having been lucky enough to work on two of their shows I would categorize their movement as 'true to life', but also—a life lived as FULLY as possible. Meaning, we as actors in the show, live on the extremes of truth at all times. Whatever the emotion may be, we go all the way— but [the movement], for the actor, is always derived from the most sincere and honest place. The stage pictures they create are beautiful and the transitions are made to look seamless and effortless, but they take endless amounts of time and work. They are truly masters.”