Shannon Lewis. Photo Credit: LSG Public Relations
Broadway dancer and choreographer Shannon Lewis’ career spells out like a dream to anyone seeking a professional life on the Great White Way. An over two decade resume of performance credits that has taken her to Broadway at least ten times, from Susan Stroman’s early nineties Crazy For You, to the most recent revival of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, Lewis has worked with nearly every major contemporary Broadway choreographer in the book. Recently, however, Lewis’ venture into the role of the choreographer itself has brought her some new and beautifully unique opportunities— not just in New York, but on the high seas.
The Secret Silk, a new musical brought to life for Princess Cruises, is choreographed by Lewis, written by the TONY®, Grammy®, and Osacr® winning composer of Wicked, Pippin, and Godspell, Stephen Schwartz, and is directed by TONY® nominated Broadway veteran John Tartaglia — known for his performances in Avenue Q, Shrek, and Beauty And The Beast, and creating PBS’s Splash And Bubbles.
The musical, which premiered on Princesses’ Royal Princess ship back in February, tells the story of “an Asian folkloric tale with a contemporary spin,” and offers, according to the cruise line, “inspired performances through the use of music, dance, puppetry and visuals.” “Adapted from the ancient fable The Grateful Crane, the story features Lan, a beautiful, selfless young woman who possesses a magical gift, secretly creating brilliant silk fabrics. Audiences will be introduced to original life-sized puppet creations by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and an original song, Sing to the Sky, both made exclusively for the line’s production.”
Dance Network got the opportunity to speak with Lewis about her work on The Secret Silk, her impressive Broadway career, and her advice for the next generation of dancer.
Check out the full interview below:
Dance Network: Thanks so much for chatting with us Shannon, and congratulations! So, before we get into talking about The Secret Silk, would you tell us a little bit about how you found your way to dance?
Shannon Lewis: Thank you so much! It’s been an amazing year developing The Secret Silk and premiering to such an exciting response.
My history with dance is that I basically came out of the womb dancing. (Laughing) From as early as I can remember, I was always moving to music, and I loved performing and meeting the challenge of creating a character and capturing an audience’s attention. From what I’m told, it was very obvious that dance was my natural expression as a very young girl. I really had a deep connection to music and loved interpreting it. I really started out with only ballet training for a decade, and I was also an elite level competitive gymnast. When I was in my early teens, I began taking jazz, tap and modern, and I did the dance competition circuit with my studio quite successfully. I was dancing professionally at theme parks in my teens and when I was nineteen, I was cast as a featured dancer in my first show on Broadway: Crazy for You. That show utilized all of my unique skills from “toe tap” to gymnastics. I was so fortunate to have that as my first big break. It led me into the heart of the New York City dance scene and I was able to continue to grow and continue to develop my own personal style there.
Shannon Lewis (center) Leonard Foglia and Andy Blankenbuehler. Photo Credit: BroadwayWorld
Dance Network: What an incredible Broadway debut! It’s led to an extensive and amazing career that has taken you to Broadway multiple times and has allowed you the opportunity to work with some incredible choreographers like Crazy For You’s Susan Stroman, Wayne Cilento, Warren Carlyle, Rob Ashford and more. Now, you also starred on Broadway in Fosse— could you tell us a little about your experience working in the style and movement of the late great Mr. Fosse, and about your time working with Chet Walker and Anne Reinking on the recreation?
Shannon Lewis: The Fosse style was an important and challenging part of my Broadway dance career and my overall evolution as a dancer and performer. Bob Fosse was such an interesting and complicated person, and his choreography contains all of that complex and sometimes dark beauty. Dancers who dance the Fosse style have to be incredible technicians and have a talent for style, line and musicality but also— be excellent actors as well. There is a lot going on behind the eyes of dancers in the Fosse style— much of Mr. Fosse’s work has specific acting beats that are an integral part of the movement. It is extremely challenging and you cannot have one without the other.
In the mid-1990’s I was asked to take part in very early workshops in New York City that Chet Walker, Gwen Verdon and Bill Hastings were holding to reintroduce the Fosse style to a new generation of dancers. Chet was instrumental in that process— he really believed that the Fosse style needed to be a part of the next generation’s dance education, or it would fade away. That turned into a series of longer workshops with a small crew of handpicked dancers that started to recreate the classic Fosse pieces like the Rich Man’s Frug [from Sweet Charity] and Manson Trio [from Pippin]—but we also started finding lesser known shows and numbers, too. That’s when Gwen and Chet introduced me to I Gotcha, first performed by Liza Minnelli. I worked closely with Gwen and Chet— and eventually Anne [Reinking]— on the specifics and tiny nuances that made it so unique. By the time we got to opening night on Broadway, I had been honing and performing that number for almost three years. Gwen would come to my dressing room during our pre-Broadway tour and recite the lyrics with me—she would give me notes about the storytelling and character. She was so inspiring, but also a taskmaster. Gwen held the cast to a very high standard, just as she did for herself, but also wanted the choreography to live and breathe with us. So the years spent learning the style in such an intense process really solidified my understanding of the depth of the layers. Anne Reinking shared valuable insights about keeping true to what Mr. Fosse intended, and helped guide the show to Broadway. Working on that style and that show from the ground up with those
incredible legendary artists was a formative milestone for me and absolutely the chance of a lifetime.
Shannon Lewis performing I Gotcha on NBC’s The Today Show in 1999. (1:00 mark)
Dance Network: That’s so cool. We’re sure there are so many theatre dance fans nerding right out after hearing all of that. So, with The Secret Silk, you’re getting the opportunity to work with two other theatre greats: Stephen Schwartz (who wrote Pippin) and John Tartaglia. What’s it been like collaborating and creating with those two?
Shannon Lewis: It’s pretty awesome to create something brand new with two artists that are not only renowned for their craft but also are open to and excited by movement and dance. John Tartaglia and I have collaborated on several projects over the last decade and we have a wonderful working relationship that allows us to bounce ideas off each other and come up with unique visual approaches using movement, dance and music. John is also a talented writer with an incredibly creative mind that is always churning out these amazing new characters and worlds for me to be inspired by. We trust each other and that gives me the ability to dream big and push my own boundaries as a Choreographer.
Stephen Schwartz and I had crossed paths many times over the last twenty plus years; from his songs used in Fosse to Pippin (I played Fastrada in the 2006/2007 national tour). So, it was exciting, yet daunting to be given a chance to create an original dance language for his new show. Stephen has been such a supportive and important force during our development process. He has championed my use of dance as a storytelling tool and the unique visuals we have created for The Secret Silk. His notes have been so valuable and constructive along the way, and I am so moved by his support of new ideas and the next generation of creative artists. During our dance workshops, he specifically protected and supported the process of creating choreography from the ground up in the studio and was so thrilled to watch the movements come to life. We were able to truly create something completely original under his guidance.
Dance Network: Choreographing people and puppets— can you give us an insight to some of the joys and challenges of such a unique opportunity?
Shannon Lewis: Joys and Challenges! Each show or project I have choreographed using puppeteering has utilized puppets in a different way. With The Secret Silk, there are many different styles of puppetry used within the show. My perspective was that it was important to create a language that could unify all of the different movement elements seamlessly. Many of the puppets in our show are life sized animals—and they are utilized in a realistic and natural way. They are all characters that have specific movement styles but also have to adhere to the confines of a musical—there are specific musical cues and counts that make the show flow. John is the master in the world of puppetry, and over the years of working with him it has been an incredible education for me. I approach it from another perspective based on a different eye and viewpoint. So between the two of us, we have puppets that move to music while being true to the natural movements of their characters. Every movement has meaning while being heightened for the stage and story. The audience accepts these puppets as real characters in the story, no different than the human characters onstage with them. We also have some big larger than life “surprises” in the show. Those puppets are a real joy because we got to create our own rules. That was super fun to explore. Jim Henson Creature Shop built and created all of the puppets used in the show, and they are all are such incredible artists. [The Creature Shop artists] were actively involved as the movement developed, and I was able to be involved in the conversation about how some of the puppets moved and would be utilized by the dancers and performers.
The Secret Silk. Photo Credit: Cruise Critic
Dance Network: Working and creating a show on a ship can present different set of demands when compared to creating a show on land; what’s been your experience?
Shannon Lewis: Yes, it definitely comes with it’s own special challenges! Doing a show aboard a moving ship means that sometimes it’s hard for the dancers to balance! But frankly, the kind of theaters and theatrical elements that exist on large cruise ships today are so stunning and modern, we were able to create anything we wanted. We have two large elevators, an LED wall and many exciting elements to surprise the audience with. Our incredible set designer Anna Louizos had to take into account the rolling and rocking motions present while sailing the ocean and she created things that use that natural motion so beautifully. Other pieces just easily lock into place so they don’t roll or pitch. I didn’t really have to compromise any of my ideas at all—the dancers have all become very good at navigating the constant motion and are dancing this challenging choreography with ease. Our audiences are getting a broadway quality show—it really is a new frontier for high quality theatre.
Dance Network: We always like to end with this one— for dancers out there looking to dance on Broadway or ultimately become choreographers, what advice would you want to give them?
Shannon Lewis: I think that everyone has a different and unique path to their goals! What worked for me was saying yes to everything. I wanted to work with everyone and learn everything! Even the folk dances I learned as a young dancer in ballet class can be useful in my life as a choreographer. So many different styles and mentalities definitely shaped my creative outlook, and, broadened it. It was important for me to have over two decades as a Broadway performer and experience both hit shows and flop shows and everything in between to understand that it takes a village. Relationships and collaboration work best in this art form. Also, thinking about longevity and investment rather than a quick fire and then a burnout, and working hard towards your goals and building a solid foundation. I always like to remember that no one can take away your experiences. That wisdom will always be valuable. Invest and try to stay grateful and the path will be clearer.
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