Sam Pinkleton takes Gracie Hays through his early days, his best advice for the rhythmically challenged, and how he imagined dances for Hillary Clinton.
GRACIE HAYS: You’re one of the few choreographers who doesn’t have a professional dance background—you’ve said that you “accidentally became a choreographer.”
SAM PINKLETON: I didn’t realize it was weird until so many people kept telling me it was. I’m from a small town in Virginia, and I was just a gay kid who loved show tunes who was trying to not be killed. So, I came to New York when I was seventeen to be a chorus boy, mostly just out of sheer enthusiasm and a general lack of knowledge of the other options available. I went to NYU and was really lucky to encounter a series of mentors who exposed me to things I didn’t know I was capable of doing. The most prominent one was Liz Swados, who was a complete radical. When I was nineteen, all I wanted to do was sing and dance, and she was like, “That is so boring! Go and write! Go and direct! Go and do something!” She basically bullied me into becoming a creative artist. The other part of it was that I wasn’t very good as a performer, which I realized immediately when I got to school. I was like, “Oh! I suck at dancing!” It was a really hard thing to swallow, because I loved dancing so much. But I left, and went to directing school, and people started asking me to choreograph for them. These were projects that could easily be ruined by razzle-dazzle choreography. So, I sort of came into it from the back door, by being this low-impact movement director for pieces that needed a little bit of fairy dust, but didn’t need jump splits.
GH: Does your creative process shift, from show to show?
SP: I would say that the vast majority of my shows are defined by a very individual sense of movement. I really like to make things where every single person on the stage is represented differently through movement, and is moving in a way only they could move. There’s this idea in choreography that somebody’s gonna be a solitary genius in their living room, coming up with the best moves ever. I really think that’s fiction—I’ve never made solid work that didn’t come from listening to everyone else in the room, and treating dancers like humans. I really like to start by getting to know who the people are—how they move, what they like to do, what happens when they listen to Donna Summer—and how might they connect in a physical way to some of the questions that the piece is asking. That’s why I work in theater—we’re collaborators, first and foremost.
SOFT POWER is so unique because on one level it’s such a giant, old-fashioned musical, and choreographically it’s everything that nobody has ever let me do. When I started working on it, I was so paralyzed by terror, because the scope seemed so vast. Leigh Silverman pitched it to me by saying, “It’s everything you understand about America, and it’s all a little bit wrong.” My job was weirdly curatorial, because I got to sift through all these dissonant pop-culture references on YouTube and like, these really dumb videos of twerking. The very first thing I watched was this hip-hop country-line-dance as a stand-in for two hundred years of American dance history, and I was like, “Oh, okay. I’m on board.”
GH: One of the most striking numbers is “Good Guy with a Gun,” where everyone on stage except Xue Xing is dancing around with a semiautomatic weapon.
SP: When I first heard that one, my heart sort of sank, because it’s just a delightful number. America’s had about two dozen school shootings this year already. Leigh and I went back and forth a thousand different ways about it—“Do we wanna see guns? Are there guns? Is it just a hoedown where they keep saying ‘Gun’?” Initially, we built out the number with guns from the Revolutionary War. When we got it on stage, our dramaturg, Oskar Eustis, gave us a little bit of a nudge—he was like, “What are we actually doing here?” The song is basically an indictment of the political moment we’re all living through right now. So we figured, let’s just do it. Let’s be explicit about it. And I have to say, it’s one of the scariest decisions I’ve ever made.
GH: What was it like to choreograph with Hillary Clinton in mind?
SP: Never would I imagine that we’ve created one of the great leading dance roles, with Hillary, but her character definitely dances a lot. For me, her dancing, particularly in “I’m With Her,” is entirely about desperation. I think that number is delightful, but I also think it’s very, very sad. Basically, we’re watching this woman bend over backward to appeal to people who just aren’t seeing the whole picture. There’s this horrible video of Hillary on Ellen, where they teach her how to Whip and Nae Nae, and she’s such a good sport about it, but it’s also like, “Really?! You have to go on TV and do teenage hip-hop moves, when you’ve worked your whole life studying policy?” There’s this incredible sadness about the lengths to which people, especially women, especially Hillary Clinton, have had to go to in order to attempt to be all things to all people.
I also need to give credit where credit is due: Alyse Alan Louis is an old-fashioned, they-don’t-make-them-like-that-anymore, musical-comedy star. She’s the kind of hilarious and utterly fearless dance muse that I had heard about, but didn’t know actually existed. She can do anything, and it just inspires you to make dance.
"The thing I always say is turn that scar into a star. The most fun you’re gonna have is if you’re just more yourself than you knew you could be." -Sam Pinkleton
GH: One last question: any tips for awkward dancers?
SP: The thing I always say is turn that scar into a star. The most fun you’re gonna have is if you’re just more yourself than you knew you could be. If that means you have to drink like three glasses of rosé and have a ton of TLC on the playlist, then just make it happen, because I promise you you’re gonna have so much fun if you stop thinking about what dancing’s supposed to look like. We all have weird bodies that do funny things! Just turn the music up loud—and also turn the lights off, maybe.
SOFT POWER runs June 20 - July 8. A contemporary comedy explodes into a musical fantasia in the first collaboration between two of America’s great theatre artists: Tony Award® winners David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Flower Drum Song) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home). SOFT POWER rewinds our recent political history and plays it back through a Chinese lens: a future, beloved East-meets-West musical. Learn more.