Tear Down The House: A Hockadoo Interview with the Masterminds Behind Memphis: Part 1- Meet Choreographer Christen Svingos

It’s time to tear down the house over at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia! Their smokin’ hot production of Memphis is burning down the roof! In an exclusive interview series featured only on TheatreBloom, we go in-depth and behind the scenes with the cast and creative team of this Tony Award-Winning musical to get the full musical experience and find out exactly what Memphis means to them. First up is Choreographer Christen Svingos.

If you would start by telling our readers who you are and what they might recognize of your work in the Columbia, Washington DC, and Baltimore areas in the last year or so?

SvingosHeadAmanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom

Christen Svingos: Well, I am Christen Svingos and I grew up in the Baltimore area. Of the last year or so what of mine they would have seen? Probably nothing except for In The Heights, which I choreographed at Toby’s last summer. I am currently going to NYU to get my master’s in dance education. Through the school year I have not been able to travel down to choreograph anything. Luckily this opportunity presented itself over the summer.

Before school I had done several shows for Toby’s— I choreographed Hairspray over at Toby’s of Baltimore. Like I mentioned, I did In The Heights at Columbia and now Memphis. I choreographed Rocky Horror Show for the Washington Savoyards and I’ve choreographed things for various schools in the area as well.

How did you go about getting involved with Memphis?

Christen: When I choreographed In The Heights back when it opened Toby had told me that she had just received the rights for Memphis. I said “Hey! You have to call me for that!” and she said she didn’t know where she was putting it in that upcoming season yet, and asked me what I was doing the next year. It just happened to work out that I was available and down from school. I shot them an email to let them know that I was interested once scheduling was worked out and I was very lucky that they ended up choosing me.

The Company of Memphis at Toby's Dinner Theatre of ColumbiaKirstine Christiansen
The Company of Memphis at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia

This show is set in the 50’s but you have all sorts of incredible dance styles happening throughout this show. Where are you drawing your inspiration from for these sensational numbers?

Christen: A lot of it is doing research. YouTube nowadays is my best friend. Just getting an idea and a feel for that era can all come from watching YouTube. For me, I choreograph to the music, and the music in this show is so phenomenal that it’s hard not to choreograph well to this music. It’s just so good; it lends itself to everything fun as far as movement is concerned. I had the opportunity to see it on Broadway when it was there, and the technical aspect of it is pretty phenomenal, but these dance numbers sort of pop out of nowhere. I tried to keep some of the technicality of those routines, but in talking to Toby and Larry (Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, Co-Directors of Memphis) we kind of wanted to integrate more of a story throughout the dance numbers so that some of these dance numbers didn’t just pop out of nowhere.

What is your process like when you design a routine? You mentioned that you choreograph to the music, what does that mean?

Christen: I listen to the music and I pull out different rhythms. There’s always an emotion that a piece of music makes you feel and I take that into consideration as well. When I’m choreographing for a show I look at the dancers that I have and what they have in their back pocket to offer the show. I try to showcase each dancer to their best abilities.

Female ensemble members Amanda Kaplan (l) and Rachel Kemp (r) dancing in MemphisKirstine Christiansen
Female ensemble members Amanda Kaplan (l) and Rachel Kemp (r) dancing in Memphis

I think when you have a show that is so technical and so vocally challenging as well that it can be difficult in a smaller community to find exactly what you need all of the time. DC is such a wonderful community but it is a smaller scale. In New York you have 400 girls who can sing circles around each other and dance circles around each other so you have a ton of options there. With this show being so race specific we had a ton of talented people come out but not everyone can sing, dance, and act all at the same time. When you narrow down your search criteria, that a performer has to be able to sing, and dance, and act, and then on top of that be a specific gender and race, it does become difficult to get exactly the right people.

But we were blessed to find the cast that we did. I have to say this is one of the hardest working group of people that I have ever worked with. If I gave them five? They didn’t go sit down, they stayed up and continued to work through movement, or counts, or cleaning up the steps. It was amazing.

You worked a lot of acrobatic tricks into your dance routines. Is that something that you had envisioned being able to do with the show or did it just work out that way?

Christen: Typically if someone has that in their back pocket I’ll throw it in. But this is the first time that I have had someone who could do that. When I did Pajama Game at Summer Dinner Theatre, I did have someone who could flip and I threw that in. But for this cast, Andre (Andre Hinds, ensemble) is such an added element especially for this show because he has so many fun tricks in his pocket that he can pull out. When I found out that he could do all that— which was part of the audition, I asked everyone who auditioned “what kind of tricks do you have?” so I could see what options I had— I knew he was going to be a part of this right away because he could bring so many extra fun options to these routines.

What was the most difficult number for you to choreograph for this show?

Christen: Oh, that’s a good question! I think I have to think on that. The most difficult? I think flow-wise? “Radio” took a lot of work to incorporate all the acting moments, and the jump rope moments. Toby and Larry really helped out to get the flow going with those acting beats within the number. But I can’t really think of any dance number that I was really stuck on. Some of them are more difficult because it’s telling the story in the round and you have to be careful when doing that so you don’t lose something.

Wailin Joe (center-David John Little) and male ensemble dancers of MemphisKirstine Christiansen
Wailin Joe (center-David John Little) and male ensemble dancers of Memphis

You do have experience choreographing in the round. What is it like having to choreograph a show that is this dance-intensive in the round as opposed to mounting it on a proscenium stage?

Christen: I like it. You’re able to see a dancer all the way around so they can’t really hide anything. A long time ago when I was performing at Toby’s, there was a performance one night where I ripped my dress and there’s no back of the stage. You can’t go anywhere. That’s it, so you have to improvise and do what you can. I like the fact that you can’t hide on that stage. That also kind of hinders at some point. When you’re choreographing in the round a lot of what you are looking for is sight lines and focal points.

I was able to learn a lot in the last show that I choreographed because there were so many moving pieces in one of the numbers. I actually really struggled with that number for In The Heights, the big nightclub number, Toby was saying she didn’t really understand the flow, that I wasn’t telling the story. Through several reworks I discovered that I had to put the action that I had pulled out to the sides a little bit directly center. In the club we have a couple that’s dancing together and somebody gets pulled, another girl gets angry at her boyfriend for dancing with another girl. All these different elements were happening all at once and I had kept them at what we call “gold” in front of each aisle thinking that it would focus it. I thought “why would you pull everything center” to me, who at that point had not really choreographed in the round, that seemed stupid. But really there is so much happening on stage that it has to be in the center. It was such an easy fix but it did take a lot to figure it out.

For this round of choreography in the round it was a lot easier having learned all of that from doing In The Heights. I have choreographed on proscenium stages my entire choreography career. That’s easy and it’s easy to replicate, it’s what you see most of the time. That type of choreography and its formation changes are pretty common. In the round it’s a whole different beast. And I’m grateful to have that experience now so that I can look at it from someone who has worked in the round and now knows how to make dance routines work in that space.

What, if you had to pick one, was your favorite routine in this show?

Christen: Oh, man! I think if I could be in a number and dance in a number it would either be “Crazy Little Huey” or “Tear Down the House” because they’re just so much fun to do. They’re not technical but they’re so much fun. I think my favorite number to have created was “Radio” but I like “Underground” too.

What is it that you are hoping people will take away from coming to see Memphis at Toby’s?

Christen: Gosh, with everything going on in the world now, I guess it’s so good that this show is out and that people are seeing it. The issues that we’re dancing about and singing about and putting into theatrical art, these issues are still very alive and relevant. Everyone can take away something from seeing this show whether it’s how to treat and love one another to what music and the arts means to our community. There’s just so much. The cast is amazing, every time I work with Toby and Larry I learn something new and I got the chance to work with Ross (Ross Scott Rawlings, Musical Director), which is really enjoyable as well. He’s lovely. It was a good team all around and they are doing an amazing thing and people should see what sort of amazing things can come out of Toby’s for a show like this.

Huey Calhoun (l- Greg Twomey) and the ensemble of MemphisKirstine Christiansen
Huey Calhoun (l- Greg Twomey) and the ensemble of Memphis

What does Memphis mean to you?

Christen: Memphis means having a place to call home, where your spirit lives. For me, I think tht place is on stage or in the dance studio.  

Memphis plays through November 9, 2014 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (301) 596-6161 or purchase them online.

Click here to read the review of Memphis.

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