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November 23, 2010

Broadway Brain: ‘Mary Poppins’ dance captain Suzanne Hylenski turns choreography on its head—literally

by Jesse North

While the company members of the Opera Populaire over at Phantom of the Opera and ballerinas of Billy Elliot have been dancing masterfully for years, performers in long run shows need help maintaining the choreography. Enter the dance captain. Over at the dance-heavy Mary Poppins, Suzanne Hylenski has been keeping the Tony-nominated choreography clean for four years. An original cast member, Hylenski has held the position a number of times, the longest stretch being two and a half years. Hylenski, also a swing, sat down with Stage Rush to reveal the life of a dance captain and what it’s like to tap dance upside down.

Explaining it to me like I’m a 3-year-old, what exactly does a dance captain do?
A dance captain is responsible for knowing every single dance step in the show. We know where every single person has to be on stage and how they get there without banging into somebody. I write charts so that I know where everybody is, so that I can keep the show clean. If someone new joins the show, I then have to teach them the steps, that certain track, so that they can come in without banging somebody, falling into the pit, or getting hurt. I have to keep the show clean by watching the show.

So as dance captain, are you watching the show off stage or performing in it?
Most dance captains on Broadway are also swings. So we’re not necessarily performing every night. Right now we have a resident supervisor and two dance captains, because we have such a large show. For me, if I’m on stage, I’m still looking at people thinking, “She’s not on her mark,” and I’ll go write that down. I’ll be doing my track onstage and someone will come to me and say, “I’m getting hit by somebody, something’s not right.” So I have to go and fix that problem. If I’m not on stage, I generally will go to the back of the house and watch the show as a whole and see how it looks. The job is to see people are keeping clean with their dancing. The longer you’re in a show, the longer you don’t have rehearsals. It’s not that people aren’t working hard; it just isn’t quite as crisp as it should be, because they can’t see what else is going on around them. That’s why we give them notes the next day.

Video: Dance captain Suzanne Hylenski on Poppins pressure, faulty doorknobs, and inappropriate audience participation.

How did you become dance captain?
I was a swing starting off with the show. Generally, it’s a great way to go for dance captains, because we already know so much of the information and we also aren’t on stage always, so it gives us the bonus of being able to watch the show. For me, I came into the position six months into the contract. The resident choreographer approached me and asked if I was interested in being the dance captain. I’d never done it before, but I said it sounded great! You have to have great people skills and you have to be respected by your cast members. You’re giving people critiques, and especially in this industry, people don’t like to be told they’re doing anything wrong. You have to be able to work different situations out, disagreements between cast members. They look for somebody with those types of skills.

How closely did you work with Tony-nominated choreographers Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear?
We worked very closely with them when we first started. We had about six weeks in a studio and then another four weeks while we were doing previews. They were teaching us the movements, how they want them and why we’re doing them. To be an original member of a company, it’s really fantastic because you do get that information straight from the actual choreographer, whereas when you come in later, you get the handed-down information. It’s great to get it from the person who has actually created the steps.

Who does the dance captain report to and check in with?
I would report to either the resident choreographer or the resident supervisor. And of course, we check in with stage management for rehearsals.

Do you conduct rehearsals?
Yes, we are responsible for putting people into the show. I just spent six week putting a new Jane and Michael Banks in, teaching them all the steps.

Compared to other productions you’ve been in, how does the choreography of Mary Poppins speak to you as a dancer?
It’s very clever, I think. This show for me is very different because I’m generally playing more of a showgirl. It’s been a really great opportunity to put myself into more character work. It’s fun because we get to dress up as boys and be chimney sweeps. That’s very different for me to get those characters there and do something so out of the box. In something like “Supercal” with all those letters, it’s interesting. There are numbers where you feel like you get to live when you dance some of those numbers.

Let’s talk about Bert dancing on the ceiling in “Step In Time,” because that’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
And I’ve done it!

I figured that, even though it’s a male role, being dance captain, you’d have to know how to do it.
The actors who play Bert have to tap dance upside down. It’s quite hard up there. If someone’s having trouble, I need to know how to direct them. It’s so hard to try and tell somebody, “Put your weight foot forward,” or “Hold your weight foot back,” if you have no idea what it feels like. I managed to sweet talk everyone to let me go up one day. It’s hard because the harnesses have to be custom made for the actors. Luckily, I fit into one of the guys’ harnesses. It’s quite scary. When you’re upside down and you’re trying to sing and tap dance—the guys make it look fantastic every night. It’s especially difficult to tap dance upside down, because you have to get the sounds. You rely on gravity so much when you’re tapping, so when you’re upside down, it’s a completely different thing.

What did it feel like?
Well, I love all that stuff. You can put me on fairground rides and send me to Disney World. I have a lot of trust, so I didn’t really think about what could go wrong. It was just like being on a fairground ride.

It’s a very vulnerable position to be in.
It is, but you just have to put your trust in the people who are working around you. Definitely when you’re upside down, you just have two little wires, and you’re thinking, “This is carrying all my weight. Is it really going to hold me up?” But it works. Every night. I really enjoyed it, and I like to rub it in, as well, to other people who haven’t done it. (laughs)

What’s you’re favorite part of the show to perform?
I enjoy “Step In Time,” just because it’s such a big dance number. It’s just fun dancing around with those brushes, it’s fast and furious, and the chimneys are moving. I like to get into the sense that we’re these chimney sweeps climbing over Victorian London.

What’s the most challenging piece of choreography to perform?
I would say maintaining “Supercal,” because of [creating] all the letters. Also, it’s not coming from a classical dance base like the other choreography. It’s muscle memory. So trying to get that fast and keeping that clean, for me as a swing, it’s all very similar.

Do you consider yourself an actor or a dancer first?
I would say I’m a dancer first, just because I started dancing when I was 3, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Of course, when you get to this level, we are acting through the dance.

What are your goals for the future?
I’d love to do another Broadway show. I’m working on my singing, so I’d like to get into more parts and begin understudying. Just going up the ladder and seeing where I can go as a performer. I also want to try to get into some TV, commercials, and acting that way.

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