Rachel Bertone is a choreographer, dance teacher, and director who spreads her love for dance, music, and storytelling throughout the Greater Boston area. Her stunning and innovative choreography for Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston’s Les Miserables earned her a nomination for Best Choreography. Rachel shares her love for storytelling with us, along with some of the challenges of choreography and some of the shows that she’d love to tackle!
Rachel, thank you so much for talking with us. I really loved how you made Les Misérables come alive with movement. Can you talk to us about how you get involved in the production?
Thank you, Brian! I got involved with Les Mis through Robert Eagle (the producer of Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston). He knows that I direct and choreograph throughout Boston, and every summer he always looks for opportunities for me at Reagle. He thought that I would make a great Assistant Director to David Hugo (our incredible director of Les Mis), so he hired me for that position. Then, once David found out that I was a choreographer, he asked me to choreograph as well.
Did you have any particular concept when choreographing for Les Miserables?
David and I talked in depth over the phone about the concept for all of the movement before every meeting. David is deeply passionate about Les Mis (having performed in the show for many years on Broadway) and had many physical ideas for each musical number for which I was to choreograph. He explained to me the visceral feeling that he wanted to convey and how each number was “traditionally” executed. However, he of course wanted something fresh and hip; something that would be relatable to the audience. He told me these things and then simply handed me the baton. He had enormous trust in his team of collaborators and he knew that we would deliver in our area of expertise. We were thrilled with the final outcome and how the actors told the story so vividly with their physicality.
What were some of the challenges of choreographing for this particular show?
One challenge with this show (as with many of the shows on which I work in Boston) was working with actors who were not trained dancers. When you get cast in Les Mis, you are usually a superb singer/actor—not necessarily a dancer. However, there is a fairly lengthy waltz that turns into a “down and dirty” romp towards the end of the show. I was not going to simplify my choreography simply because I did not have trained ballroom dancers; rather, I challenged them to rise to the occasion and taught them all how to dance a proper waltz. These actors were constantly practicing their waltz and their efforts definitely paid off in the end. Another challenge was finding an innovative way to execute the final march at the end of Act 1. Hugo wanted me to create a new marching sequence—which seems like blasphemy to some Les Mis fanatics. However, Hugo and I are alike in finding new ways to bring classic pieces to life, so I was excited for the challenge. Once I played with the music a bit, I found (what I would like to think was) a pretty cool new rhythmic march that challenged the actors and impressed our audience members.
What has been your proudest achievement professionally?
Oh geez, I’m proud of so many things! One of the shows of which I’m most proud though is a production of West Side Story that I choreographed. Jerome Robbins is an idol to me and to bring his work to life through my movement and my storytelling was a true honor and challenge. I always said to my dancers: “You can’t take Robbins out of WSS.” But then how do you create choreography without relying on his iconic dance moves?? Well, that is why I spent endless hours listening to that brilliant score and analyzing how these characters of this time would move and express themselves. I learned so much about storytelling and character development through choreographing that musical.
I saw that production of West Side Story! Poor Turtle Lane (RIP). What makes a successful choreographer? What makes a successful choreographed show?
Great question!! In my opinion, a good choreographer (in musical theater) furthers the story with their movement. Every gesture, every physicalization, every facial expression should mean something and add to the development of the characters. A good choreographer should have a vast knowledge of techniques and styles of movement to draw upon, so as not to get stuck repeating the same movement over and over again in every number. I have found that being a classically-trained dancer and dance teacher helps me teach my choreography more efficiently and quickly because I understand where every move derives from and how to properly execute it myself. Many of the actors with whom I work are not dancers, and I need to work extra hard at helping them understand the mechanics of a move.
Like good dancing or acting, good choreography should look effortless, and dancers (trained or not) should be made to look strong, confident, and exciting. Oftentimes, when choreography is executed professionally and is properly blended in with the rest of the show, it may not even stand out because everything seems “just right” (for example, in musical staging, where singing is the focus). Above all, good choreography should move you in some way and/or help you better understand the characters and the world of the show.
On what are you continuing to work and improve for your performances?
I am always pushing myself to create something that I have not done before. I am constantly watching documentaries, reading autobiographies, attending theater and dance concerts, meeting strangers and observing nature all in hopes of learning more about art and the world. The day an artist stops learning and growing is the day that artist stops creating . . . and I always intend to be creating.
Do you perform? Direct? Design?
I mostly choreograph these days, but recently I began to direct as well. I officially caught the directing bug when I directed and choreographed a production of Joseph . . . Dreamcoat last year! I love being able to create concepts and bring stories to life from scratch. I still perform from time to time and love being onstage. There is a certain “high” to performing and I love sharing my passion of dance and theater to world in that way. However, now that I’ve been on the other side of the table, I know where I am meant to be.
Some theatre artists put special skills at the bottom of their resume. What are yours?
My favorite special skill is (ahem) ear wiggling . . . both ears AND individually. It’s a skill I am quite proud of.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading Twyla Tharps’ The Creative Habit. I can’t believe I haven’t read it until now. In the book, Twyla basically explains why she is a successful choreographer/creator, and what habits (routines) keep her focused and motivated to do her craft each and every day. She is a bit crazy, but she is crazy talented and, of course, incredibly inspiring.
Sounds like a must-read for choreographers and other artists! Speaking of inspiring, what inspires and motivates you?
The geniuses of our past and the talented youth of our future. Everything being done today has already been done by the greats before us in some way. Through their bold choices and their abilities to take risks, they revolutionized musical theater history. Whenever I need inspiration, I watch all of the classic documentaries on Gene Kelley, Fred Astaire, Fosse, etc. Their talent, charisma, and passion are just something you don’t always see these days. I am also motivated by the youth of today. Teaching young dancers and actors on a daily basis (elementary through college) reminds me how fleeting this career is. You have only one body and one life, so you have to do what you love to do TODAY. Don’t wait until the parade passes by or until everyone else has done it.
Talk to us about a challenging production, actor, director (no names needed). How did you overcome this challenge? What did you learn about yourself?
As a choreographer and a director, I have accepted the mantra: “Expect an emergency a day.” There was one show that I was directing that I had three actors drop out of for various reasons within the first few weeks of rehearsal. At first, I thought my show was never going to happen. Although I wanted to freak-out and curse the theater gods, I knew that was not the way to react. So, with patience and positive energy, we were able to turn the situation around and find some new phenomenal actors to fill their spots. Through that experience, I learned more than ever that you got to keep your head in the game and remember that this is a business. People will do what they want whether you like it or not but you have to continue to lead by example and set the bar high. You need to learn how not to react but rather how to RESPOND to situations like these.
Do you have a favourite kind of dance? Does this favourite influence your choreography?
Having trained classically in ballet and modern for most of my life, those are definitely the two styles on which I rely most heavily when I choreograph. In my opinion, ballet is the best foundation of dance you can have because every style stems from it. So, when I choreograph, my knowledge of posture and alignment play big factors in teaching my dancers how to look professional, trained, and polished.
That’s such good advice! Do you have any shows that you would love to choreograph? Dance? Perform?
Too many! I’d love to choreograph (and maybe even direct): Sweet Charity, Damn Yankees, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Guys and Dolls, Contact, Chicago, Wild Party, Cabaret, Barnum!
What advice would you give young performers?
Get out of your heads and just do the work. And don’t just do the work, LOVE the work. Because if you don’t love the work, then you won’t be inspired to do the work. I know that might sound crazy, but it is true! The critic inside our heads is our own worst enemy. I see this all the time when I teach. We constantly judge and compare ourselves to the person next to us. I myself never had perfect turn-out. I never had the best extension. I was told every step of the way growing up that I was never good enough and would never make it professionally. I had the heart but not the technique. Anyone I tell that to now thinks I am crazy (because I worked my butt off to get the technique that I have now). BUT if I had listened to any of those teachers or critics I would not be where I am today. Yes, you must be realistic but you must believe that you are capable of anything. Only then will you make your dreams your realities.
Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?
I just choreographed Moonbox Production’s Company, which played at the Boston Center for the Arts. I have some exciting projects coming up, but, sadly, I can’t reveal them just yet. Oh the suspense!! I will let you know as soon as it’s official though.
Too much suspense! Do you have anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
I want to thank the readers for supporting the arts and encourage them to continue doing so. Keep educating yourselves by reading wonderful interviews like these; watching documentaries; attending musicals, plays, and dance concerts; and becoming more involved in your arts community. The theater community in Boston is small and we need to keep expanding it. And we certainly can do so with just a little support and awareness. Thank you!