Getting to Know Ray Hesselink

Earlier this month I spent a week at Tony Waag's TAP CITY tap festival. While I was there I was lucky enough to dance with, watch and talk to a large number of outstanding tap dancers and choreographers, many of whom have expressed interest in participating in
Connect 2 Choreography.

I have been lucky enough to take class with Ray Hesselink at Steps on Broadway in New York City and can always count on his quick smile and overflowing enthusiasm to brighten my day. When trying to find someone to interview Ray I immediately thought of Kelsey Griffith, a former student with strong tap skills and an affinity for musical theatre. Kelsey is now studying dance at Muhlenberg College and was happy to share her and Ray's conversation with us.

KG: How and/or why did you start choreographing?
Choreography really started when I started teaching classes. As I was creating for class (exercises and combos), I started to realized….hey, I’m kind of good at this. Then I really started to create full length pieces. From that, I started finding I really enjoyed story-telling and comedy. Musical theater seemed to be my niche.

KG: Was there something in particular that prompted a shift from performing to choreographing?
Even though I love performing, I found that I love to bring out the best in others either through teaching, directing or choreography (or just being a good friend). Choreography was starting to become more fulfilling for my soul rather than doing a regional production of “Singin’ in the Rain” in middle America. There is nothing better than being creative.

KG: Do you find that your work has been influenced by any other dancer(s) and/or choreographer(s)? …if yes, how?
Oh YES!!! First off, my DVD (and youtube) collection of old movie musicals are a HUGE inspiration. I’m very visual and I have a great memory. When I start to choreograph, I always have a huge database in my mind that I tap into.

Some of my favorite inspirations: Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Fred Astaire, Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Gwen Verdon, Carol Haney, Chita Rivera. Also, my dear friend and mentor, Miriam Nelson (she’s turning 90 this year). She has her own tap DVD out as well.

KG: How do you record your choreography?
I film everything on a little camera and/or video camera. Every week I download and save my information. For class exercises, I sometimes film or write them down. I have files and files of material.

KG: How do you start a new work? …music first? …choreography first? (etc.)
Music/lyrics first. Next, if it’s musical theater, I need to know how the dance progresses the plot. Then, I create character driven movement that fits the music and furthers the story.

KG: How has your training influenced your work as a choreographer?
I’ve learned from my great teachers how to teach my dancers the choreography in a way that it’s speedy and they can absorb the material. I often find choreographers have a difficult time counting and teaching transitions. I always make sure that I cover both. Oh, and to add tons of humor to my teaching. I try to make my rehearsal environment fun and creative.

Also, I have a music background (I entered UCLA as a music major for piano). Choreography became my new music.

KG: Does your experience as a tapper influence your choreographic process at all?
Tapping to me is pure music. When I choreograph tap, I create my own melody of rhythm to compliment the song. When I choreograph non-tap, my pieces are VERY rhythmic and musical.

KG: How do you combine theater and dance technique to create such compelling and entertaining character-based choreography?
I have an overactive mind. I’m always watching people and writing down things that make me laugh (I carry a notebook with me). These little “flaws” or character traits intrigue me. I try to think outside the box and not be predictable. I also strive for simplicity. When I’m stuck, I go back to what the essence of the story is, and then I always find my answer/solution. Also, ultimately I want to entertain….I want the audience to feel something….anything.

KG: What was the first thing you ever choreographed?
My first piece was a piece by Nat King Cole called “Exactly Like You”. It had a lot of influences by friends/teachers. As I choreographed more I started to discover my own voice and trust in it.

KG: Has your choreographic style changed significantly since that first work?
Yes, I’ve gotten better. I really trust myself. At first, I kept asking my dancers “is this good?” Now, I know if it works (or doesn’t work). I always spend at least 3 hours a week in a rehearsal studio creating choreography. Sometimes I arrive and I’m exhausted….but I force myself to create. I always know I have a bottomless well to tap into. I have an unlimited supply of steps and ideas. Creating every week is so important for me.

KG: How was it working as part of the team for Broadway’s Billy Elliot: The Musical?
I feel so blessed to have worked on Billy Elliot. The kids are unbelievable and so talented. It’s an experience I will always cherish (and continue cherishing). It’s also amazing to feel that I have so much influence on many aspects of the show (from training to recommending kids that booked the show).

KG: What, exactly, does a “Tap Dance Consultant to Choreographer” do?
RH: Tap Dance Consultant basically is someone who assess the abilities of the kids. I give the creative team an idea if the child can perform the role or how much training they need to be able to do the part. With David Alvarez, I had 3 months to teach him (twice a week). I had to get him from not tapping at all to being an intermediate level tap dancer. David is a hard worker. His achievements were astounding. I’m very proud of him.

KG: How and/or when did you become involved with Tap City and Chicago Human Rhythm Project?
RH: I got invited to teach at both. A major jump into the tap world was doing Derick Grant’s Imagine Tap! People started to recognize my name because of that show outside of teaching in NY.

KG: Do you have any plans for future work?
RH: In September I will be on Faculty at Juilliard teaching tap dance. Currently, I am looking for shows to direct/choreograph. I have a couple of shows I have written that I want to rework and get up on their feet.

Really, I want to be involved with fun and fulfilling projects that are interesting and unique, whatever they may be.


Chor-i-dor - Favorite Moment #1 - Change?

by Karen Krolak

When we first arrived at the wisteria shaded benches on Holland Street, a woman was finishing her cigarette and asked people for change. Although she seemed apathetic, she watched us intently as we set up our sandwich board explaining Chor-i-dor.

Adele Traub texted me looking for assistance with the Actor's Shakespeare Project booth down by Diesel Cafe for a few minutes. When I returned, the smoking woman had wandered away. Art Beat was just starting to gather crowds and our first observer had melted into the flood of unfamiliar faces flowing through the festival. In the midst of her discarded butts, I quickly scribbled the word, Change, in pink chalk to commemorate her presence.

As noon approached, more people darted over towards Chor-i-dor to cool off or slather on sunscreen. I was frantically notating all the action when I observed an overheated woman. She dashed to a bench to struggle free from an unnecessary layer of clothing. In her haste to squirm into a cooler t-shirt she never registered any of the activity around her. Otherwise, she might have been as amused as I was to note that she was perfectly performing the verb beneath her feet: change. Alas, I could not get to my camera in time to snap her picture.

(Chor-i-dor is sponsored in part by the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.)

Two upcoming auditions for teen dancers

Impulse Dance Center has been a huge supporter of Monkeyhouse from the very start. There are so many reasons why we love this studio, e.g. Karen has been teaching Modern there since 1996 and Nicole grew up taking classes there and eventually taught Tap and Jazz at Impulse.

Before we get too mushy, though, we wanted to let you know about some upcoming auditions that are open to any qualified teen dancers in the Metro West area. Be sure to check out the summer class offerings if you want to get a leg up on auditions!

WHEN: Sunday, August 30, 2009 6:15 P.M.

WHERE: Impulse Dance Center- 5 Summer Street, Natick, MA

This audition is open to both males and females

Wear dance attire and bring all dance shoes

The Connecting Point Dance Company is a performance ensemble trained in Classical Ballet, Tap, Jazz, Modern and Hip Hop that performs at community events in the Metrowest and Boston area.

Requirements for audition: must be age 14 or older and have current or previous dance training at or above an Advanced Intermediate level. Must be willing to work hard and attend weekly dance technique classes and a Company Repertory class at Impulse Dance Center. This is for the serious, committed dancer looking to go beyond dance class training.
Questions or more information call (508) 653-2171


Under the direction of Shannon Sullivan

When: Sunday, August 30, 2009 5:00 P.M.

Where: IMPULSE DANCE CENTER 5 Summer Street Natick, MA 01760

Beginning its eighth season, The TAProject is a performing ensemble who create, understand and perform complex tap rhythms. They work on a Tap Repertoire to share the language of tap in schools and other venues. The TAProject meets weekly for a mandatory Repertory class in addition to their regular Tap technique class.

REQUIREMENTS FOR AUDITION: You must be an Advanced or above tap student (this includes students entering Advanced in the fall of 2009) or have the equivalent tap dance skills.

This audition is open to both males and females. Wear comfortable clothes and you will need tap shoes
Questions or more information call (508) 653-2171

Photo Credit: Paradise Photo & Video
Dancer pictured: Connecting Point Dance Company Member, Andy Jacobs


NEA Grantee of the Day - American Dance Festival

(Part of an ongoing series that demonstrates how some of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Direct Grantees have influenced Monkeyhouse's growth.)

by Karen Krolak

American Dance Festival, Inc./Durham, NC/$50,000 - In 1992 I spent 6 sweat soaked weeks at the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC. Our days were crammed full of technique and conditioning classes taught by legendary performers and some exciting emerging artists. After a day and a half of auditons, I landed in a Modern class with Dianne McIntyre, an Advanced Jazz class with Bernard Johnson, a Music Theory tutorial by Carman Moore, and a Pilobolus style partnering intensive with Carol Parker and Jack Arnold. Seventeen years later, I still use cherished tidbits from those classes when I teach. Monkeyhouse's Firk II particularly draws on partnering skills that I acquired at ADF.

All the technique classes were accompanied by live musicians, an exquisite luxury that far too few studios can afford these days. Most of the accompanists still work at the festival and either played drums or piano. One week in Dianne McIntyre's class, however, we were treated A Capella improvisations by Toby Twining. I was so intrigued by his startling range of vocalizations that I purchased his CD, Shaman. My 1998 piece, Idolum/Invisible to the Eyes (see photo above, was set to track 1, Hymn, from that CD. (Thanks again, Mr Twining, for giving this virtually unknown artist in 1998 permission to use it.)

Evenings revolved around rehearsals and attending performances by luminaries of the dance world including, Pilobolus, Paul Taylor, Donald McKayle, and Liz Lerman. On a few rare occasions when there was a gap in my schedule, I observed Daniel Nagrin's choreography class.

The summer program also introduced me to artists, such as Ron K Brown, Donald Byrd, and Mark Dendy, whose work was just begining to attract national attention. As it happens, one of the only students that I really remember from ADF was a striking male dancer with a pierced eyebrow (it was 1992 and tattoos were still taboo in the dance world) named Miguel Gutierrez. It has been thrilling to watch his remarkable artistic trajectory.

Thanks to everyone at the American Dance Festival for six weeks that continue to spur my creative endevours. Thanks also to my parents who encouraged me to attend.


Images from Chor-i-dor at ArtBeat 2009

The drizzle in Somerville today should wash away all the remnants of the chalk from Chor-i-dor at ArtBeat 2009.

These images, however, capture some of the elements of psychogeographic choreography experiment.

Thanks the hundreds of festival goers who participated either by interacting, observing, or inspiring us, we had a magnificent afternoon dancing and drawing.

There are several batches of pictures to sort through and more moments to share in upcoming posts. If you have any impressions or images of your own to share, please send them to monkeyhouseblog@gmail.com.

(Chor-i-dor is sponsored in part by the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.)


An Experiment at Art Beat

by Karen Krolak
Remember how I was raving about the joys of living in Somerville, MA and I mentioned ArtBeat? Well, it is today in Davis Square and I will be conducting a choreographic experiment there entitled Chor-i-dor. As part of this process, Nicole Harris, Caitlin Meehan, Sarah Feinberg, and I will be performing at the end of the afternoon.

Chor-i-dor :
An ArtBeat Experiment
Inspiring dances of the not-so-distant future

by Karen Krolak,
2009 Somerville Choreography Fellow
& Artistic Director of Monkeyhouse

Questions and Answers about Chor-i-dor

Q: Umm, what will you be doing?
A: I will be watching unsuspecting people and informed participants (like yourself).

Q: Why are you doing that?
A: Well, I am working on a project this year to see how this city, Somerville, moves people.

Q: So are people supposed to start jumping and twirling like they are on America’s Best Dance Crew or So, You Think You Can Dance?
A: You could but you certainly don’t have to do so. I define choreography as the art of moving with meaning, something you are probably doing right now.

Q: So what are we supposed to do?
A: You don’t have to do anything. However, you can journey along the path under this pergola and respond to the environment around you. If you see signs or instructions, feel free to follow them or ignore them. Oh, and be aware that you might be photographed.

Q: And then what?
A: You can check back later in the day and see if something you did has been commemorated on the path to inspire others or to see an improvised performance based on people’s responses today.

Q: So is that all?
A: No, you could observe how others respond to Chor-i-dor or you could sign up to take a stroll through Somerville with me during the summer.

Q: Hey, that could be fun. Where do I sign up?
A: Send us an email at Monkeyhouseblog@gmail.com and Monkeyhouse will contact you about dates and times. Thanks for your interest!

(Chor-i-dor is sponsored in part by the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.)


NEA Grantee of the Day - Somerville, MA

(Part of an ongoing series that demonstrates how some of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Direct Grantees have influenced Monkeyhouse's growth.)

by Karen Krolak

City of Somerville, Massachusetts/Somerville, MA/$25,000 -
What the Fluff, indeed! You have to love a city that celebrates "the genius of Archibald Query" otherwise known as Marshmallow Fluff. Two and half years ago, Jason and I relocated to Somerville and we were lured in large part by its unusual smorgasbord of festivals and its commitment to the arts.

Somerville is one of a handful of communities in the Commonwealth that provides fellowship grants for artists and this year I was honored to be given one. There will be more on that in a subsequent post but for now I am just going to focus on a few of the ways this city inspires me on a regular basis:

1. Fruit trees and artists, e.g. Daniel Maher, and Mudflat Studios, sprout up around every major square.
2. Our mayor, Joseph Curtatone played trumpet in high school and launched a new Jazz Festival.
3. This city is teeming with talented choreographers including:Alissa Cardone, Emily Beattie, Nicole Pierce, Jody Weber, Wendy Jehlen, and Aparna Sindoor
4. Somerville Arts Council hosts Art Beat each July and the Illuminations tour in December.
5. Brass bands rule the streets during the Honk! Festival.


NEA Grantee of the Day - Alonzo King's LINES Ballet

(Part of an ongoing series that demonstrates how some of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Direct Grantees have influenced Monkeyhouse's growth.)

by Karen Krolak

Alonzo King's LINES Ballet /San Francisco, CA /$50,000 -

On my recent trip to San Francisco, my first stop was the former Odd Fellows Hall on the corner of 7th and Market. This eccentric building with its antiquated elevator is the home of Alonzo King's LINES Ballet and the San Francisco Dance Center. I am always amused by the tendency for Odd Fellows buildings to evolve into dance spaces, e.g. the Dance Complex in Cambridge, MA.

Flamenco rhythms echoed off the walls and girls with taut hairdos raced to get to a ballet class as I searched for the room where Anne Bluethenthal was rehearsing. Each week hundreds of recreational and professional dancers from a wide range of disciplines study, choreograph, and rehearse in these six quirky studios. Though my contact with this organization was brief, I am awed by Alonzo King's dedication to the larger Bay Area dance community. Is it any wonder that Monkeyhouse's 2008 summer intern, Gaby Mervis listed him as one of her favorite choreographers?


NEA Stimulus Funding

by Karen Krolak

While out in San Francisco, I was thrilled to discover that the Exit Theater had been awarded one of the coveted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Direct Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. As you may know, the Exit Theater hosts the San Francisco Fringe Festival, where Monkeyhouse performed in 2001 and 2002. In 2003 Monkeyhouse was also featured in DIVAfest, an Exit Theater initiative to support plays and new work by female artists.

The Exit's four stages in the Tenderloin district have been a vital hub for San Francisco's arts community for the last 26 years. Artistic Director and Founder, Christina Arguello continually creates opportunities that encourage collaboration and foster artistic experimentation. Hundreds of directors and companies including Mary Zimmerman, Banana Bag and Bodice, Mark Jackson and Sean Owens, have presented pieces under the auspices of this nonprofit.

When I returned home, Susan Hammond forwarded an email to me listing all of the organizations in Massachusetts that received these grants. I noticed that the City of Somerville was awarded $25,000 and that the Boston Dance Alliance received $50,000. That's when I realized how important these grants were to Monkeyhouse, even though we had not even applied for one. Monkeyhouse depends on an ecosystem of arts organizations to survive and I thought it might be useful to illustrate how some of the other grantees have influenced our growth. So for the next few weeks Monkeyhouse will devote a posts to this topic and call the series NEA Grantee of the Day.



Summer's finally here and with it Tony Waag's TAP CITY festival. This week tap dance has taken over Chelsea Studios here in New York City with classes, residencies and workshops for dancers of all ages and levels. In the evenings there are tap jams, showcases and performances. For me, the highlights of the week so far have been: participating in a residency with Michelle Dorrance, who used our four days of classes and end of week performance to nod to Michael Jackson with a tap dancing Thriller tribute; getting to watch another MJ tribute at the Tap Youth/Tap Future showcase last night with Chloe Arnold's Pre-Professional Program; and a Tap Talks & Films panel on choreography with Brenda Bufalino and Barbara Duffy, moderated by Michelle Dorrance.

And then of course there's tonights "Main Event" featuring performances by many fabulous tap dancers including Jason Samuels-Smith, the Tap City Youth Ensemble, Michela Marino- Lerman, Derick K. Grant and the premier of Lynn Schwab's "Cross Fibers" (which I'll be dancing in).

Unfortunately the show tonight is sold out, so unless you are one of the lucky ones who already bought tickets you'll have to wait for the video to hit the archives at the Performing Arts Library... If you want more information about TAP CITY check out the American Tap Dance Foundation's website.


Rehearsing @ ODC

by Karen Krolak

Wow, so there are tons of drool inducing discoveries tucked into unsuspecting spaces in San Francisco. for instance, Spencer on the go!'s French food truck serves succulent escargot lollipops and lavander infused lamb stew out of a carwash parking lot. At the moment, though, I am reveling in the streamlined beauty of ODC's new building during a tech rehearsal for Anne Bluethenthal's Pluto in Capricorn.

As their website explains:
The two building campus includes eight studios, 3 performance venues, and several office suites. The Commons is home to a world-class dance company, ODC/Dance, a professional, pre-professional, and recreational dance training program, ODC School and Rhythm and Motion Dance Program, a Healthy Dancer’s Clinic, a Pilates Training Center and a nationally regarded presenting program, ODC Theater.

Heavens to Betsy, Boston's really needs something like this.


Performing in San Francisco!

by Karen Krolak

While at the Jacob's Pillow Choreographers' Lab last summer, Anne Bluethenthal and I tossed around several ideas for future collaborations. I am thrilled that less than a year later, we have already found a way to begin exploring these ideas. This weekend, I will be a guest artist in ABD Production's Pluto in Capricorn at the gorgeous, new ODC Dance Commons in San Francisco.

The concert features new, reconstituted, and spontaneous dances that celebrate ABD Productions 25th Anniversary season. Given how many dance organizations fold in the first 5 to 10 years, I am awed by Anne's artistic tenacity and endurance. I hope that if you are in the area that you will be able to attend.

Friday, July 11 @ 8PM
Saturday, July 12 @8PM
Sunday, July 12 @ 6 PM
ODC Dance Commons
351 Shotwell St
San Francisco, CA

Choreography By Anne Bluethenthal

With Guest Artists:

Cassandra Carpenter
Remy Charlip
Mama CoAtl
Carolyn Cooke
Melanie DeMore
Judy Grahn
Robert Henry Johnson

Ajayi Lumumba
Marc Ream
Louisa Tiesh
Mercy Sidbury
Allen Wilner
Pamela Z

And Performers
Anne Bluethenthal
Alyah Baker
Heidi Buehler
Robert Henry Johnson
Laura Elaine Ellis
Frances Sedayao
Liz Tenuto
Chin Chin Hsu


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