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?
RH: 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?
RH: 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?
RH: 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?
RH: 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.)
RH: 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?
RH: 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?
RH: 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?
RH: 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?
RH: 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?
RH: 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?
RH: 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.