INSIDE: Zachary Whittenburg on “Floor Show”—a production inspired by the sound and vision of David Bowie
Many of the interviews we have here at DancerMusic involve a discussion about inspiration. Where do we find it, and what do we do once we have it? How do we begin to shape and mold that inspiration into something that not only pays proper homage to its source, but also has the power to inspire others? The more specific and well-known that source is, the more difficult it becomes to find the answer to the second question.
For the creators of Floor Show, the sound and vision of David Bowie serves as inspiration for a multi-faceted evening of art and entertainment. Such an immense source of inspiration called for careful research and creative development. In a recent press release, producer and co-creator Jesse Morgan Young said, “We’ve created a show that moves you among live music, theater, and performance art, much like Bowie did. Rather than pay tribute through imitation or mimicry, however, our goal has been to boost the signals of images and moments from throughout his career that have inspired us, and re-imagine those in new ways.”
An undertaking of Floor Show’s magnitude left us with an endless list of questions, and luckily DancerMusic Editor Kristi Licera was able to catch up with one of the production’s choreographers, Zachary Whittenburg, to cure our curiosity for this INSIDE. Here’s what Zachary told us about Floor Show:
When an artist’s main creative mode and career through-line is change itself, the best, maybe the only, way to honor that is to make something with transformation at the heart of it.
Kristi Licera: Floor Show is an immersive production that draws inspiration from David Bowie’s music, career, cultural impact, and more. This one-of-a-kind production—part theater, part live music concert, part dance performance—was created by director Jesse Morgan Young in collaboration with lead performer Alex Grelle and music director Liam Kazar. Staged in the round on a custom-built set, Floor Show also features live and pre-recorded video and projections by Sid Branca. With so many elements at play, can you give us some insight to how Floor Show came together? What are some themes and concepts that Young, Grelle and Kazar gathered to create a cohesive production?
Zachary Whittenburg: Those are great questions. I’ll try to answer them as succinctly as possible. First I’ll note that Floor Show has essentially been in development for two years. An earlier version of this show was to premiere in late 2018, early 2019, but was pushed back in order to secure an appropriate venue. We actually did quite a bit of work and began rehearsals over the summer of 2018 before deciding to reschedule. The benefit of that, of course, is that we on the creative team have had a ton of time to keep discussing and trading ideas about this show in the meantime.
Jesse said, and I found this very helpful, that he pulled from the music and lyrics of David Bowie a set of “stories,” then chose a sequence for those stories to compile a “script” for the show, with the same questions and ideas at the center all the while: How do you honor such an iconic, hyper-original performer, through live performance? How do you bring to life something as intangible as inspiration, without falling into some too-familiar way in which that subject has already been addressed? How do you avoid ending up with, as Jesse puts it, “some Branson-esque, Smoky Mountain River, tribute-slash-revue about David Bowie?” [Laughs]
…it’s been more a process of working out, in collaboration with the rest of the cast and crew, how movement can support everything else: the lyrics, the costumes, the images, the emotional arcs.
Alex, Jesse, and I have had a lot of conversations about navigating that intimidation, to find some firm ground to stand on while we answer the question: Why are we really doing this? We know that we need to live up to the incredible variety and scope of Bowie’s career; we also know that we can’t—we won’t—do that successfully through imitation or mimicry. So, instead, the process has become one of investigating how inspiration functions over time. We’ve tried to stay truthful to the specific things that we’ve been inspired by, hoping that the specificity of those experiences will translate to others. That’s a big reason why, with a couple of exceptions, you’re not going to hear a kind of “greatest hits,” jukebox-musical playlist. It’s a much more curated selection of songs and visual references that are well-known to hardcore Bowie fans, but probably new or only vaguely familiar to others—and it’s been incredible to revisit and research some of those, to be reminded just how fresh and progressive they feel, even today.
Trying to encompass how prolific Bowie was, all the decades and decades of his work not just in music but in film, visual art, fashion, performance, seemed foolish. When an artist’s main creative mode and career through-line is change itself, the best, maybe the only, way to honor that is to make something with transformation at the heart of it. Everyone has really tried to take that in and let it move them, in ways that are specific and unique to them. What’s really exciting at this point is the fact that this project, after so much time and preparation, is almost ready for an audience. We’re in our own theater, putting all the pieces together, fine-tuning all the transitions, and everyone in the cast and crew now has a feel for their track from start to finish, and is exploring and experimenting with the best, most potent ways to shape that journey for the people who see it.
Because “Floor Show” happens in the round and includes live video feeds from multiple cameras, we’ve put a lot of work into how the movement appears from various angles.
Kristi: In addition to your years of experience as a dance writer, professional dancer and choreographer, the depth and range of your knowledge has led you to opportunities to mentor up-and-coming choreographers and lecture at university dance programs across the US. With such a comprehensive understanding of dance and the choreographic process, how did you approach creating movement for performers in Floor Show? Can you give us some insight to the research you conducted and how it informed what audiences will see?
Zachary: You flatter me—that’s very kind. I’ve actually not produced a ton of my own choreography. If you added up everything I’d choreographed ’til now, what I’ve created for Floor Show is almost an equal amount of material. It’s doubled the size of my portfolio. [Laughs] I’m exaggerating, but not much.
I’m honored to share billing for choreography with Erin Kilmurray, who is just so skilled and so good and who, unlike me, has a ton of experience with this type of staging: in the round, with runways and video, with audience members both seated and standing, late at night, in a more immersive atmosphere, bar-adjacent. The learning curve has been much steeper for me.
To your question, it helped a ton that Alex and Jesse came to me with such clear and well-aligned visions for what each section should be, for what it needed to include. I didn’t actually have to conceptualize very much on my own; it’s been more a process of working out, in collaboration with the rest of the cast and crew, how movement can support everything else: the lyrics, the costumes, the images, the emotional arcs.
…everyone in the cast and crew now has a feel for their track from start to finish, and is exploring and experimenting with the best, most potent ways to shape that journey for the people who see it.
I worked from the same set of source material everyone was given—the same films, Cat People and The Man Who Fell to Earth and Labyrinth and The Hunger; Bowie’s concert and television appearances from the ’70s and ’80s; Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli Live at the London Palladium; some great moments of dance in Bowie’s career, like the video for “Time Will Crawl,” choreographed by Toni Basil, and “Look Back in Anger” with Louise Lecavalier of La La La Human Steps. The Glass Spider Tour. It’s such a rich and unusual collection of stuff, much of which I already knew and loved. Alex and Jesse brought other movement to my attention as well, not necessarily related to Bowie but, for example, the runway show for a graduate fashion student’s collection they found on Instagram. I showed them contemporaneous references I thought we might incorporate: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s work from the mid-’80s, some Merce Cunningham, dance videos from Japan…
Because Floor Show happens in the round and includes live video feeds from multiple cameras, we’ve put a lot of work into how the movement appears from various angles. The projections allow us to do much more subtle things than you can choreograph for a more traditional, proscenium setting. We have close-ups for which there are very specific facial expressions and framings, but since the stage is so big—about 50 feet long and up to 30 feet wide—I’ve also been able to incorporate a lot of big movement, running and jumping.
We’ve tried to stay truthful to the specific things that we’ve been inspired by, hoping that the specificity of those experiences will translate to others.
The cast is incredibly talented and we gave each person a set of movement that, again, complements and supports everything else they do in the show. Alex, Maggie Kubley, Aileen May, and Andrew Sa all have a lot of singing to do, so we’ve been mindful about leaving them time to breathe. Our “Diamond Dogs,” Jillian Endebrock and Robin Lee, don’t have vocals and so, physically, I’ve been able to push those two a bit more. And they’re great dancers who picked up a ton of material in a very compressed creative process—just a couple of weeks, six days a week, in addition to all of our job-jobs, at the live-work space of Bran Moorhead, one of our two Cherrys. Bran and Teressa LaGamba sing alongside the band, and have what I was taught to call “piddles”: those simple, repeating hand gestures and small steps that you see backup singers and corps members do. I love a good piddle, [Laughs] so it’s been a dream come true, coming up with all the piddles for this show.
Floor Show runs Thursday through Sunday, February 20 through March 1, 2020, downstairs at the Chopin Theatre (1543 West Division Street in Wicker Park, Chicago). Visit bit.ly/FLOORSHOW for tickets and more information.