A genre-spanning choreographer who says yes to the unknown
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A genre-spanning choreographer who says yes to the unknown
Lorna Courtney, center, as Juliet, in “&Juliet,” at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York, Oct. 26, 2022. The choreographer Jennifer Weber has two shows opening on Broadway, “&Juliet” and “KPOP, ” and her “Hip-Hop Nutcracker” is coming to Disney+. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- Among the movement challenges that choreographer Jennifer Weber has been facing lately: dodging tourists on the sidewalks around Times Square as she runs between theaters. Her first Broadway show opened Thursday. Her second opens Sunday.

Weber is the choreographer of “& Juliet,” a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” through the catalog of pop hitmaker Max Martin. She is also the choreographer of “KPOP,” a behind-the-scenes musical about the Korean pop music industry. Squeezing in an interview between rehearsals, she said that having a show on Broadway “never seemed like something that would be possible, like ever.” Having two at once? “I honestly don’t believe it.”

And that’s not even everything. This month, “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker,” an updating of the Tchaikovsky holiday ballet that she choreographed and helped conceive, is heading out on a national tour. And a new movie version of that show for Disney+ drops Friday, with a cast that includes Rev Run of Run-DMC and Stephen Boss, known as tWitch.

Hip-hop and Broadway, stage and film: The breadth of these projects is characteristic of Weber’s career. For a while, she has been bridging parts of the dance world that are often separate. She choreographed the 2020 Disney+ movie “Zombies 2,” and last year she made a hybrid work for Tulsa Ballet. She created a version of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” with New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck and Memphis jooker Lil Buck that they’ve performed on concert-dance stages and on the virtual platform of the commercial dance-focused CLI Studios.

In recent interviews, artists from the hip-hop side, including Boss and pioneering M.C. Kurtis Blow (who hosts the touring version of “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker”), testified to Weber’s authenticity, while Mikhail Baryshnikov (who has a cameo in the Disney+ version), wrote in an email that her stagecraft and theatricality reminded him a bit of Jerome Robbins, who mastered Broadway and ballet. But mostly what her colleagues talk about is her energy.

“When she comes into the room, the room lights up,” Blow said. Peck, who also has a cameo in the Disney+ film, said she found Weber inspiring for her musicality and ideas but especially for her infectious excitement: “Like, I need what she ate.”

Dancers appreciate how Weber runs rehearsals — her clear authority, her directorial eye — but also how she allows them the freedom to be themselves. “That’s what street dance is about,” said Virgil Gadson, a noted hip-hop dancer in the cast of “& Juliet.”

And it’s what Weber is about, too. “I never want people to go onstage and feel like they’re doing someone else’s work,” she said. “They have to feel like it’s theirs.”

That three long-gestating projects are having big premieres almost in the same week is largely a matter of chance. But the explanation for why Weber, 44, has so many chances for her dreams to come true might come down to a single character trait. “I’m a big fan of saying yes to the thing I don’t know how to do and figuring it out when I get there,” she said.

Her Broadway dream started in childhood, when she saw “A Chorus Line” in New York at age 9 and thought: That’s the thing I want to do. So once back home in Amherst, Massachusetts, she just started doing it, choreographing a dance for herself and her younger brother and recording it on a video camera borrowed from the library. She had never taken a dance class.

“When I first watched that video, I was utterly heartbroken,” she said. “It didn’t look anything like I thought it did.” Watching it now, though, she said, “I see a lot of complicated ideas in there, even though they’re executed horribly.”

She learned by doing, re-creating the choreography she saw on television. From the beginning, she didn’t discriminate between videos by Janet Jackson and numbers on the Tony Awards broadcast, between MTV and Broadway. “They seemed exactly the same,” she said. “Those were all cool dances, and I wanted to learn cool dances.”

She started taking dance classes at a neighborhood school. “I was definitely the kid in the back line,” she said. “I was a really shy kid, like crazy shy.” But on one of her family’s frequent trips to visit relatives near New York City, she discovered Broadway Dance Center in Manhattan and asked her mother if she could take a professional dance class.

“It was a whole other world,” Weber said, “the real thing.” During summers and vacations, she spent as much time as she could at Broadway Dance, learning as much choreography as possible.

A few years later, in college at the University of Pennsylvania, she auditioned for all of the student dance groups. All of them rejected her. Weber was so angry that she created her own hip-hop company, Strictly Funk. “I honestly did not know what hip-hop was,” she said, but she began choreographing, and the group became “super, super popular.” Twenty-five years later, it is still thriving in her absence.

After graduation, she moved to New York, thinking that starting a dance company there would be as easy as it had been on campus. It wasn’t. But she started one: hip-hop troupe Decadancetheatre, originally all-female, which she would keep going until 2017. She also began going to clubs, which is “where hip-hop is learned,” she said: “There was something about the movement and the community that I understood. There was no way I was going to go to a bar and talk to people, but on a dance floor, I was totally confident.”

Weber was interested in remaking dance classics, so she looked through a children’s book about ballets and picked out “The Firebird.” Decadancetheatre’s 2004 remake was its first big splash. Weber said she had been thinking about a question that a British theater director had asked her: How can you make hip-hop vulnerable? Using classical music, she thought, was one answer: “It isn’t the music that people expect.” She tried Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” next.

Touring those pieces led Weber to Mike Fitelson, executive director of United Palace Theater in Washington Heights. He wasn’t so interested in Vivaldi and suggested they try “The Nutcracker” instead. “I had never seen it,” Weber said. “But of course, what did I say? Yes!”

Keeping the Tchaikovsky score, slightly remixed, they moved the story to New Year’s Eve in the present, with time travel to the 1980s and a mission to rekindle the love between the hero’s parents. Weber’s own mission was to allow hip-hop dancers to showcase their abilities to create characters and tell stories. “Creating a persona and using movement to find your power is what the whole culture is about,” she said.

The debut in 2014 was successful enough to lead to tours and eventually the Disney+ film, which has been entirely rechoreographed by Weber and a large team for a much larger cast. “Stage and film are totally different,” she said. “You have to think totally differently. I love re-imagining.”

Much re-imagining was required for “KPOP.” When Weber got the job, she knew nothing about K-pop and had to do a lot of Googling, she said. The show began life in 2017 as an immersive, room-to-room production, and the transfer to Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway required many changes, including totally redoing the dances. Weber had to take the ever-shifting frontal formations of K-pop — in which the singers (who usually wouldn’t be singing live) are always dancing as a group and continuously swapping front position to take a solo — and adapt them to the nearly in-the-round format of the theater. She used the computer app ChoreoRoom to plan it out.

She also took on an associate choreographer, MJ Choi, who was born and raised in Korea and is an expert in the style. Since the show now has flashbacks, the two choreographers were able to show some of the recent evolution of K-pop dance styles and their relation to trends in American pop. “It took a ton of research and collaboration to create something that everyone feels is authentic,” Weber said.

Authenticity, she acknowledges, is a complicated question. “I can only take from my own experiences and hope that feels authentic onstage because it is coming from my authenticity,” she said. “And I try to leave space for all the dancers to bring their authenticity to the stage, too.”

“& Juliet,” she said, feels like “all my backgrounds coming together” — moments of theater and pop concert and hip-hop. The Max Martin songs are “music that make non-dancers dance, so for dancers it’s next-level inspiring.” And where her “KPOP” choreography is mathematically strict, her choreography for “& Juliet” allows for pockets of what she calls “directed freestyle.”

One happens near the top of the show, when the electric street dancer Bobby Horner, who is also known as Pocket, acts out the direction Weber gave to “do your thing.” Weber discovered Horner during auditions for “Zombies 2,” when, as Horner (who uses they/them pronouns) put it, “Disney was looking for a girl next door type, and I am none of those things.” What Weber appreciated in Horner, they said, was — again — authenticity, “and I never experienced someone seeing me like that, and I never imagined that something I could do would be on a Broadway stage.”

When Horner dances in “& Juliet,” the audience goes wild. It’s one of many moments when you can see what the eye and spirit of Jennifer Weber can bring to Broadway.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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