Tap & Tea with Stephen Mear CBE

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On Thursday I attended week 4 of Theatre Tap London’s ‘Tap & Tea’ tap history series. This time we were joined by two time Olivier Award winning choreographer Stephen Mear CBE! He has had a prolific career in musical theatre, and is known for his work on West End and Broadway shows including Mary Poppins, White Christmas, Funny Girl, Singing in the Rain, Sinatra, Sweet Charity and many more. He was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2020 for services to dance.

Tap dance was the first type of dance he learned at his mother’s dance school, and he later trained in Matt Mattox style jazz dance (aka Freestyle Jazz) at London Studio Centre. I was interested to hear that he took 14 ballet classes a week to get his ballet up to scratch! He’s also probably the 4th or 5th British dancer I’ve heard say that they were the best tap dancer in their home town; then they went away to a college in London or took tap classes in New York and found themselves at the bottom of the class!

Stephen showed us and discussed clips of jazz isolations in Beat me Daddy 8 to the Bar from Bob Fosse’s ‘Big Deal’, the jazz-tap combination in The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing from ‘White Christmas’, and we also looked at a clip of his idol Ann Miller on stage in 1987 with her famous ‘Easter Parade’ number ‘Shakin’ the Blues Away‘ as part of variety show Happy Birthday Hollywood. 

There was much discussion of jazz dance, having been inspired by Matt Mattox, Jack Coles, Chet Walker, Bob Fosse, and Hermes Pan, who collaborated a lot with Fred Astaire. We found out loads about Stephen’s choreographic process, particularly as someone who is dyslexic. Someone asked during the Q&A how he notates his work, and it turns out he films everything (although assistants will write it all down in detail). He also uses dance college students to map everything out before taking it to teaching the cast.

Useful Advice from Stephen:

  • Auditions – leave your attitude outside! Choreographers all speak to each other as well, so be nice to everyone. Do the best you can, know who and what you are auditioning for. He said he looks for people who are passionate over those who are just technically brilliant.
  • Starting out as a choreographer? Try not to be too overzealous – i.e. “Just because you have a parasol in your hand, doesn’t mean you have to twirl it”. Keep a notebook by your bed to jot down ideas.

I wasn’t sure what to expect this time as I’m not so into the West End stage type of tap dance, but Stephen was so interesting to listen to! I loved hearing about how it all works behind the scenes, the ups and downs, how he started out, who he worked with and who inspires him.

After this session, my passion for jazz dance was reignited and having googled Matt Mattox, I’ve ended up subscribing on YouTube to ‘Monday Mattox’ jazz (and tap) technique classes with Bob Boross (who trained under Mattox) – LOVE IT!

This coming Thursday, we’ll be joined by Broadway performer and choreographer Andrew Black.

Jellicle Cats

Yesterday afternoon I went to the second Cats the Musical Workshop at Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden, organised by OMG So Stagey and led by Cameron Ball aka Macavity.

It was a hot and humid day in the Capital, but having seen the note that we’d be in a larger studio than last time, I was hopeful of some sort of air conditioning.

I got there and after paying the £2 day fee (as I’m not a member) I was buzzed in to climb to the top floor (puff, pant) where I found studio 79 and had time to change footwear and stretch.

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Claws ready

I was a tiny bit nervous beforehand, but not like last time when I’d never attended a class at Pineapple before. A girl asked me if I knew anyone, I said no and neither did she! Quite a few people had come along in pairs or small groups. I had forwarded the details to a couple of dance friends who had expressed interest, but they didn’t go for it in the end.

We started with an aerobic warm-up, followed by some stretches to limber up. Then we did as per the previous Cats Workshop and did some actions to get into the character of a cat (intense staring, movement on all fours, holding our hands like paws, awareness of whiskers, ears, tail etc).

Next we moved onto the choreography for the opening scene of the musical, which is the Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats section. Having seen the musical several times and having studied the DVD, I am familiar with the movements, but obviously in a workshop you are learning what they actually are, rather than what you think they are.

We were put into 8 different groups. I went with another girl, and then she ended putting her hand up to be brave enough to go on her own, so I ended up on my own too! ARGHHH. Okay, it was a bit scary, but it ended up being absolutely fine. The groups were numbered 1-8 and then each group (or individual in my case) had to come on stage in a particular way of your choosing. We also had to come up with another movement for another point in the song (you’ll get the idea if you watch it on Youtube).

In the end we learnt all the choreography for the song, albeit a slightly abridged version, performed the entire thing twice through (once being filmed) and it was SO MUCH FUN!!! I particularly enjoyed the acting aspect of it, which I hadn’t really anticipated. There was more acting in this workshop than in the Jellicle Ball workshop as we were introducing ourselves and playing up to the audience.

When I got home I watched the scene from the DVD (and some other performances, including one in French on a TV show), ate piri piri chicken wings, rice, corn and salad, had a shower, stretched and made good use of my foam roller. Not feeling too bad today! In fact, I’m still slightly hyper!!

Here is the video of our class on Facebook…Don’t laugh at me :))))

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OMG Cats Workshop

Pineapple Studios

So yesterday afternoon I went into London and took part in the OMG So Stagey Cats (The Musical) Workshop at Pineapple Studios, Covent Garden, taught by cast member Cameron Ball (Macavity/Admetus).

It was AMAZINGGGGGGG!!!

It was a packed studio as expected, and extremely hot until someone found the air con switch! We did a quick aerobic warm up consisting of jogging with various arm circles, plus some stretches and some cat-like movements and mannerisms to get us into character and ready for the routine we’d be learning…. The Jellicle Ball! OMG Yes, everyone was very excited!

If you know the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, you will know it’s the bit everyone gets excited about. It’s a 12 minute full on dance piece, but we were only learning the first few minutes. Apparently the full piece is notoriously a killer! The part we learnt is an audition piece – ooh!

The choreography by Gillian Lynne is amazing. Formerly a ballet soloist, she is now 94 and apparently still does the splits, every day. Wow.

I’ve been to see the show several times, including once at its original home, the New London Theatre in Covent Garden’s Drury Lane. I also have the show on DVD, which I used to dance along to a bit here and there, so I kind of know the part we were learning very well, but obviously we were learning the intricacies that you don’t pick up from a DVD, i.e. the particular steps, and the bits when the camera pans away to something else! But this prior knowledge definitely helped me remember where I supposed to be going because there are a lot of changes of direction. We performed the piece various times as a whole group, in 2 groups and even in 3 groups while the others watched. There were also people watching from outside the studio – all adds to the exhilaration of performing!

After learning the routine, we were then taught the bit at the very start very start of the Jellicle Ball, where we all begin by lying on the floor and then different cats pop up as they sense that someone is there (Grizabella, a fallen glamour cat). We were all labelled number 1, 2 or 3 and then each number had a different thing to do once the music kicked in. I was a number 1, so I was tapping on the floor with my claws 6 times, then I had to come up to standing, bring my hands up in front and behind my midriff with knees bent and then do a kind of jazz-hands, head shake, body shake. Others were shoulder shimmying and or shaking their booty. So much fun! This then led into our main routine, which we then performed all the way through in groups and all together!

I have to say I felt my back pinch the last time through, but, the show must go on! I was ok, I had just over-rotated when I was on the floor.

Watch the Jellicle Ball here (we ended at 1:18):

It was such a fun afternoon and I finally got to learn some of the Cats choreography, which I’ve wanted to do since I first saw the show in the 90’s.

p.s. Only one person was dressed up head to toe in costume, plus makeup! No, it wasn’t me 😁

OMG So Stagey do other West End Workshops at Pineapple (Kinky Boots, Les Miserables etc), so check them out if you’re in the London area.