Karma Camp on what it took to get “Dolly” Dancing

Karma Camp has choreographed more than 85 D.C.-area productions, including the current Ford’s and Signature co-production of Hello, Dolly! Camp shared her thoughts on the production and what inspires her work with us:

When I get hired for a project, I literally listen to the music for weeks. I listen to it at home, in my studio and in my car. Jerry Herman’s score for Hello, Dolly! just lends itself to movement. The entire show is joyous to dance to. The show is also about pageantry—a simple, silly story with a happy ending. It’s a feel-good musical.

Over the course of weeks, I’ll gather ideas, as the music affects me differently every time I hear it. I start to imagine patterns in my head and will write down individual steps that I want to incorporate. There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end to each number. I think the arc is extremely important, and though the audience doesn’t recognize it, it’s what ultimately brings the number to its finish.

The orchestration is important for inspiration as well. For example, in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” you hear a definite train— that “choo-choo” sound. You really have to honor that; there’s a reason why it’s in the music. So I created my version of a train, which ends up arriving in NY.

Nancy Opel and the cast of "Hello, Dolly!" at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Any time I do a period piece, I research. [Costume designer] Wade Laboissonniere and I exchanged several emails before the rehearsal process began. I also research the social structure and dances of the period. The year is important as people’s mannerisms were different: ladies didn’t cross their legs, they crossed their ankles. Nancy Opel (playing Dolly) and I really tried to honor that. Also, women didn’t reach out to touch men—simple things, really.

A Company of Triple Threats

Our production at Ford’s is paired down from the Broadway production, which called for more than 30 dancers. I will totally admit that I was worried about choreographing a smaller cast of 16. Dolly is known for the pageantry—that’s what people are used to seeing. To maximize our visual space, Director Eric Schaeffer and I decided to hire male dancers that were no shorter than six feet tall. They have long legs and are absolutely fearless. We also hired two fantastic women. The ensemble is six members strong and succeeds because they are all true triple threats.

Cast of "Hello, Dolly!" at Ford's. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The most complicated number to stage with our smaller company was “Dancing.” The song is a celebration of dance, but it’s also about falling in love. This is a bit tricky to stage when there are four male dancers and only two female dancers. So, I rely heavily on the principal actors to dance with the company in the number and also filter people on and off the stage to make it appear fuller. It is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Staging Choreography

There always is adjustment when you finally move from the rehearsal studio to the stage. Since Ford’s Theatre has a raked stage [which slopes upwards, away from the audience]; it requires time for the dancers to get used to. The Ford’s production team was really great to bring in a physical therapist to recommend a series of exercises the cast could do while working on a rake. Even so, our dancers use a lot of Bio Freeze and wrap.

Since Hello, Dolly! is set in the early 1900s, costumes call for long skirts and corsets, which are restrictive. We made some adjustments in the choreography for that. Luckily, the two female ensemble dancers have time to remove their corsets before the “Waiter’s Galop.” It would be absolutely impossible to do otherwise—the ribcage just doesn’t expand enough for that aerobic number, and I’m sure they would have passed out. And yes, there were a few pairs of ripped pants. When you’ve got people with great extension that’s to be expected! As a former dancer himself, Costume Designer Wade Laboissonniere understands our challenges and was super accommodating.

Nancy Opel and Edward Gero (at center) with the cast of “Hello, Dolly!” at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

A Team Effort

Working with a joyous group of people makes my job so much easier. I tend to explain my thoughts behind a number before I choreograph it—everyone is involved in the process. I listen to comments, digest them and then apply what I think will work. We were blessed to have such a collaborative team. I couldn’t have done all the partnering work in “Dancing” without my Associate Brianne Camp. Our musical director, James Moore watched dance rehearsal to see if there was anything he could add musically. We added a lot of musical percussion to “Waiter’s Galop” to emphasize the movement.

Director Eric Schaeffer and I are very close friends in addition to being colleagues. We know how the other thinks, and there is no ego in the way that we work. He understands my process and gives me time to create and reformat. Some directors think that because it’s dance that the first rehearsal they see is the number, but it’s really like staging a scene—you continue to mold it around the rest of the production. Eric gets all that and I’m grateful.

I’m so pleased with the way Hello, Dolly! turned out and how audiences are embracing the work. The theatre community in Washington, D.C., is terrific. People get to know you and you them, it makes for a nice working relationship. It’s comfortable—it’s home.

Edited by Sara Cohen.