CHICAGO — One of Dance Magazine’s 2015 “25 to watch,” choreographer Alex Sanchez makes his Goodman Theatre debut with Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. The Chicago native trained at Ruth Page Center for the Arts and performed four seasons with Ballet Chicago in the late 80s and early 90s under artistic director Daniel Duell. His 40-week contract at Ballet Chicago left room for “double dipping” in theatrical productions at Drury Lane Oakbrook, Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, and more.
A fortuitous job in Traverse City, MI performing in A Chorus Line pulled Sanchez eastward to New York, where he committed fully to musical theater in the mid-1990s. The veteran performer and teacher’s resume is long, but Sanchez is a relative newcomer to choreography, having just over a decade under his belt. He calls himself a late-bloomer, but plenty of directors have been taking notice, not to mention Dance Magazine.
“I didn’t have the ‘bug’ until around 2005,” said Sanchez, in an interview in the Goodman’s donor lounge before rehearsal. He first considered choreography while living in California, where he owned a dance studio with his wife, Lainie Sakakura. After returning to New York in 2009, he landed a job two years later choreographing Where’s Charley? at City Center, and things took off from there.
Sanchez met Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman as she was forming her production team for The Jungle Book at the Goodman in 2013. He didn’t get the job, but pitched her again when he learned of this season’s opener Wonderful Town. Grateful that he got a response to his email, Sanchez was even more surprised when he got a call from the Goodman last March to choreograph the show. “I reached out, and it paid off!” he said.
That’s good for us; Sanchez’s choreography sneaks up on its viewers in this Leonard Bernstein classic, an ode to New York that celebrates the optimism of starving artists and midwest transplants Ruth and Eileen who try to make it in the big apple. As with his better known West Side Story, Bernstein’s music is made for dance, and Sanchez’s background in concert dance yields an aesthetic not unlike Jerome Robbins’. Much more than step-touches and kick-ball-changes, Sanchez’s smart layering of technical dancing pushes the actors who dance, and highlights the dancers who sing. “In musical theater, there’s always room for strong dancers. Because of my background, I look for concert dancers who can sing, as opposed to legit musical theater dancers,” he said. Todd Rhoades is a prime example: the crossover artist who once danced in Luna Negra Dance Theatre and Ron de Jesus Dance is the dance captain and a featured performer in Wonderful Town‘s ensemble.
Though Sanchez’s opportunities to choreograph have been primarily in musical theater, he would like to work in both worlds. “When the train left, it’s obviously gearing me more toward the musical theater route, but the heart and the mind are open and wanting to do some concert work as well,” he said.
“Wonderful Town” runs Sept. 10-Oct. 23 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased by calling 312.443.3800, visiting the box office, or online at GoodmanTheatre.org/WonderfulTown.
Mary Zimmerman’s revival of “Wonderful Town” is the centerpiece of a week-long exploration of Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) career as a musical theater and film composer, classical composer, conductor, musician and educator. Free celebration events take place Sept. 27 – Oct. 2. For more celebration information, visit GoodmanTheatre.org/Bernstein.