'American Utopia' dancers on pioneering a new approach to movement on Broadway
Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo have danced alongside David Byrne in his show since 2019.
American Utopia isn’t your average Broadway show, and Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo aren’t your average Broadway dancers. The two performed in the first Broadway run of the theatrical rock concert, led by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, in 2019, and have returned for the second engagement, playing at the St. James Theatre through March 6, 2022.
Giarmo and Kuumba are two pieces of a 12-person ensemble moving seamlessly about a bare stage. As the only cast members billed as dancers and the only two on stage without instruments, they are “the freest agents” with the largest range of motion, according to Kuumba. Sometimes they move in unison with Byrne, and other times they break off into their own movement to complement Byrne’s singing, though they don’t explicitly act the songs out. As Kuumba put it: “If David’s the narrator, we’re the page turners and the ones that hold the book.”
The two meld small, stylized motions — think one body part moving at a time — with full-body movements that call to mind modern, contemporary, musical theatre, and even African dance. But as they and choreographer Annie-B Parson pointed out, choreography isn’t just flashy, flexible movement. It’s every step, every breath, and every moment of awareness of everyone on stage. The cast dances barefoot in plain gray suits onstage, which is unconventional for mainstream Broadway. More importantly, their work comes from a collaborative process Kuumba and Giarmo hope becomes the new normal.
The dancers talked about their role in the storytelling of American Utopia and what the future of Broadway dance looks like.
How does the storytelling you do through dance complement what the instrumentalists do with music and movement?
Giarmo: We’re responsible for stillness in a way that is unique, and control of personal space. Because we’re always adjacent to David — in most of the show, next to him — it’s important to have a groundedness. We really stabilize, physically and kinetically, a lot of the show.
Kuumba: In addition to the macro-movement, there’s a lot of micro-movement that is really essential to recharging each other physically, emotionally, mentally, and how it radiates throughout the space.
Do you have a character or narrative in mind as you move around the stage?
Kuumba: It could change day to day, and then sometimes it changes song to song. In [the song] “Blind,” the shadow dance is a thing for me now. There’s a moment in “Blind” in the beginning when we’re all facing the back, also the side, and our shadows are on the chain. I really love call and response of movement and sound and the body, and people trying to challenge and playing with responding to movements, so I play a game with myself every “Blind” and try to literally synchronize each movement to the cadence of David’s singing, to each word. I try to listen and think of, “Okay, if there are 10 other musicians, how many of their instruments can I ‘play,’ and where can I point to those instruments in my body?”
What was it like to watch the show and what did that teach you about your role?
Kuumba: I was watching the person whose position I’m about to take. And I knew who David Byrne was, but I didn’t know who David Byrne was, and not just who he is as an artist but also how much he means to so many people. I just felt a lot of electricity. I was still learning the show, so I was harmonizing with every song… and dancing in my seat and making sure my choreography was right. So it was very electrifying. It was satisfying. It was encouraging, like watching someone do a race before it’s your turn to run the relay.
The [Janelle Monae song] “Hell You [Talmbout]” singing at the end of the show and saying names of people that have been killed by the police and Black people that have lost their lives — this was one of the main chunks that also really tugged at my heartstrings. Being a Black woman, agreeing to hop on a show where I know I’m going to be one of few dancers, and then I’m going to be one of the few Black women and a whole-bodied Black woman, being very clear of what I’m really stepping into and how I can take that electricity and make it work for me.
Giarmo: The things that I learned stepping out were very experiential. We get in our heads a lot … and to see it, [you] realize that a lot of those concerns don’t translate. I’ve written to you [Tendayi] about this idea of walking on stage and feeling like [I’m] not supposed to be there. David is so iconic, and his audiences generally look like him and are him in a lot of ways, and so I express this idea of, “As soon as I walk out on stage, what will they think of me?” “Who is this guy? Why is he here?” But seeing it, no one experiences that because it’s the benefit of abstraction in performance. When another entire human enters the space, we don’t know what to do. We just have to trust them.
Did anything change about your performances from American Utopia’s first Broadway run?
Giarmo: For me, vocally, it’s a whole different bag. I sang all the time during the pandemic, but I was at my house; it was a different situation. And my range is different now, and it’s better, it’s higher. I actually have a totally different set of breathing things I have to do to hit different notes. It’s easier in a lot of ways, but that in and of itself makes it more tricky because all of the choreography — which is not just the dance, it’s the breath, it’s the sipping of water, it’s the opening of your mouth, when you close, when you stop singing the note. That means things are easier to sing, but that means all the other choreography you’ve done needs to change now, because you need to take a smaller breath there, or else you’ll over-sing it, or you need to recalibrate this thing.
Kuumba: I’m coming out of also singing a lot in my house during the pandemic and moving here and there, so my body is recalibrating because I danced really hard for a really long time of my career, touring a lot, dancing with multiple companies a lot. I’m relearning what my new push is for my 30-plus-year-old body and knees, what my new stretch routine is post-show, what my new warm-up routine has to be post-show in the midst of the pandemic, where my body had gotten used to laying flat in a bed.
What from your past dance training have you embraced — and rejected — to do Annie-B Parson’s choreography for this show?
Kuumba: I come from performance dance and throwing yourself across the stage. [Parson] used to tell me a lot, “Okay, less. Okay, pull it back.” But I really appreciate it because it’s helped me re-understand energy in the body. I had a teacher say you don’t have to dance hard to dance big, and I feel like Annie-B has such specificity. We don’t even have to dance big at all; it can be very small and very specific for a very specific moment. Hold and make everyone focus there. Instead of having to be big for everyone else, make them come into you. And I’ve appreciated how her movement is… very pedestrian in a way, but so meaningful. You don’t throw it away.
Giarmo: I come from Annie-B’s world, which is much more about, “Move that thing in a very specific, cold way, and the meaning will be something that happens outside.” But the merger of these two worlds [of small and big movements], which we’ve been praising Annie-B for, I must fully praise you [Tendayi] as well for bringing in a thing that she would have never figured out.
How do you see unconventional shows like Utopia, with dance that’s more modern and pedestrian than traditional Broadway dance, fitting into the landscape of Broadway dance going forward?
Kuumba: I’m a person that appreciates all of it — I grew up [as a] theatre child as well as a West African dance child, so I don’t necessarily cut one arm off. I hope to see more spaces for more genres of movement on Broadway, and not just contemporary, modern, or modern-means-expressive or liturgical or narrating out a spoken-word artist. I’d like to see it pushed more. And I feel very, very grateful to represent a little portion of that within my body being on stage, doing what I do.
Giarmo: Wayne Brady said something really sweet to us at the Tonys. He found us and was like, “I saw the show and I Googled you two afterwards, and you’re so incredible. I just want you to know that you’re where Broadway is going and where it needs to go, and you’re representing that, and thank you for that.” That obviously means so much to me because I feel like there’s a lot of great things that we’re bringing from the downtown world to Broadway. Just this idea of devising work together, having input, being able to say “this will work for me” or “this won’t work for me. Here’s why.”
It makes better work all around when you dismantle that hierarchy a little bit. I think there’s a fear that you don’t get the same rigor or specificity or virtuosity. That’s just bullshit; that’s just a lie that was created to keep certain people in the room and certain people out. That lie is being dismantled and we’re here to prove that.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Photo credit: Tendayi Kuumba (left) and Chris Giarmo (right) with David Byrne (center) in American Utopia. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)