"Bottom line: come Monday, none of us are coming in." Those were the words of director/choreographer Kenny Ortega a few weeks ago, as he faced 20 bright-eyed dancers, explaining that what was undoubtedly their dream job -- dancing in the movie-musical remake of Dirty Dancing -- was no longer happening. Lionsgate had decided to postpone the project, giving the team no revised start date.
Sitting next to Kenny -- in the vaulted room of the historic Hollywood Athletic Club -- was producer Alli Shearmur (former president of production at Lionsgate), choreographer Tony Testa and myself (I was serving as musical director/vocal coach for the film).
And the scene, over the next hour and a half, was not unlike a break-up. But this was not the Carrie Bradshaw/Berger Sex and the City Post-it breakup that, unfortunately, seems par for the course in show business. None of the dancers (or the creative team, for that matter) got a frantic text saying not to come in that morning. We didn't read about it first on Deadline and then worriedly call our agents. Not even close. Instead, Ortega sat everyone down and invited us to be together -- to process all that we could as the new creative family that we had become. And he kept saying, over and over, "not to leave this room with anything unsaid."
And that's exactly what happened. There was, of course, anger, and many tears, but what I found most interesting was the immediate outpouring of gratitude the dancers expressed for Ortega. Here they all were, newly jobless, but the recurrent theme was that of thanks. And this was far from "thank you so much but what I really mean is, please hire me again." I've been around that kind of gratitude. This was the real thing.
These dancers got to work with someone they've admired for years -- the man who directed Michael Jackson's This Is It, who created the High School Musical franchise, and who choreographed the original Dirty Dancing. But most of all, this was someone who, whether you were an A-List celeb or a dancer in her first job out of school, treated you with kindness and with attention. And that is so rare.
But what happened next was even more rare. After each and every dancer had the chance to speak up about how it felt to be leaving this new community, Ortega invited them all to "dance it out." This actually happened. And watching this play out was one of the most moving experiences of my professional life.
Ortega cued up "Be My Baby," a song of sweet melancholy and intimacy, and the dancers, one last time, found their partners. Hips swayed, cheeks touched. There was no better way to say goodbye.
And as I watched ensemble dancers Bryan Tanaka and Jamie Goodwin (who were not only paired up for the movie, but, it turned out, were also a couple in real life), I immediately felt that the Dirty Dancing naysayers had missed the point. There was such connection in that room, with Bryan and Jamie, and with everyone else, that retelling this story of Baby and Jonny -- a story, at its core, about love and forgiveness - seemed only positive to me.
But we all have to grow a thick skin in show business, and we have to accept constant change as part of the job. Yet in the process of such shaky job security -- of postponed projects and a life on the road -- we get to meet, create, and enjoy every dance like it's our last.