We are delighted to give you an exclusive interview with New Yorker, Tiger Martina, dancer-choreographer.
As a perfomer Tiger has worked with some of the best in the business and he is now one of the country's leading choreographers.
Read more about his brilliant career and his involvement in the NCL Jade production of Cinema Italiano...
Ladies & Gentlemen, SBF member: Mr. Tiger Martina.
When did you start dancing and what made you take it up?
...I'm hoping that I can dance until I'm 50. I'm not that far off and I feel that I could do that. Back then a 30-year-old dancer was really pushing their luck. 50 is the new 30...
Technically, I started taking dance classes when I was seven, but I starting dancing with my sisters when I was about three or four - copying them, putting on shows in the neighborhood. I should have known early on what was going to happen, because I started to organize everyone around me to do these little impromptu shows. I would say thing like: "we can't do the show now, we must have three months of rehearsals first" and I would start writing scripts. I would take up family issues and write up a full script. I remember pretty vividly trying to organize a play called Family Problems, when I was seven or eight - trying to heal my family.
What shows have you worked in as a dancer?
I actually got my start working for Betsy Hogg in Atlantic City in the show Outrageous. Then I moved out West and started working for Greg Thompson in High-Heel Sneakers and then Showcase '85 for George Reich and Joan Palethorpe. I worked a lot for Michael Darrin - Rage, Magic, Magic. I did a show called Sizzle in the Copa Room at the Sands, Las Vegas and then I moved to LA and did a lot of TV and film work and got back into production and that's where I first met Ronny Lewis in 1992 doing Bare Essence at the Sands and started choreographing for them as well. After I started choreographing, I went in and out of performing and in Las Vegas I did Storm at Mandalay Bay and Winds of the Gods at the Luxor.
Can you tell us more about working for Ron Lewis?
When I first met Ron Lewis, I had been living in LA and a choreographer, Jaymi Marshall offered me a job. They were putting a segment for LaToya Jackson into the show.
This was just after she had performed at the Moulin Rouge. Anyway they hired me and I went into contract negotiations, but they didn't want to pay me what I was asking. So Ron bet Jamie that another dancer in the show would wipe the floor with me. They bet $100 that Jamie's guy was not going to be as good as Ron's guy. So opening night of the show, Jamie came up to me and said "I believe this belongs to you" and showed me a card from Ron telling Jamie he was right and he had never seen a dancer do what I did on stage. I thought it was brilliant that Jamie gave it to me and I was clearly a fan of Ron Lewis.
What has been the most challenging moment in your career?
In a pivotal moment in my life, I met Michael Darrin and he became one of my mentors and I realized, as a dancer I felt that I was lacking leadership and somebody who would push me further. I didn't have time for a lot of classes and there wasn't really anyone challenging me in the classes that I went to. So Michael really pushed me into a whole new level and told me that I was an actor. A dancer is an actor, it's just a different vocabulary and it opened up the world to me and just physically challenging me to take advantage of my technical training in ways that production shows weren't really doing at that time. So I think working for Michael Darrin in Rage, really was that moment.
How and why did you make the transition from being a dancer to becoming a choreographer?
That would be Ronny Lewis! Going back to Bare Essence at the Sands, in 1992 and there were moments in the show that were improv. He would just sit back and say things like: "I don't know if you are doing your best" and that would really challenge me.
...Respect yourself and respect your craft and don't limit yourself...
I was right next to a live drummer and I would be dancing my butt off, back there on the stairs where it didn't really matter. I actually got fired from that job for auditioning for another and two weeks later, Ron called me and said: "I want David Wright to hire you as a choreographer. We have a section that we want to change, would you come back and do that?"
Oddly enough, it was one of those moments in your life where the planets and stars must have aligned in a very strange and beautiful way. That same night that I had been asked to choreograph something professionally, my mum passed away. I just remember feeling that there was something meaningful about that. She was so supportive and fought for me all my life to help me to do what I loved and I felt very close to her at that moment and I felt like those two worlds were connected.
Now that you are on the creative side, do you ever feel the urge to be back on stage?
Always… In a show that I recently choreographed, called Vegas the Show, I loved working with the dancers, they were very passionate, just like the group here on NCL Jade and they kept on saying: "come on, you must be in the show with us". Well, the show was too hard, even just for one night, I would have had to train for two months to get into shape and do the things that I was asking them to do. I've done it a few times before, where I've danced in a show that I've choreographed, but it's hard - you have nobody to blame. I love it, but not as a general rule.
Which style do you choreograph in, or do you use a mixture of styles?
As a choreographer I'm sort of still homing in and looking for my identity. There are a few icons that I'm inspired by constantly. Certainly Fred Astraire for his organic nature. He was just so good at storytelling and before you even know it, you're in the middle of a dance number. It was always beautifully seamless. Certainly Gene Kelly - he was so physical and athletic. There was a real clarity and every movement meant something. I find that compelling, as it takes planning and having an objective. Physically and stylistically I'm very inspired by Michael Kidd. There is definitely style and commitment to style and for me that's intriguing, so I think between those three people, is probably what the general population would define what my style is like.
Do you think that you have your own trademark and people recognize your style?
One of my favorite things ever is really concise movement and a tight formation and I think that people are starting to recognize those sort of dynamics and a piece of work as something specific to my style. I guess in the last couple of years also a sense of storytelling. Even if there is no real story, each piece of well structured music will also dictate how that works, but to be able to have an objective in a piece of choreographic material - just like a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, I think that people are starting to recognize my work by its structure and that is important to me.
When choreographing a show, such as Cinema Italiano for NCL, are you free to express your creativity or are there set rules to follow?
Because this number is very clear in its concept, I think if you want to call that a parameter it could be, but I wasn't given any restrictions. When I approach a project, if there is a story line, that would be my first guideline, but the music just tells me what to do.
I may have three or four versions of something that I want to try. But freedom is my relationship with that piece of music.
Could you tell us about Cinema Italiano?
It's an honor to be reconnected to Robbie Hertenstein, the Production Show Supervisor from NCL. We were friends a long time ago and he came to see Vegas the Show. So this number has been planned for a while and it's a really exciting project for the company and I'm thrilled that they stuck with me. I think that it's going to be a really exciting and new way of approaching openers for the ships and the scheduling for the Cruise Director. These bumpers and openers for the itinerary for the ship are really essential for letting people know what they are in store for. I think that I can honestly say that the number is thrilling - it's so dynamic and exciting and I'm hoping that is what will happen to these opening numbers and they will become a very important, high energy launching point for the itinerary. So, I'm excited to present this number.
Do you find it more difficult choreographing for a show on board a ship, due to space and stage movement issues?
On my first choreography job on a ship, the cast just happened not to like me. It wasn't that they were afraid to work hard, but I think that there were some power issues within the cast. I was into what I was doing and totally unaware of what was happening, but there was this power play going on.
...A dancer is an actor, it's just a different vocabulary...
When we got on board and they knew it was my first time on a ship, they thought they were being really cute by giving me three Dramamines, thinking that they would have knocked me out. Well, that just made me love the motion and I ended up choreographing one of my favorite pieces - a James Bond number. It was hard and I'm sure it got harder because of what they did to me!
I don't like to feel I'm limited. There are certain things that I will be mindful of, because of the motion, especially girls dancing in heels. I always try and make sure that I build in their awareness of how to hang on to their balance, but I don't think that there are any restrictions on ships.
Are you involved with auditioning for NCL?
So far, I'm not part of the hiring and casting process. I feel like that is an intimidating factor for me, because as choreographer, I believe it's my job to serve the project. It's not all about me and I don't want to set work that people can't do, because then they won't look good and that doesn't really reflect well on me. My job is to make sure that everyone on stage looks their best.
So that limitation is intimidating, as I don't know what I'm working with. In life and in my choreography, I don't take the easy way out. Sometimes I honestly wish that I knew how to choreograph effectively and simply, but I feel like I want to surprise the audience and get them caught up in the action and be thrilled or swept, if it's a beautiful ballad. As an audience member I always feel that I want to be that person or I want to be with that person and as a choreographer I tell the dancers that their hard work is in vein, if the audience can't access you, want to be you or be with you. For me that is fun, moving into directorship. I love working with dancers and letting them know that they have that sort of power and I think that's thrilling, especially for young dancers who have just been working on these physical feats of insanity
and then they get out into the real world and they are a little bit disappointed that they don't have all those opportunities. Sometimes you get the attitude that this work is beneath them. They say: "I can do 8 or 9 pirouettes...", well, so can I!! Clearly if there is a time and a place for that, I'll put it in, but that does not substantiate a great piece of work.
Do you normally work alone do you interact and collaborate with other choreographers?
I have done some collaborating, but not a great deal. It's something that I would love to do more of, just because you never really get the chance to share a brain or share a vision. I am a bit controlling … big surprise!, what choreographer isn't!. But I've had a few successful collaborations. I would say that my best collaborator is a lady called Dani Davis. She was a beautiful dancer and is a great choreographer and director. It's not easy to find people that you just gel with, you don't feel like they are telling you to do something else, it's just a free exchange of ideas that lands in a really beautiful way.
Which famous stars have you worked with as either a dancer or a choreographer?
I have had a few experiences… Performance wise, I toured with Liza Minnelli in her last Broadway show, Liza at the Palace and I toured with Paula Abdul in the early 90s. As a choreographer, I choreographed for Penn & Teller, who had a series for about 1½ years and on that I got to work with a great deal of people, French Stewart, Jennifer Holiday, Michael Mckean, Alan Cumming, Jerry Springer, Weird Al Jankovic, Kevin Meaney, Rob Schneider.
If you could single out one person, who would be the perfect performer for your choreography and why?
I think that would be Alan Cumming for his ability to take anything either physical, vocal or characteristical and deliver something to make you believe that he's capable of anything. He really transcends all art forms.
I would love to work with Lady Gaga, because she's a very intelligent woman and still at the point where she's adaptable and moldable. There's also some really great people on Broadway now, like Gavin Creel...
Now that dancing has become very popular, due to Prime Time TV Dance Realities, do you think that the audience expects more?
I believe so - they are much more educated now. Anything that brings awareness to dance is very helpful. There was a very sad moment in the world of dance in the 80s and 90s when we lost so many people to AIDS and this brought about a lack in mentorship. A lot of young choreographers had to find themselves without any guidance, but with so much visible dance material on TV, that growth from zero has started to be seen now and there's some brilliant works.
What would you say has been the highest moment in your career, so far?
Performing with Alan Cumming for the 2009 Fred Astaire Awards. Being on Broadway with Liza Minnelli was insane. First of all everyone has their own perception of what this woman is, but she was such a solid person for me. She made me aware of some very personal issues that I was experiencing and how they affected me on stage. It was such a thrill to be sitting on a stool on stage, holding Liza's hand and feeling so comfortable with it. At times I would have an outside of my body experience, when I would look at myself and think: "I just cannot believe that this is me here". Dancing on the Academy Awards, especially the first time with Michael Kidd, which was my dream come true. It was frightening to think about how many millions of people were watching us live. American Music Awards with Paula Abdul was a brilliant moment in feeling so secure, well rehearsed and well taken care of. And dancing for Twyla Tharp on Broadway was brilliant.
Do you think that the way showbiz is today puts more (or less) pressure on a dancer's career than it used to do in the past and what would you say to encourage today's performers?
Absolutely more. I think the stakes are higher, the demands for physicality are definitely higher. I think that there is awareness of what is hazard and what isn't. Especially in the unions. I look at some of the older movies and I often wonder "did they know that they were dancing on concrete and were probably shredding their bones".
It was such a thrill to be sitting on a stool on stage, holding Liza's hand and feeling so comfortable with it...
Now we are much more educated, a lot of dancers are going to college, which I certainly support and the awareness of kinesiology and they go to a physiotherapist. So it is harder, but it's much easier to last longer, because if you are in the right situation or you are a responsible dancer, you'll seek acupuncture, massage therapy or physical therapy and sports medicine. If they would have me, I'm hoping that I can dance until I'm 50. I'm not that far off and I feel that I could do that. Back then a 30-year-old dancer was really pushing their luck. 50 is the new 30.
What would you say to encourage today's dancers?
Be smart, stay interested, look for inspiration, don't think of yourself so big that you can't put yourself into a lesser situation, because you will be surprised where you can gain the most knowledge from. I've been dressed up as a frog before and some of those moments have been brilliant.
I think, especially as a dancer, we all hate to think of entertainment as being any sort of a totem pole, but in the way of structuring, we are down there, but be respected. Respect yourself and respect your craft and don't limit yourself.
Apart from Cinema Italiano, do you have any other projects on at the moment?
I have Vegas the Show, running right now at the Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. That is still ongoing in production - we are still growing and making changes, so I still have a great deal of work connected to that. Then at the same theatre we are working on a late night show. I can't announce what it is, but it's a very slick, adult, theatrical and concert venue mesh. We will open either in August or October. I'm also writing a musical with my partner. They say that it takes 7 - 8 years to write a musical and we're in year number 3. It's big epic, dance, social commentary on the present state of the world right now and it has a little bit to do with Vegas. It's equal parts - song, dance and book, we have a writer, my partner is a composer and I'm the choreographer.
I'm not physically writing the sentences and paragraphs, but I'm an equal partner in the conceptualizing and writing of the characters, which again is another step forward for me and something that I certainly love because of the story telling aspect. So, I'm stretching and reaching out as a writer as well.
If you had the chance, who would you thank for what you have achieved?
I have sort of a list: definitely my mum, my original dance teacher David de Marie, Ron Lewis, Michael Darrin and Grandma. Those are the people who shaped and formed who I am. Those are the people who I talk to before I step out on stage. I'm really grateful to all the people who have supported my work and I thank all the people who tell the truth. It's hard to get constructive criticism - so thank you to those who have spoken the truth.
Thank you Tiger for this great interview and best of luck with your career!
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