Cats is a phenomenon. The original productions played 8,949 performances in London and 7,485 performances on Broadway, it’s been translated into more than 20 languages and won seven Tony Awards. This fall, after a 16 year absence, Cats is back on Broadway with a new generation of dancers to wow audiences. I caught up with Aaron Albano, Callan Bergmann, Shonica Gooden, Jess LeProtto and Georgina Pazcoguin to talk about being a working dancer, what this experience has taught them about themselves and about the “mystical divinity of unashamed felinity.”
When you got the news you were cast in a show as iconic as Cats, what was your first thought?
Callan: My first thought was: I love wearing unitards. [laughs] People laugh at me, but in other shows, you have to worry about being able to dance and move in your costumes. In the unitard, you are totally free.
Aaron: I was mostly excited but also nervous about it. I was excited to get the job but this is Cats, it comes with a status level as a dancer. Before I even met everyone in our cast, I knew people were going to be good. I was nervous that there was a standard I had to reach up to.
Well once you got into rehearsal, what happened to that expectation?
Shonica: I was even more nervous. First of all, the audition for this was crazy.
Aaron: It was nuts.
Shonica: This was such an old school Debbie Allen/Donna McKechnie audition of hitting the steps. You could have cast Cats twenty times over because each and every person in that room was incredibly talented. During that first week of rehearsal, everyone got to show their chops to the point where I wondered how I got chosen. We each had a moment of insecurity that week. How do I fit into this great gumbo of people? For a lot of us, this is our first time being featured on Broadway. The legacy of holding up those iconic characters who people know so well from the costumes to the face paint was a lot.
So how did you deal with that?
Aaron: You have no other choice.
Shonica: You have to be fearless.
Jess: We worked up until the first performance making sure everything we put on stage was the best it could be. The rehearsal process had ups and downs and then a great thing happened. Our director, Trevor Nunn, said something that reassured all of us. He said, “If you believe it, they believe it.” There were times when we were insecure about what we were doing but Trevor said we had to trust that they will believe it because we do.
Georgina: Coming from a completely different world all together, I was most looking forward to taking a step away from the regimented lifestyle of ballet and exposing myself to something new. I had the chance to work on a solo before and I’ve had the chance to be on Broadway in On The Town, but this experience of building a show from the ground up was so wonderful. I loved the tech process because there was so much feedback. When I think of the work I’ve done as a solo ballerina, a lot of the work is by myself in front of a mirror. It’s so nice to have so many points of view for feedback. To get six or seven pages of notes blew my mind and it fed my in a way I’d never been fed before.
Aaron: When it got tough, I remember Andy [Blankenbuehler] saying to trust the work.
Georgina: And also to be your own person. It was so nice to see a fresh take on these characters and to be able to be ourselves as we inhabit these roles.
Shonica: It’s so good that you said that because I had someone tell me that my Rumpleteazer was so spicy and sassy and that they could tell she’s a teenager. During my process of figuring out who she was to me, I struggled with the concept of giving people the character they are used to seeing. I’m not a white girl, I’m not British and I’m none of the things you usually see in this character. So I released myself to being who I am and I’m so happy I did. I’m able to really enjoy the role every night.
Jess: I was nervous at first because I thought a lot of the show would be micromanaged. This creative team knew what they wanted but they were open to more. This is not the same generation that saw the 18 years of the original production. This is a new demographic that’s eager to see dance in this production and this generation dances differently than the one before it.
Georgina: Dance has changed so much.
That new generation of people who you mentioned, who moves differently than the generation before it, what has the reaction been from them as they’ve experienced the show for the first time?
Georgina: I don’t think any of us at that first preview anticipated a rock concert. It was a rock concert. That was unreal. The show stopped after the opening number with applause. I’d never experienced that before.
Shonica: They don’t rock out at the ballet.
Georgina: We get a Brava every once in a while, but that was wild. And that reaction changes with each show.
Callan: Some nights are really rowdy and some nights are more tame. All the super fans came to that first preview and the energy was insane. It was reassuring to the cast I think. We were at a point where we thought it was good but you’re just not sure until there’s an audience. It’s hard to take a step back when you’re working on the show. Also, I was out in the audience watching in that first preview and the audience gave the cast so much energy and then the cast gave it right back.
Shonica: We were so tired. Georgina talked about not having expectations. I was in Hamilton and even in Cinderella dealing with the fandom of Laura Osnes and KeKe Palmer – that’s the type of fandom where everyone who comes to see it loves it. I had to tell myself with this show, there is no grey area. There are the people who hate it and don’t understand it, but there are people who love it and can’t think of any other show to see in New York.
You’re right. There are two types of people in this world: Those who get Cats and those who don’t. What did going into a show with that sort of reception teach you as an artist?
Shonica: It’s made me go back to a childlike place of focusing on the passion. The thing about doing Broadway is that it’s a career. This is how you make your money and pay your bills. Some days, you forget that you’re doing what you’re passionate about. Some days, it feels like a job. With this show, I’m always focusing on the passion. I appreciate that I have this experience right now because It’s brought me back to the reasons why I do this for a living.
Aaron: At the end of the day, what keeps me grounded in what we do is the storytelling. If we lose sight in telling our story, we will fail. That’s the allure and success of Cats. It may not be for everyone, but Cats is Cats.
Georgina: And it’s unapologetic about it.
Aaron: Cats is not going to change based on the current theatrical climate. I was not a part of the Cats generation and I remember the first day we ran it in the rehearsal room, I was a bawling mess in the corner. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be moved by Cats, but after that run through, I understood why people have been moved by this show.
Callan: Our show has been a success so far because of the casting. Some have been on Broadway before and some haven’t, but everyone got to create their own characters and trust their own abilities. When all of that comes together, it makes for a really magical experience.
Georgina: For me, it’s taught me humility. There’s a point in the show when we come down into the audience and not everyone is receptive to that. That part of the show was hard for me to get used to, making myself vulnerable in that way.
Jess: The audience is looking at actors who are people dressed as another species. Everyone reacts differently to that. And we are the only things on stage that move, the set never changes. We never leave the stage, we’re dancers in unitards and wigs and cat makeup. Audiences don’t experience this anywhere else.
Georgina: And even within people who do what we do for a living, the reactions are so strange. I had a squad of ballerinas come the other night and when they came backstage, they wanted to shake every single person’s hand who was on the stage because they had never been so inspired. They haven’t stopped talking about it. It’s from a different world than they know.
That brings up an interesting question. You’ve all come from different dance worlds, and Georgina mentioned how dance has changed so much. Where would you like to see dance go from here?
Shonica: I’d love to see people get back to digging deeper in the passion. Now that America has been let into the dance world via “So You Think You Can Dance” and other shows, the tricks have become more important than the training and storytelling. People train their entire life to do this. They don’t just jump up, put on point shoes and be great.
Right. A show like SYTYCD is legit; the people on there are creating real art and are trained dancers. It’s been revolutionary for dance. But there are other dance shows which aren’t as legit; that paint dance as mean-spirited teachers or as celebrity rehab vehicles. As dancers on Broadway now, what can you do to ensure the dance you love not only continues but grows?
Georgina: You educate people. You talk about it. You teach by example.
Aaron: I think shows like SYTYCD have raised a level of excellence that wasn’t public before then. That’s a benefit. What I trust is that even the layman who is seeing those shows can see the difference in the quality of the product.
Callan: I’ve taught all around the country and you do see the influence of SYTYCD and kids are very focused on tricks. They think that it’s cool and it’s what makes them a good dancer. I love teaching these kids because I teach them the importance of telling a story when they dance.
Georgina: The tricks aren’t sustainable. If you want to be a dancer that can dance beyond 23 years old, you have to have a foundation in real technique. I have been dancing professionally for 15 years. It doesn’t get easier – being a dancer, no matter what medium you’re in, is not for the faint of heart.
Jess: I think young dancers aren’t as researched today. It’s important to know where the roots of movement came from to have that foundation.
Shonica: Someone paid their dues to develop a technique so we would have the vocabulary to use for dance. Dance is so easily accessible now and I hope that makes producers understand the value of what we do and compensate us as such.
Georgina: Dancers are never compensated in the same way that actors and singers are.
Shonica: We go through years of training to be a professional.
Georgina: Our society rewards professional athletes with millions of dollars. We are elite athletes as well. We have an artistic side but we are athletes. I’m so happy dance is back on Broadway in such a wonderful way. I’m hailing from a world where my art form is dying. It’s hard to get young people to come to the ballet because they feel it’s not accessible. Right now, we are all ambassadors for dance on Broadway. For me, being a ballerina on Broadway, I have the ability to also be an ambassador for ballet to a new audience.
Shonica: I also hope to see more diversity in dance. Yes, there’s Hamilton and there was a spurt of black Broadway with Shuffle Along and The Color Purple, but I would like to see more of it and for it to be long lasting.
Georgina: I would like to see that in ballet companies as well.
Shonica: If people don’t have the representation of seeing themselves on the stage, they don’t know it’s even possible.
Let’s talk about that. Diversity on Broadway/TV/film is a buzzy topic right now. How does it go from being something that’s buzzy to something that’s the norm?
Shonica: It’s so tough because mostly all the shows I’ve been in, I’ve been the token black girl. There shouldn’t be token anything. If someone is right for the role, they’re right for the role.
I look at ballet and people hail Misty Copeland as the sign of diversity, and I think she’s great. I also think she’s only one woman.
Georgina: She’s also not even the first. There have been so many beautiful black ballerinas.
She’s done a lot with the platform she’s been given. My question to you guys is: What can you do with the platform you’ve been given?
Georgina: You lead by example. This is what we have.
Shonica: And you go back to the community. I’m from Atlanta and we didn’t have that. If it wasn’t for my parents and my spirituality, I wouldn’t be on Broadway. I didn’t have a black female coming back to my school to tell me I could do this.
Jess: It’s a stereotype issue. I’m a very distinct ethnicity so with that comes stereotypical views as to what parts I’d be fit for. I’ve hated that for the longest time. I’ve had to fight to show what was different about me and what wasn’t conventional. When it comes to shows, I’m going to make this character my own and I’m not going to give the audience a conventional character.
Georgina: What’s wild was that I didn’t ever think of myself as an ethnicity until I came to the New York City Ballet and people told me I looked very Asian. It is our responsibility to stand against those sentiments. We are the generation who recognizes our responsibility to stand up, be proud of who we are and accept the other artists who are doing the same.
My last question is: What has been the most surprising takeaway from your Cats experience so far?
Shonica: That’s both simple and loaded.
Jess: I can say Cats is probably the hardest show I’ve ever done.
Jess: The hardest show period. There are elements in the show that are different than other dance shows, the most obvious being that we are a different species. You have to walk and act differently than a human being; we have to be believable. Musically and vocally, the show is incredibly demanding. We didn’t expect it to be that demanding. I watched a documentary of Cameron Macintosh where he said Cats was a great re-establishment of the triple-threat. It’s nice to be a part of that legacy. We’re actor/singer/dancers and this is what we do.
Callan: I think what I’ve taken away from it so far is that I can’t always be perfect. In life, I’m a perfectionist. In most shows I have my single track, I learn them and do them perfectly every night. In Cats, I’m a swing and I’ve learned lots of tracks, there’s so much to put inside your brain. For me, I’m trying to do my best and swallow my pride when I sometimes make a little mistake.
Georgina: I came into this process like you Callan, I thought I had to be perfect. With the nature of this show, it’s never going to happen. Some days, you just have to roll with the punches. In this particular show and this group of people, they have opened me up in a way I never have before. I’ve felt so comfortable. I’m in a very transitional place in my life right now and I didn’t know how much I needed these people. I’m reminding myself to be present and to let you all affect me.
Shonica: My biggest takeaway was knowing I can do it. When I was first in Bring It On: The Musical on tour, I was diagnosed with nodes. When I came back and started working with a new voice teacher, it was determined it wasn’t nodes, it was small polyps. I had to have them surgically removed, I was told my voice would change and I may not be able to sing anymore. To look at life five years later and see that I’m doing a featured role on Broadway in one of the most challenging songs in the show eight times a week, that has been so exciting to me. It just opens up my idea of what options are out there for me in my career. I needed that. I needed to build my confidence.
Aaron: Like I said, I was never part of the Cats generation so when I got the show, I was excited but scared. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed myself and I am constantly inspired every day; not only from the cast but from the show. I’m doing Cats and I’m loving it. As a swing, I’ve been fortunate to go on for five of my seven tracks so far and the challenges of each one has been so different, in a good way. The challenge of it has not been grueling or intimidating, but it’s been inspiring.
Interview by Ryan Brinson