NEW YORK TIMES: Sergio Trujillo Realizes His Dream of Salsa on Broadway
Sergio Trujillo has choreographed seven Broadway shows, yet he hasn’t quite established a signature. He has created period-perfect steps for populist extravaganzas like “Jersey Boys” and lent unfussy movement to smaller, less dance-centric shows like “Next to Normal.” But in “On Your Feet!,” which opens on Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Marquis Theater, Mr. Trujillo has found his most personal project yet.
For this 52-year-old Colombian immigrant, “On Your Feet!,” a musical take on Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s rise to fame, is, at long last, the perfect synthesis of his talents and culture: an opportunity to propel a Broadway musical with Latin dance. Even better, the show is his long-awaited reunion with the director Jerry Mitchell, who discovered Mr. Trujillo at an open casting call more than two decades ago and who has mentored him since.
“To have the responsibility of telling the story of Gloria and Emilio, who for me and my culture are such powerful figures, and to do it with one of my best friends — I’m incredibly grateful,” Mr. Trujillo said over lunch recently.
Though he is far from a theater novice, Mr. Trujillo brims with the enthusiasm of a newbie with something to prove. He has the elegant bearing of a dancer, and in rehearsals partners his younger charges with sinuous ease.
In many ways, his life has paralleled that of the Estefans, whose families left Cuba in the final days of Fulgencio Batista’s regime. Mr. Trujillo grew up in Cali, Colombia; escaping an increasingly powerful drug cartel’s rule, his family moved to Toronto in 1976. The first in his family to attend college, Mr. Trujillo planned to become a chiropractor and began dancing seriously only at 19.
“Once I discovered it, I just fell in love with it,” Mr. Trujillo said. “And I made the decision pretty early that if I was going to leave school and dance, I had to do it with the best.”
Luckily, his talent allowed for that, and at 25, he met Mr. Mitchell at an audition for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” in Los Angeles. (Mr. Mitchell assisted Mr. Robbins on that show.)
“I was as free and uninhibited as anyone could be — I had nothing to lose,” Mr. Trujillo recalled. “And I guess I danced the best I have at any audition, because Jerry caught a glimpse of me and saw something special.” Mr. Trujillo was the only male dancer cast in the show from that call.
Though he allows that he probably didn’t realize it at the time — “You’re a young dancer, you’re in the show, you just want to experience the life of it,” he said — Mr. Trujillo says he took a crucial lesson away from working with Mr. Robbins. “His ability to tell a story and to be a chameleon — I think this is deep-rooted in me, and I try to do that with all my work,” Mr. Trujillo said.
His Broadway résumé covers a wide stylistic swath of shows, but Mr. Trujillo says that he doesn’t have a choreographic trademark, other than a focus on fitting dance seamlessly into the world of a show — whether that means the hyper-synchronized moves of “Jersey Boys,” the electric ’50s jive of “Memphis” or the truck-centric numbers in “Hands on a Hardbody.”
“Jersey Boys” and “Memphis” won Tony Awards for best musical, but Mr. Trujillo has never been nominated for his work, and his next scheduled assignment is off Broadway. Still, he seems at peace with the ups and downs of show business and relishes the challenge of making the right dance for a show’s needs. “In all of my work,” he said, “I want to create a vocabulary that expresses that particular piece.”
For “On Your Feet!,” that vocabulary happened to already be embedded within Mr. Trujillo, who began dancing salsa as a boy.
More than any show Mr. Trujillo has worked on, “On Your Feet!” throbs with movement. The rapid-fire salsa steps that anchor musical numbers and seamlessly link scenes match the brassy energy of Ms. Estefan’s hit songs. The intimacy of salsa partnering likewise reflects the warmth of the Estefans’ Cuban culture and the easy intimacy they share as a couple.
Mr. Trujillo knew that basing so much choreography on one style risked becoming boring. “How do I stretch out a dance form that could potentially be monotonous?” he said. “How do I find within this catalog of music a way to express each song in its own individual style? I had to reinvent myself for each number.”
A research fiend, he decided to go to Cuba to immerse himself in traditional forms. “I call it a pilgrimage, because I was really looking for something,” Mr. Trujillo said. “And it was life-changing.” He watched Afro-Cuban troupes perform in Callejón de Hamel, a narrow alleyway filled with rotating groups on Sundays; he took a class in an abandoned warehouse; and he watched women dance in chancletas — wood-bottomed sandals that create a percussive clacking sound on the floor.
At a recent rehearsal, Mr. Trujillo was working with the chancletas, which he decided to use in “Cuba Libre,” a spirited number linking a flashback in Cuba with Ms. Estefan’s present-day world tour. Although they sound a bit like tap shoes, chancletas, he noted, are much more difficult to deploy correctly.
Mr. Trujillo worked out the syncopated rhythms of two groups engaged in a dance battle of sorts. “A little looser — not so presentational at first,” he instructed during one rehearsal. “We want the playfulness of the challenge — and then we go back to presentational. Shimmery.”
The dancers engaged in a lively Spanglish back-and-forth with Mr. Trujillo working out counts. “This is like, super crazy, bro,” the performer Nina Lafarga said, mimicking rubbing her stomach and tapping her head at the same time. “Like, literally this is crazy!”
Struggle as they might, these dancers were especially well equipped to absorb the challenges Mr. Trujillo presented: All speak Spanish and come from Latin cultures. “There’s a je ne sais quoi they have,” Mr. Trujillo said. “The minute they do …” — he demonstrated a basic salsa step — “I know exactly whether they have it or not. They had the same upbringing I had; music and dance have always been around them.”
Some worked with Mr. Trujillo on “The Mambo Kings,” a 2005 musical that never made it out of San Francisco; others performed in “In the Heights,” and a few with Twyla Tharp. But all of the dancers, Mr. Trujillo noted, have the training to master the intricacies of Latin partnering, a key element of most numbers.
For Mr. Mitchell, the show’s director, observing the cast watch Mr. Trujillo has been eye-opening. “They get it immediately — their heads are tilted the right way, their hips are rising the right way,” Mr. Mitchell said. “It’s where they live.”
He added, “This is his best work to date, I think, because of the authenticity.”
After a recent performance, Mr. Trujillo’s husband, the actor Jack Noseworthy, asked him if he realized that much like the Estefans he had achieved the American dream.
It was a question that, for once, gave him pause.
“I just keep pulling forward,” he said. “You have these ambitions that you carry on your back, and you never stop to think about it. But this moment right now is incredibly important and beautiful.”
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