NMU calls on alumna for choreography, by James A. Panowski

Janel Cooke, a Marquette native and 2004 magna cum laude graduate of Northern Michigan University, has returned to her alma mater to choreograph Hello, Dolly! Cooke, who now lives in New York City, is no stranger to the Marquette theatrical scene.
As an actress and a choreographer, her work has been seen at the Forest Roberts Theatre, Lake Superior0703ahdo Theatre and Marquette Senior High School.
She was a featured performer for Marquette Center for the Dance, appearing as Clara in The Nutcracker and Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty.
In New York City, Cooke has been busy appearing as Irina in Peter and the Wolf for the Little Orchestra Society at Lincoln Center and working and teaching at Ballet Tech. She also is on the box office staff at Off-Broadway’s Mint Theatre Company.
For the Manhattan Children’s Theatre Little Tales: Theater for the Pre-Schooler, she choreographed Asian Tales and Russian Tales.
While at Northern, she served as dance captain, while appearing as Maggie in A Chorus Line, Velma in West Side Story, and in the ensemble in Fiddler on the Roof. Cooke co-founded and served as coach for the NMU Dance Team and taught ballet to the United States Olympic Education ski jumpers.
Cooke choreographed Ebenezer Scrooge and The Scarlet Pimpernel for Forest Roberts Theatre. During her senior year, she took on the formidable task of following in the footsteps of Agnes de Mille by choreographing the full version of Oklahoma!
Cooke said there are differences between choreographing Oklahoma! and Hello, Dolly!
“A big difference is the students,” she said. “There are many new people here that I am working with for the first time, and also I am no longer a student myself. My focus right now is only on the show and not class work or other outside distractions.”
She said having lived in New York for two years, she is able to see things from a whole different perspective.
“With the things I have experienced and seen, I feel I’ve continue to grow and learn, and can bring new ideas to a production such as Hello, Dolly!” she said. “Coming back and now being a bit of an outside eye, I’m able to see more clearly certain details that could use improvement, which will only make a stronger show.”
Cooke said the greatest challenge with Hello, Dolly! is that many members of the cast had never danced before.
“So not only do I have to teach them choreography, first they have to learn some of the basic foundations of dance,” she said. “Once they have that, then they must learn the choreography, make it look perfect and still sing while they do it. And the cast has definitely risen to the challenge.”
One of the mysteries to the average theatregoer is exactly how a choreographer goes about conceptualizing a musical number. Cooke shares her approach.
“What I love most about choreographing for musical theater is that every show you work on is completely different,” she said. “While one show may be heavy with tap dancing, another may be primarily ballet. During Hello, Dolly!, one comes across a waltz, a polka, ballet, kick lines and even a little soft shoe.”
When approaching a musical number, Cooke’s first focus is on the music, and she said Jerry Herman has provided great music to work with.
“I think about the style and mood of the piece, the tempo, how many actors should be involved, and what I want the overall look to be,” she said. “Choreographing for the theatre is much different than just choreographing for a dance show, because there are so many other factors to consider, such as how the dance can move the story along, how a particular character may move, which characters should interact with each other and why, and, of course, if singing is involved, the actor needs to be able to execute the choreography while singing.”
Cooke said she is most proud of the scene in Harmonia Gardens, which includes “The Waiters Gallop,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “The Polka.”
“Within this one scene there are three big numbers, all of which have their own style and flair to them,” she said. “‘The Waiters Gallop’ is perhaps one of the most difficult numbers I’ve ever done. It involves approximately twenty people doing many different things with entrances and exits all over the place, trying to keep straight who was doing what was certainly a challenge. But I am very pleased with how it turned out; the cast has done a wonderful job with it.”
The student response has been enthusiastic.
“Working with Janel has been fabulous,” said Jessica Carpenter, a senior accounting major from Marquette. “She is incredibly patient with the chorus members when teaching us routines. Some of them have never had dance training before, and they are doing great in large part due to her patience and great ability to teach.”
Carpenter said she also likes that Cooke didn’t simplify her choreography.
“She had a vision, and she worked with everyone to get there,” she said. “The show is going to look amazing.”
East Lansing senior English major Christopher Curry also has been very impressed with Cooke. “I had no idea how she was going to pull off teaching a cast that does not consist of trained dancers,” he said. “Through Janel, I have learned that even the worst dancers can look cool on stage. If the choreographer knows what [she is] doing—and Janel does—they can teach anyone to look like they have been dancing all their lives.”
Zach Ziegler, a junior music education major from Mayville (Wisconsin), liked the mandatory dance classes set up by Cooke outside of rehearsals.
“Through our dance classes, I have learned a lot of dance terms and a lot about stretching,” he said. “I also learned that it’s good to layer dances and how to do things to draw attention to where it is needed.”
Curry agreed.
“I was originally bummed out that the cast had to attend three of the dance classes conducted by Janel,” he said. “I just thought, ‘sigh…more work,’ until I went to the first class and saw how she conducted it. It was like a real dance class, one that I know many of the students were benefiting from.”
Cooke predicts a sellout and pointed out why Hello, Dolly! still has such popular appeal more than forty years after it first opened.
“I think the music is the why people still love it,” she said. “Most people, whatever their age, will recognize most of the songs, especially the title number. I wouldn’t be surprised if…the audience will sing along with the Harmonia Garden waiters as they welcome Dolly Levi back where she belongs. With music like this, people know they are going to get songs they can hum as they leave the theatre.
Hello, Dolly! ran at 7:30 p.m. February 21 through 24 with a special matinee at 1:00 p.m. on February 24, and continues at 7:30 p.m. from February 27 through March 2. Tickets can be purchased by stopping at the FRT box office weekdays between noon and 5:00 p.m.
Other EZ Ticket outlets include the Superior Dome and the TCF Bank in the University Center. Credit card reservations can be made by calling 227-1032.
Ticket prices are $13 for the general public and $9 for NMU students, with a valid ID card. For online ticket reservations, visit www.nmu.edu/tickets
—James A. Panowski

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