Interview with Kim Craven, Associate Choreographer of Cats
Posted on 07/14/2019
Audiences and critics alike are rediscovering this beloved musical with breathtaking music, Cats, coming to State Theatre New Jersey May 8-10. Associate Choreographer Kim Craven discusses what it was like working with Andy Blankenbuehler on re-inventing the show and her transition from the ballet world to the musical theater world.
Read the Transcribed Interview Below
with Bert, Kelly, and Hanna from All Access and special guest Kim Craven.
Bert: We’re back on all access with State Theatre New Jersey. Coming up on May 8th, 9th and 10th for five incredible shows as part of the Broadway season get ready for Cats on stage at State Theatre New Jersey. Kelly and Hanna, our next guest is with us who you’re going to talk to is someone associated with that show, right?
Kelly: Yes! We are so excited to have with us today, Kim Craven, who is the associate choreographer for the national tour of Cats. Welcome Kim!
Kim: Thank you so much, I’m so glad to be here.
Kelly: Yes! We’re glad to have you. So tell us all about your involvement in Cats. I know you were with the Broadway show and now you’re doing the tour so tell us how that all came to be.
Kim: I was lucky enough to be part of the revival on Broadway and that was very exciting. I was the resident choreographer on that show and it was a privilege because Andy Blankenbuehler came on board to try to keep the original DNA of the show, that’s what the producers and everyone on the artistic team kept saying. Keep the original DNA of the show yet update it just subtly enough that no one thinks it’s a different show it’s the Cats they’ve always known and loved, yet they come and enjoy it even more and leave just thinking wow that blew my socks off even more than I remember. That was a really cool rehearsal period of having Andy sort of put his influence into it. Jillian’s iconic, classic, amazing work in that show paved ways for dancers to start doing what I like to call “dance-icals” and have dance be such a huge part of the show and her work is irreplaceable and fantastic but Andy had a way of sort of communicating with a style that tried to connect more to audiences of today’s expectations that might have changed in the last 38 years since it originally opened on Broadway. So keeping the same story and the same message and the same style but just infusing it with today’s expectations. The audience thinks faster and is more demanding and has a shorter attention span quite frankly. Also, he has such a great style like a street edgy style that he’s proficient at and he likes to infuse that into a lot of the cats especially the smaller and younger kittens. He also really had a good time trying to portray the individual personalities of the cats. That has always been written into the script but he really tried to delve into that so you can see the dichotomy of on the one hand it’s this gorgeous tribe of cats that all have the same hopes and dreams and are really as aligned as a community can be but also let each of these different cats have individual personalities, let them shine and let them really be on all the different spectrums of energy and age and strength. It was a really exciting project to be a part of and it was really well received on Broadway we had a nice run. They thought it might run for six months- it ran for a year and a half which exceeded expectations then that parlayed into the tour which was really fantastic and I’m really proud of it, it’s doing so well and breaking box office records everywhere and it’s getting great rave reviews. The cast loves it and it’s really exciting. It ran for so long that it’s such an iconic piece. People that saw it 20 years ago are coming back and bringing their kids and teaching a new generation about this show and this message and it’s really exciting!
Hanna: I’m sure you and Andy work in advance work on planning what the show is going to be, working with that original choreography so how much of it is completely done in advance versus how much are you able to work with and on the bodies of the dancers you have in order to help showcase their abilities and make sure the entire piece can be as amazing as it can be?
Kim: Well that’s a great question. Andy is one of the most organized choreographers I’ve ever worked with, he’s brilliant and he does so much pre-production. You work with Andy in his house he has a studio and/or he rents a studio depending on how many people he wants in the room and he really tinkers and works to get what he thinks he’s going to want to experience because there is no time to be wasted in a Broadway rehearsal there’s no time. He has a lot planned and he plays with a lot. There was a lot of the original that he loved and wanted to keep but he just instead of wanting it to be all unison as everyone expected he sort of would take those unison phrases and break them up and have some people do part of the phrase and then break off into something and sculpture it architecturally. He put some people on levels or breaks two or three or five people out of that choreography to kind of enhance it. That being said, in the rehearsal room if you come across someone that can do something you didn’t expect or you see a sparkle of something or you see an energy that’s evolving he can definitely go in there and tinker it and bring that out. He obviously can think on his feet but yes he’s very organized. When you go in for rehearsal you know what the day is going to look like but you’re also open to surprises so the stakes are high he works quickly, he works very quickly. His mind is so fast you have to really be on your toes to stay with him.
Kelly: This seems like it’s so different from anything you’ve ever worked with right? I mean you have a classical background; you began your career with the Pennsylvania Ballet. This sounds very different, how did you blend the two from your classical background into the Broadway world?
Kim: well I had a nice transition segway from the ballet world I moved to LA and I lived there for five years. I did some commercial dance and did some movies and kind of changed a little bit of who I was and got to experience different kinds of performing. Then I worked in musical theater and did some traditional shows, I was lucky enough to do the show Swing, do the show Movin' Out with Twyla Tharpe and became her associate for eight years. So I started to work in different ways and yes she’s classically based but Movin’ Out was all of that great Billy Joel rock and roll music. I also did Mamma Mia which is ABBA so I’ve had some experience luckily kind of diversifying myself. This one for sure felt like such a great coming full circle of keeping the classical that Jillian certainly infused and then meeting and being with one of the strongest, most popular Tony® award-winning choreographers on Broadway. Tempo going really fast having Trevor Nunn in the room and having Andrew Lloyd Webber there it was like Christmas, like this is all I’ve ever hoped for. It was really challenging and the cast was talented so every day was just your plate was full so it was good. It was challenging but I think it came at the perfect time in my life and I appreciate it.
Hanna: I’m sure. Can you explain to us a little bit how your transition worked from being a performer with the ballet to performing on stage in musicals to beginning to be a resident choreographer to an associate choreographer, how did that transition work for you across all of the shows that you’ve worked on?
Kim: Well, when I left the ballet company like I said I still loved to dance but I wanted to enhance the things that I could do so I took acting class, I took jazz, I took tap I just spent like a year literally taking class in LA. I would drive hours everywhere taking classes and kind of filling myself up and diversifying. Then I started auditioning and as I said got to do a couple commercials and some movies and friends with companies I would dance with them. Through that I met a choreographer his name is Keith Young who saw me in class and said “you need an agent, you should be represented.” That helped me further and he was coming to New York to be the choreographer of On The Town so I came with him as like a skeleton crew and I auditioned and I wound up getting the job. George Wilson, the director, he thought that I should be the dance captain, like she’s your dance captain. I didn’t want to be the dance captain quite frankly, I just wanted to perform like let me just perform on Broadway, but it was probably the wisest thing that could have happened. There are many amazing dancers and singers on Broadway but to be a dance captain or a swing you have to have a certain mindset and not everyone can do that so it sort of gave me my little hole, my niche of okay she was a dance captain. That sort of parlayed me into everything I auditioned for I became the dance captain and/or sometimes the swing, so that means I just was responsible for material. For some reason I used to be good at, even in the ballet company, knowing everyone’s steps all the time. It’s like my mind sort of worked that way and I like to be really organized and clean things and so it’s just sort of full circle that I got to dance and be organized and clean things and take care of everyone’s steps. One thing led to another and I would then be recommended for another show to be the dance captain and then as the shows went off and I wasn’t with them I would visit them and I would supervise them. Then as I got older and had a baby and danced less, I would do more of the supervising and then that became the residenting and that became the resident choreographing. So that is sort of the evolution of Kim Craven.
Kelly: Wow! Did you take any breaks? I know you had a baby but that doesn’t even sound like it was a break!
Kim: It wasn’t really! While I was pregnant with her I was setting things and assisting on things. Then after I had her I took about six months off that I really didn’t do much and then I started gently working again. You know, you also don’t want to get too far away from it, it’s a very competitive field and you don’t want to get away from it for too long or you can get left behind. You have to keep your irons in the fire so sometimes the hours are hard but it’s nice to do something you love. Sometimes she’ll say to me “Mommy, why do you have to go to work” and often it’s at night like I said the hours are a little alternative and if you’re in tech those are long 10 out of 12 days. I had a moment where I thought to myself it’s not great to say, “I know I wish I didn’t have to go I’m sorry” because I realized the truth of the matter is I’m lucky and I love it. I kind of changed my tune and started saying to her “well I know sweetie but you know why I have to go, because I love it and people need me and I’m good at this” trying to empower her too as a person to do what you love. That is sort of what happens here at home is when I’m home, I’m home and it’s great but when I work I bring her as much as I can but she knows that’s a good thing. Work is not like a terrible thing if you know what I mean.
Kelly: Mommy’s got to go work with Andrew Lloyd Webber! I mean to stay at this level and to work with folks like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Twyla Tharpe, of course is amazing. I’m going to have to ask you now, the cats have some pretty unique costumes with the tails and the kind of suits they wear, I’m guessing from the beginning the dancers have to wear the tails in rehearsals because that kind of messes with things right?
Kim: Absolutely it informs their movement. And the tail can get in the way, what you don’t realize is when you’re on the floor so much sitting and rolling you can roll over the tail and that does not feel good on your tailbone. You find ways to move it out of the way and have it be part of you but you also learn things that as a human you think this is my tail let me put it in my hand and swing it in a circle; no, a cat would never do that, that’s a human doing that. There’s also the learning curve of what do cats really do with their tails, that’s a big part of it. The felinity exercises beyond the thousands and even millions of steps and counts, there’s the felinity that we spend hours talking about. How they use their hands as paws and their feet and their ears and their necks and their backs and to watch cats. Their homework is always to go home tonight and if you don’t have a cat, YouTube a cat and think about it. You want the audience to be immersed and sucked into the world right away and not be taken out of it by thinking, “that’s a human in a unitard with legwarmers on.”
Hanna: I was going to ask how many cat videos you had to watch in order to research this!
Kim: A huge amount, yes!
Hanna: The important questions here.
Kelly: So Kim, for anybody who has never seen Cats, which is probably a very small percentage of people but there are still a few out there, what would you like to tell everybody that wants to come out and see Cats, the National Tour?
Kim: Well, I think everybody should try to see it because it is an energy bomb. It is some of the best music that you’ll ever hear, earworm songs you will not get out of your mind that are just brilliant; they’ve held up to the test of time. There is such athletic, exciting dancing that just captures you. It was one of the first shows that were immersive with cats in the audience so that’s very exciting for kids and adults to be immersed in that world. There is such unique storytelling and the message is wonderful, the message is one of forgiveness and redemption. It looks at a community of people and how as a group all communities like to find a pry and find one person that is the outsider how sometimes that’s not really kind or right and to look beyond what we first see and what our first impressions are. So It’s a wonderful message and an incredible spectacle.
Kelly: Well you sold me; I guess I’ll be there!
Kim: Okay great, I hope you enjoy it!
Kelly: So that is Cats May 8th, 9th and 10th, there are five performances make sure you check it out! Thank you Kim Craven, associate choreographer with Cats the National Tour for being with us today and we look forward to seeing all the performances of Cats!
Kim: Amazing, well thank you for having me and enjoy it, I hope you all get to see it!