Cabaret Julia Cheng 1200x450
Cabaret Julia Cheng 1200x450

Choreographer Julia Cheng on Building the World of Cabaret

In honor of Women’s History Month, we are spotlighting women who are working on one of the musicals opening on Broadway this spring season. Women have long been a part of the fabric of Broadway, yet the push for gender equity and parity continues. Meet the women who are adding their own threads as they keep Broadway running behind the scenes.

When it comes to her artistic process, choreographer Julia Cheng lets her body lead the way.

“It’s really important to be truthful to myself when I interpret the work and its relevance,” says Cheng. “I express what comes out of my body and the emotional journey of the music and the text.”

This idea remains foundational to her approach as choreographer of the Broadway transfer of the 2022 Olivier Award–winning West End revival of Cabaret, which opens at the August Wilson Theatre April 21.

The musical, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb and a book by Joe Masteroff, originally premiered on Broadway in 1966. Based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, the story centers on the seedy Kit Kat Klub in 1929 Berlin as the cabaret’s workers and patrons navigate the shifting political and cultural landscapes during the Nazis’ rise to power.

The original Broadway production, directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Ron Field, was not initially considered a success because of its provocative, risqué content. However, it ran for 1,165 performances, and has seen nine revivals between Broadway and London since then, including this current one directed by Rebecca Frecknall.

Cabaret fully launched into pop culture through its 1972 Oscar-nominated film adaptation, directed and choreographed by Oscar winner Bob Fosse. And like the 1975 Kander-Ebb musical Chicago, Cabaret has become practically synonymous with Fosse’s signature subtle and slinky movements. Some would be intimidated by taking on the task of choreographing a revival of such an iconic piece of musical theater, but not Cheng. In fact, her choreography for the West End production earned her a 2022 Olivier Award nomination.

Cabaret is such a loaded, iconic piece of work, so I want to honor and respect the lineage and what people know of it,” says Cheng. “We have hints of inspiration, but we’re not trying to imitate each number. I shared during my initial meeting with Rebecca what I would be able to bring to the show, and who I am as a person. I explained that if they wanted jazz, that’s not me. I come with my specific movement language.”

Ami Benton in the London production of <i>Cabaret</i>. Photo by Marc Brenner.
Ami Benton in the London production of Cabaret. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Cheng’s specific movement language is rooted in her hip-hop and street-dance background. While her first memory of dance was a Christmas ballet performance when she was 3, her mom couldn’t afford for her to continue lessons. Instead, dance returned to her life in high school as a social activity. She began dancing at clubs in Luton, the town just outside of London where she grew up, before competing in underground hip-hop battles and joining a popping crew named Immigration Poppers. The freedom and liberation that comes with hip-hop informed Cheng’s artistic philosophy and how she trusts her body during her choreographic process.

In her early twenties, she started expanding her dance technique through contemporary, jazz, and modern classes. Soon, she began creating her own work, and received her first commission when she was 27. In forging her own path in the world of dance, Cheng has been imbued with a confidence and fluidity that allows her to blossom wherever she is planted. That very notion is what drew her to choreographing Cabaret.

“It doesn’t faze me that [theater is] a genre I don’t know,” says Cheng. “I knew that I’d learn from being in a different space and structure. I’ve done a lot of storytelling, and I approach a project by what its intentions are and the emotional journeys in the show.”

Cheng was inspired by Frecknall’s vision during their initial meeting, where it was established that this revival would not be just a carbon copy of what’s been done before. No bowler hats, no fishnets, and no Fosse imitation. The reimagined production reconfigures several aspects — from its casting to its scenic design — to offer a new lens for the audience to experience the story. Cheng’s choreography is a part of that innovation, which includes a 75-minute preshow. Ahead of the actual performance, the audience’s immersion into the world begins with a cast of hip-hop dancers taking the stage.

The choreographer recognizes that she not only brings the perspective of a “non-theater person,” but she also brings the point of view of a Chinese-British woman. Throughout her career, Cheng has noticed the lack of representation in the industry, but rather than let it limit her, she uses it to fuel her own work.

“I try to train myself to not come with preconceived notions and instead control what’s in my power and open doors to others,” says Cheng. “My team is an all-female team and it’s very diverse. I want to see myself reflected in the people around me.”

In 2014, Cheng founded House of Absolute, “a collective of highly talented creative artists, dancers, singers, musicians … creating performances for theater, exhibitions, site-specific events, fashion, festivals, and commercial and corporate sectors.” She now serves as creative director, leading multidisciplinary collaborations and creating dance works such as Warrior Queens. Collaboration is essential to Cheng’s choreographic process, including Cabaret.

“Yes, there are steps, but ultimately I’m interested in the exchange of energies in the room,” says Cheng. “I love sculpting with artists, drawing from people’s memories, seeing how they respond to what you’re talking about. I like to give space to breathe and find what’s true to them.”

Gayle Rankin and Eddie Redmayne in Cabaret. Photo by Mason Poole Horiz.
Gayle Rankin and Eddie Redmayne in Cabaret. Photo by Mason Poole Horiz.

Staying true to her cross-disciplinary nature, Cheng looks at other cultural forms of movement beyond dance, like martial arts, to inspire her work. Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham — “changemakers,” Cheng calls them — have influenced her career as a choreographer as well. But above all, it is the women in her family, namely her mom, who have passed on tenets like honesty and integrity that she brings to every project she works on.

Though Cabaret was her first official foray into musical-theater choreography, she’s actually embracing a full-circle moment. Cheng was a Kit Kat Klub girl — “I was a dancer, not one of the named ones” — in her college’s production. That experience made her a fan of the Tony Award–winning score, which catalyzed her excitement to infuse this new production with her choreographic philosophy and her own lived experience. The number “Money” was Cheng’s favorite number to choreograph.

“I enjoyed it the most because I had the most clarity on it,” says Cheng. “I wanted it to be really dark and gritty. It’s an interrogation on capitalism and wealth, what it means to not have any of it, and my own connection to what money and poverty are.”

As she reflects on her own memories and journey, Cheng has taken time to identify how this experience shapes her broader path. But the reverse is also true: Cheng’s commitment to bringing her full, authentic self and fresh perspectives to Broadway is vital to the industry’s own growth and expansion.

“I was very wary of the commercial, mainstream world because of things I’ve heard,” says Cheng. “I didn’t want things to be diluted or watered down. Now I know you can have your artistry and it can be a commercial product, but it depends on who you’re working with and what your message is. I’ve learned the power of what you can do when you dig into connections and empathy as artists and share it with an audience.”

Learn More About Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club