Tina Turner’s ascension to her throne as Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll has been marked with extraordinary milestones, including receiving 12 Grammy Awards, earning a Kennedy Center Honor, and selling more than 100 million records worldwide. But her impact can be measured by more than awards and accolades.
“Tina Turner is very cultural,” says Leandra Ellis-Gaston, an original Broadway cast member of TINA – The Tina Turner Musical and the show’s dance captain. “The way Beyoncé moves is because of Tina Turner’s imagination. ‘The Best’ was sung around my house growing up to describe how incredible Black people are. Her strength and resilience are something that was not to be forgotten.”
Turner’s musical and cultural legacies shine in TINA, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Katori Hall, currently running at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the bio-musical follows Turner from her Nutbush, Tennessee, beginnings to superstardom. Opening November 7, 2019, the musical was nominated for 12 Tony Awards as a part of the COVID-postponed 2020 ceremony, held September 26, 2021, and included a Tony for Anthony Van Laast’s choreography.
Working with Turner is a decades-long dream come true for Van Laast, who first witnessed her powerful performance skills during a 1970s gala concert where he was dancing in a set for Kate Bush. He was so impressed with her dynamic dancing and internally wished to one day work with her.
“She broke every rule,” says Van Laast, describing Turner’s iconic dance style through the years. “She worked totally from instinct, not from anything overintellectualized. She just knows how to put steps to music—it was her vocabulary.”
The pinch-me project made for an interesting choreographic challenge for Van Laast to consider: How would he honor Turner’s iconic material that audiences would be expecting to see while also meeting the demands of a Broadway show?
“The best choreographers create choreography to enhance and move the story forward,” says Ellis-Gaston. “[Van Laast]’s choreography found a good blend of musical-theater storytelling and what is authentic and true to Tina Turner.”
Van Laast found Turner to be completely engaged during his research process before the musical’s world premiere in London in 2018, showing him her performances on television shows such as The Sonny & Cher Show. She also offered her own insights from her own choreographic process, like how she’d create choreography for The Ike & Tina Turner Revue based on dance trends that The Ikettes (the revue’s dancers, who also show up as characters in the Broadway musical) had learned at clubs. Van Laast even got an in-person demonstration from Turner—in her bathroom slippers—of “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” when he couldn’t crack open choreographic inspiration.
“She was so generous in giving us so much information,” says Van Laast. “Giving me that time and imparting the knowledge of her style to me was huge, because it was so special to her. She had very little control because [Ike] controlled everything. The one thing she really controlled was the choreography—that was all her. ”
Van Laast learned to embrace Turner’s break-the-rules spirit while translating her iconic steps onto the larger canvas of a Broadway stage. Where Eurocentric technique often dictates a dancer’s arms and legs move in opposition, Turner’s established choreography often required dancers to move their limbs of the same side simultaneously. In asking Broadway dancers to go against “traditional” training, Van Laast would exclaim “Same arm as leg!” while teaching the choreography as a way to remember the sequence.
“[Van Laast] created a culture of being honest to where the moves came from and the origin of them,” says Ellis-Gaston. “He put in so much time and energy to honor her choreography and keep it authentic. He said, ‘I know I’m a white man, but I’m ready to figure out the best way to tell this story.’”
Van Laast’s mindful and intentional attitude in the rehearsal room meant he was more than happy to receive feedback from Turner herself, especially her renowned “Proud Mary” pony step, which requires dancers to move different parts of their bodies at different rhythms all at the same time. It was a process that took three productions to get right.
“When we opened in London, she said, ‘The top of the body’s great and the arms are great, but from the hips down, it still needs work.’ When we opened in Germany, she said, ‘It’s getting better, Anthony. Now from the knees down, it still needs work.’ When we opened in New York, she looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘You got it.’”
Despite it taking a long time to successfully execute, it was worth the time and effort. “Proud Mary” is the unanimous favorite for Van Laast, Ellis-Gaston, and the musical’s audiences.
“This movement has been in my lineage and my bloodline—I’ve known how to do ‘Proud Mary’ since I was 5 years old,” shares Ellis-Gaston. “Anytime I hear the rollings [at the beginning of the song], my body instantly comes alive.”
The audience reactions Ellis-Gaston has witnessed while performing as an Ikette serves as an affirmation to her that the musical is offering something special. She has seen audience members run up and bang on the stage and cheer in the form of a roar that she describes as “a lion opening up its mouth.” Van Laast has also observed this when he watches from the audience. He is honored that he has been able to help tell Turner’s story.
“As a Black woman at that time, to get to where she got to with the abuse that she received — not only the Ike abuse; she received racial abuse as well when she came back to America — I think she is an absolute icon. Her story deserves to be told,” says Van Laast.
As dance captain, Ellis-Gaston maintains the integrity of the choreography within the company, knowing that she carries the torch of Turner’s legacies every day.
“Tina’s choreography is the epitome of a Black woman,” says Ellis-Gaston. “On stage, she expresses all the things that Black women want to feel: Sexy. Powerful. Invincible. Vulnerable. Her music and choreography are how she herself was free.”
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