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'Hamilton' dancers are not throwing away their steps in Austin, thanks to supervisor Greer Gisy

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
"Hamilton" is not just words, music, acting and spectacle, it is also dance — rich, complicated and meaningful dance. The mega-hit plays Bass Concert Hall Dec. 7-19.

Bouncing back on his pelvis, legs comfortably apart, the performer leans forward and reaches one way, then another, as if appealing to invisible followers.

As he — or she, depending on the scene; the routine is repeated — leans again, one hand, fingers splayed, comes up to his chest, as if casually pledging allegiance.

Next, his shoulders rise and his head tips to the side nonchalantly, almost as if shrugging off centuries of tradition.

One of his hands flips into a disdainful gesture, perhaps flicking something adverse off his fingers.

As the propulsive rhythm intensifies, the performer jumps back twice and brings his fists up to his chest as if ready to box — he will fight. He lunges forward, swinging his arms before taking a bouncy hop.

In a final repeated — now almost iconic — gesture, he raises one arm, as if throwing a bullet into the upper distance.

All this is done, in performance, with machine-gun-like rapidity.

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As explained by "Hamilton" dance-maker Andy Blankenbuehler in a Wall Street Journal video posted on YouTube, this complicated sequence, along with constantly changing attitudes and expressions for each performer, became emblematic of a visual vocabulary applied to the mega-musical's galvanizing lyrics, "I'm not throwin' away my shot," from the number "My Shot."

While "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda receives almost universal praise for his innovative historical concept, along with his words and music — which are thick with layered meanings, timely and timeless — Blankenbuehler created the dance equivalence of Miranda's cultural richness.

One person who makes sure all those tens of thousands of movements, attitudes and expressions come out right for the touring "Hamilton" company — that lands at Bass Concert Hall on Dec. 7 — is Greer Gisy. 

Greer Gisy is the dance supervisor for the touring "Angelica" company of "Hamilton" that plays Bass Concert Hall in Austin.

She is the company's dance supervisor.

Even if you've spent a lifetime in the theater, you might not know about this highly specialized role. The "Angelica" company of "Hamilton" already employs two dance captains, who perform onstage while making sure everyone reproduces the movements as choreographed.

Gisy, however, is either offstage, watching the show on a monitor, or in the house, taking copious notes, which she shares later with the cast through a shared digital document, to ensure that Blankenbuehler's visual world is fully recreated in every performance.

"I call it theater hop," Gisy says of Blankenbuehler's intuitive feel for rhythm and movement. "It's a perfect blend of all styles of dance. He pulls from personal experiences. It's hard to put a stylistic label on it. Instead, you are pushed subconsciously into the way the story is told."

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I recently spoke by Zoom with Gisy, who maintains multiple Central Texas creative ties.

For instance, if you saw Zach Theatre's "In the Heights," directed by Michael Balderrama, who oversees much of the dance for the "Hamilton" brand, you saw Gisy in that amazing ensemble.

In addition, she has led master classes at Texas State University in San Marcos, and she'll do so again while "Hamilton" is playing several Texas cities.

Ta'Rea Campbell as Angelica Schuyler, Shoba Narayan as Eliza Hamilton, Danielle Sostre as Peggy Schuyler in the "Philip" company of "Hamilton." Because of dance supervisors and captains, you can be sure the movements will closely resemble those in other "Hamilton" casts, such as the one coming to Austin.

Joining 'Hamilton' six days before a pandemic shutdown

Even if you are not entirely conscious of it, every big Broadway show, including those on the road, employs scores of people. The website for the "Angelica" company of "Hamilton" that is headed to Austin lists 36 performers and more than 36 members of the creative team, including Gisy.

Those credits don't count the dozens of more workers backstage, down in the orchestra pit, out in the house, and inside management offices at Bass Concert Hall.

Gisy's vital job, however, needs explaining.

But first, she solves the mystery of her first name. Was it an homage to Golden Age movie actress Greer Garson (namesake for a SMU theater, Garson also had strong Texas ties)?

No.

Gisy: "Mother thought it was a cool name."

Gisy entered the "Hamilton" world in January 2020.

"I joined 'Angelica' six days before the shut down," says Gisy, whose previous theatrical credits include roles as performer, dance captain, choreographer, associate director and creative consultant. "I had spent two weeks training in New York with the Los Angeles company, then with the Broadway company, then I flew to Miami to join 'Angelica.' There was a yacht party and six days later, we're in a global pandemic."

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While some folks in the performing arts spent their pandemic days training, rehearsing or creating new projects, Gisy took time off.

"I fully quit the business," she says. "I could teach online, which is not fulfilling, or take classes online — I've been dancing since I was 3. Instead, I took time to discover myself outside the industry."

She and her husband, Logan James Hall, also a performer, toured the country's state and national parks.

"We were connecting with nature, road tripping, traveling, 50,000 miles," Gisy says. "I joke in earnest that I drove maybe 50 of those miles. I had appreciated nature from afar, but I didn't really get it. Yet walking with my husband, I connected. Now I’m fully one with nature. It was a really great experience — outside of the global pandemic."

Gisy grew up and trained in Knoxville, Tennessee. She moved to New York City at age 18 to take up an internship at the Broadway Dance Center.  

"I didn't think I was going to move there for even five months," Gisy says. "But I did stay and only left to be with my husband when he performed in San Francisco in 2019."

While the couple plied the open road, their Jeep Grand Cherokee broke down only twice, the second time in Fort Payne, Alabama.

"It was horrible timing," Gisy says about the breakdown in May. "I was in a camp chair with poison ivy by the side of the road. But I got the call to come back to 'Hamilton.'"

By June, Gisy had joined a summit for "Hamilton" dance supervisors led by Blankenbuehler. 

"We were in the room for almost a week, going over the entire show, three of those days with Andy," she recalls. "It was an incredible experience. I was still trying to learn and understand, especially after not being in a dance studio or any creative space — in person — for 18 months. I was just diving in, going in head first, hoping there's water."

She picked up with "Angelica" in Tempe, Arizona, at the end of July.

Supervising a 'paradox of information'

"I have a conversation-starter job," Gisy admits. "It's a little bit hard to define."

A good deal of her supervising is not about what the body does physically onstage.

"I look at the intention of the movement," Gisy says. "Then I note the execution. Should it be the upstage arm instead of the downstage arm? Where is the focus? Why this movement? What's going on here? Every movement is a paradox of information."

Gisy works from five different recorded documents.

"There are 76 pages of just the main points that Andy likes to keep an eye on," she says. "We compiled 46 pages at the summit. You are looking at the depth of movement, plus where everybody stands, when they enter, when they exit. While the dance captains straddle the lines between performer and manager, mine is strictly managerial work."

The "Angelica" cast of "Hamilton" performs Dec. 7-19 at Bass Concert Hall in Austin.

She watches the progress of the show from all over the place.

"I see it from out front once a week, or once every two weeks," Gisy says. "But mostly I watch from a monitor in an office, or a dressing room, or the pit, or any place they find for me after the actors are placed. On the monitor, because the lighting is better, I can see the movement in a more specific way. Watching from the front, I get swept up in the show, and I miss a part. Backstage, I'm more focused in the moment."

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Not surprisingly, like many other workers these days, she records her notes on a shared Google doc.

"The dance captains use the same doc which is seen by stage management and company leaders," Gisy says. "It's colored coded. That way we know who took which notes."

'They curate humans' : Doing and teaching in Texas

Gisy has been giving master classes at Texas State, whose top-notch musical theater program is led by Kaitlin Hopkins, since 2016, including while she was performing in "In the Heights" at Zach.

"Kaitlin has become a very dear friend," Gisy says. "I absolutely adore what they are doing. I didn't know schools like Texas State exist. Its leaders care about the performers. They come out as actual artistic humans, not machines to go out into the industry. They curate humans."

The dancing in "Hamilton," like the songs, combine hip hop, R&B, jazz and Broadway in extraordinarily complicated yet "legible" sequences.

She says the work mode of the Texas State team, which recently presented a potent version of the tribal love rock musical "Hair," feels more like that of a theater troupe than a classroom.

"I teach audition combinations from 'Hamilton,'" Gisy says. "Sometimes I'll hold mock auditions. It's hard to simulate auditions with teachers you already work with."

As with supervising "Hamilton," she aims to get at the intention of the movement.

"We stay away from execution, or trying to prove something," Gisy says. "That takes away from showing who they are in the moment. I encourage them to tell the story as actual performers, so that interesting things happen on stage.

"After all, we already all are perfectionists in this industry."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, history and culture of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

'Hamilton'

When: Dec. 7-19

Where: Bass Concert Hall on the University of Texas campus

Cost: $49 to $179. Some premium seats go for $249

Lottery: The "Hamilton" lottery will open at 10 a.m. Nov. 26 and will close at noon Dec. 2 for tickets to performances December 7-12. Subsequent digital lotteries will begin each Friday and close the following Thursday for the following week’s performances. 

Information: broadwayinaustin.com, texasperformingarts.org

From 'Hair' to 'Hamilton'

When "Hamilton" played Austin in 2019, it occurred to me that the mega-hit was not so much a revolution in Broadway culture, but rather a culmination. The show embraces so much of Broadway's legacy that, while it clearly is a work of monumental creativity, it is also part of a long and loving tradition of combining words, music, spectacle and stage performance in a distinctly American way.

This insight came back to me very recently when I saw "Hair" revived at Texas State University, where Greer Gisy has led master classes and will return to do so in the near future.

Much of the dancing in Texas State University's recent staging of "Hair" echoed the rich, meaningful, highly individualized movements seen in "Hamilton."

Under the leadership of Kaitlin Hopkins, the school's musical theater training program is now consistently ranked in the top 10 in the nation. That is thanks in part to Hopkins' friendly links to full-time artists and creators, who now consider San Marcos not only a training hub, but also one that nurtures the whole artist, including breakthrough efforts in emotional health, things Gisy praised during our interview.

A scandalous 1967 hit that seemed to come out of nowhere, "Hair" was the revolutionary musical of its day. Its loose structure and ensemble portrayal of a hippie tribe's culture — including sex, drugs and awfully catchy music — hint at the future "Hamilton."

Like the later show, it rewrites American history through the lens of its day. Even more so than in the past, sexuality, gender and race moved to the forefront in this Texas State staging, or perhaps we just noticed more.

I've seen four theatrical stagings of "Hair" and watched the 1979 movie version a few times, but it seems to me that the material gets more relevant every time.

In this version, the hippie protesters bear handmade signs with slogans such as "Stop Police Brutality" that easily relate to today's public flash points. In the finale, the performers turn those signs around and —  in an incredibly powerful theatrical moment — reveal the exact counterpart slogans of today, including "Black Lives Matter."

I watched the dancing of the matchless cast closely, too, and found that several group numbers bore the rapid shifts of meaningful, individual movements that today are associated with "Hamilton."

"Hair" and "Hamilton." Not so far apart. — Michael Barnes