Choreographer Warren Carlyle: The Odd Man Out

This lone voice among the choreography nominees is enthusiastic about everything, except that he’s unable to attend the awards.

To honor the Outstanding Choreography Emmy’s move to the primetime telecast, Los Angeles magazine is doing a series of profiles of the Emmy-nominated choreographers.

Emmy nominee Warren Carlyle isn’t like all the other nominated choreographers. He’s from the United Kingdom (he says his dance training was much like Billy Elliot), he lives exclusively in New York, and he’s not involved with either Dancing With the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance. He’s primarily known for his directing and choreography on Broadway where he has worked on revivals like Finian’s Rainbow and Follies and new works like Chaplin and A Christmas Story: The Musical. What he shares with the show’s other choreographers is a love for dance and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Choreography.

“In this business, it’s a struggle,” Carlyle says of the nomination. “You have to do it for the love of it, because you can’t do anything else. That nomination means the world to me.”

Carlyle earned his nod for the Live From Lincoln Center production, “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel,” performed in concert with the New York Philharmonic. Though directed for television by Glenn Weiss, Carlyle considered the camera every step of the way.

“I never looked at that set from straight on,” he says. “The whole thing in my mind was conceived to be shot. I knew wherever the camera was pointed it would catch something good. The dance especially, you can unbalance something by looking at it in the wrong direction.”

For as much attention as he paid to the camera angles, the choreography came easily to Carlyle. “The main ballet I did in about four hours,” he says. “It happened very fast. It doesn’t always happen like that where the phrasing is so perfect, the score is so wonderful, and it was built to dance.”

Carlyle was influenced by his experience on Finian’s Rainbow, particularly the character Susan the Silent, a mute woman who communicates through dance, while working on Carousel.

“It was such an interesting thing using dance as language,” he says, “and I pushed the dancers in Carousel to make sure there was dialog going on at all times through that choreography. It’s very easy to make beautiful lines and images with nothing underneath it, and because it has to exist within text and with songs, the dance couldn’t just be tricks and crazy lifts. You can only do a giant lift when you’re emotionally at that place. When you can no longer speak, you sing; when you can no longer sing, you dance.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Carlyle doesn’t always move when he’s choreographing.

“I’m better when I’m sitting down, because I’m not limited by my own physical restrictions,” he explains. “My imagination is much more fertile. If I sit in that chair, play the music, and imagine the most impossible thing, there will be somebody in America who can make it come true. When I’m dancing myself now, I feel limited. I’ll start on my feet and I’ll sketch something out, but I no longer like what I see in the mirror, so I’ve started to evolve beyond my own physical limitations.”

For that reason, he loved working with New York City Ballet dancers Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck, who performed the Carousel pas de deux. It’s especially important in classic works like the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

“It’s tricky, especially in 2013,” he explains. “It’s easy for us as an audience now to look at it and roll our eyes a bit. That’s why it was so great to have those dancers from New York City Ballet. They do so many different things in that company that they don’t feel dated. They move in a very contemporary and dynamic way.”

Yet Carlyle’s enthusiasm for timeless musicals like Carousel and Follies is clear.

“Steve [Sondheim, who wrote Follies] is my link to the generation before me,” he says. “The Michael Bennetts and the Jerry Robbins, they’re his choreographers. I had big shoes [to fill] with Follies and with Carousel as well, but I love it. I love not being the smartest person in the room because I’m going to be challenged and I’m going to learn.”

Carlyle is also the odd man out of the special Emmy choreography. Between restaging the musical Chaplin in Russia and working on the $10 million Duke Ellington revue, After Midnight, he couldn’t participate in the collaboration and won’t be able to attend the ceremony.

“It’s so sad,” he says. “I cannot believe I’m going from being so happy and so honored to be nominated to then not being able to play with the other choreographers, because I know all of their work. I could quote to each of them my favorite things they’ve done. It’s a wonderful thing to meet someone who does what you do and does it really well. I would’ve loved to have been there.”