A picture speaks, as the old saying goes, a thousand words, but a talented dancer says volumes without uttering a single syllable. That’s especially true of Ryan Steele and the other performers in “Five Dances,” a moving character study from writer/director Alan Brown.
Steele, who has made his mark in Broadway productions of “Newsies” and “Matilda,” plays Chip, a lean and hungry dancer who travels from Kansas to New York City make his mark. Landing a spot with a dance company, Chip interacts with the other performers, building relationships and honing his craft. At times, he is torn between what his heart wants and responsibilities back home.
When reached via conference line, Brown and Steele talked about the differences between dancing and acting as well as the challenges of bringing a modern dance story to the screen.
With Ryan’s character having to interact with all the other characters, was the casting process difficult for you?
Alan Brown : The casting process was very difficult, and it was my own fault because I really didn’t realize to what extent dancing and acting were very separate talents. I just thought it would be easier to find dancers who could act, and it turned out to be a really long, hard process.
Ryan was the exception. Ryan came in very early in the process. He was recommended, but like everyone else he really didn’t have the acting experience. He had the talent, he had the timing, he had that natural ability.
Ryan we cast early on, but in general we saw a lot of dancers. Jonah Bokaer, our choreographer, was in the casting process with me because we needed to find-this was another challenge-five dancers that you could believe–if you lived in that modern dance world-that this would be an actual dance company, a choreographer would put these five people together and make a cohesive dance company.
In the film, Chip is new to the Big Apple and his experiences are somewhat painful. Ryan, how much of your own journey do we see in Chip’s journey onscreen?
Ryan Steele: I was very lucky when I moved here to the city. I came here with the security of a job and a family member who lived in Queens. My experience coming to New York was much different than Chip’s.
Alan mentioned the differences between acting and dancing. You’ve had some Broadway roles, but for this honest portrayal of dancing, was there any difficulty for you?
Steele: The entire experience was very new for me. The preparation was extremely different. When you are performing on stage, you rehearse for five weeks: the same dance number, the same scene, the same song. You are well rehearsed and extremely prepared to perform in front of an audience.
In two weeks of [film] production, everything happens so quickly. Like Alan said, some the text wasn’t concrete when they went into production. So we would get new scenes the evening before and have to perform them that morning.
Everything happened really quickly and the whole experience was exciting and really quick. It was very different, but it was fun and I learned a lot.
New York City is such a powerful place that it almost seems like a character in “Five Dances.”
Brown: Yes, which we did by design. Most of the film takes place in the studio. I think we [made the city a character] by virtue of the fact that we made the film in New York with New York dancers. We made it in a New York studio and there was this sense that the story couldn’t have happened in another city.
In New York, not only do you get the best dancers in the United States, but probably the best dancers in the world. But you also have the most high pressure situation in the world. Even when you are in that room in that dance studio, the feeling of New York permeates it.
“Five Dances” opens October 4 at Cinema Village in New York City.