Canadian choreographer mixes dance styles on OHIO production of ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’

As masked students hold their scripts and eagerly await the next note, all eyes watch closely as Eden Hildebrand as she enthusiastically gives the direction during an evening rehearsal of ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 by Ohio University alumnus Dave Malloy.

Hildebrand, a Canadian choreographer, has been at the Athens campus of OHIO this semester as she works on the production of the Tantrum Theater musical, adapted from 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal novel, “War and Peace “. Tantrum is the first theater company to do the show since the rights became available.

Schedules and tickets can be found on this website.

“I love how different the show is,” she said. “Most of the dialogue is taken from [the novel], so it’s interesting to listen to. The music is eclectic. There are hip-hop club acts we do, and then we’re in a Russian pub.

Hildebrand researched various dance styles to suit the different elements of the production, blending Russian folk dance, 19th century couple dancing, and jazz opera and theatre.

Her favorite number to work on, she said, is “The Abduction” scene.

“It’s wild, it’s rowdy (and it’s) influenced by Russian folk dancing,” she said. “It’s just a great old time. The energy is super high, there’s a lot going on. The physical demands for the number are also quite high.

One of the challenges in creating choreography for the show was the amount of pre-choreography Hildebrand could do before coming to campus. Because the show’s production was delayed from 2020 due to the pandemic, she said, Hildebrand was not part of the audition process.

“I had no idea who [the actors] were, how they move, whatever,” she said. “They definitely have their own persona, their skills and their bodies, and their personalities (which) also inform the movement.”

Hildebrand is grateful that COVID-19 hasn’t really affected the production, other than respecting social distancing between cast and audience. She said that because Tantrum Theater is moving forward with the show, it gives her hope that the future of musical theater will be just as robust as it was in the pre-pandemic era.

Hildebrand is also an adjunct teacher at the School of Dance, teaching Introduction to Tap Dance, Tap Dance I and Ballet Technique IV. She loves the enthusiasm of the students and says it’s a special process to be part of their development as artists.

“A few cast members also work as dance captains,” she said. “It was really cool to watch them as a cast member and then take on that extra responsibility and still be able to command a room with respect.”

Dance co-captain Lauren Janoschka, a third-year musical theater student playing Mary Bolkonskya in the show, said Hildebrand brings incredible energy to the venue, both in class and in rehearsal.

“She’s very light,” Janoschka said. “She’s very witty, she makes the craziest jokes in the middle of rehearsal, and they’re so funny. She has this really light spirit that is just a lot of fun to work with. And it’s very comforting in what could otherwise be a very stressful process.

Janoschka said his role as dance captain includes polishing choreography and preparing for the understudy performance, a free matinee on April 2 where understudy performs their lead roles and current cast members become members of the ensemble.

“It’s common for educational institutions, but not for equity theater, which is what Tantrum Theater is,” she said. “So part of my job is to coordinate with our directors … and make sure everyone – who can’t even attend a rehearsal with Eden in the room – knows what they’re doing.”

Janoschka said she also had Hildebrand for Advanced Tap. In class, Janoschka said, the focus is on technique, but in rehearsal, Hildebrand’s choreography is all about connecting with the audience and moving the story forward.

Dance teacher and director of the dance school Travis Gatling said Hildebrand was brought in to meet the needs of the dance school and the drama school, both of which needed someone who could teach tap dancing, he said. This collaboration demonstrates the close relationship between dance and theater schools, and how that is evolving, he added.

“We want to break away from the traditional, conventional way in which musical theater has been produced and watched,” he said. “We want to…incorporate more contemporary dance forms…beyond conventional jazz technique (and) ballet technique.”

With Hildebrand here, Gatling said OHIO can expand its course offerings to better prepare students for the worlds of dance and musical theater.

“These courses that weren’t on the books at one point are now,” he said. “And musical theater and our students can take them. Having these courses offered more frequently is exciting for me because it gives our students more versatility and diversity in their training.

Colleen D. Ervin