Choreographer/Director Keith Young On Working W/The Best & Sharing His Craft W/The Masses

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! will be opening July 26 at The Pasadena Playhouse under the slick choreographic vision of Keith Young. Amidst running his SHOUT cast through his distinctive dance routines, Keith managed to find a spare moment to answer a few of our questions.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Keith!
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first to combine gospel with secular music and became a big crossover hit in the 1930s. Was your family or you growing up aware of her music?
No, I wasn't aware of her or her music; not sure about my family.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe caught a lot of flack for taking gospel music out of the church and into nightclubs. Did your family have any opinions on that matter?
Yes, it wasn't really acceptable to combine the two.
So what styles of dancing can we expect to see in SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!? What was popular or indicative of the 1930s and 40s?

As always, I will use the movement to nourish the storytelling (gospel-inspired), and this show has various fun styles within that.

Which songs of Sister Rosetta Tharpe will you be choreographing to? "The Train"? "Down By the Riverside"? "Strange Things Happening Every Day"?
There is a little something to all of her songs, and there are many. But my approach has been to allow you to see the music.

With her distinctive vocals and spirited electric guitar playing, she became known as the Godmother of Rock & Roll. Will SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! audience be able to see similarities of movements to later artists like Little Richard or Elvis?
Yes, the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and others.

What aspects of SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! drew you to commit your artistic energies?
I think Rosetta was an amazing and powerful force. As a trailblazer, she really broke down so many walls and expectations. She also was an incredibly vibrant personality, woman, and artist. Having said that, she was primarily looked over, and I hope my participation will help bring her and her artistry to the forefront.
Earlier this year, you choreographed and directed FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE. Did directing seem for you like the obvious next step after choreographing?
Absolutely! For me, it was a natural progression. I also didn't have to tell the choreographer what I wanted, or ask the director to try something - a fun, timesaving fact.
Would you describe the challenges in choreographing in the different mediums you're quite busy in - commercials, television, theatre, Carnival Cruise lines?
I am fortunate to be able to create in so many different mediums. Each one does have unique and specific challenges. But for me, the larger objective remains the same - to make sure that what I create perpetuates the story, and helps bring the overall vision and objective to fruition.

How do you choreograph for a performer cast for their acting chops rather than their dancing abilities?
This is very common. My approach is to embrace what they have naturally and embellish on that, giving them pride of ownership and not discouraging them.

What dance classes did you, yourself, start in (jazz, modern, ballet)?
I was insatiable and pursued them all.

Which style of dance did you prefer when you began?

You started your choreography career as Twyla Tharp's assistant on Milo Forman's Amadeus. Please tell us what Twlya first recognized in you and what lessons you learnt from her.
I can't really speak on what she saw in me, but I was determined. Regarding the lessons, that list is too long. But I will say she is a remarkable visionary and can stand proudly in the pantheon of the greats. 
Would you consider her your first mentor?
No, that honor would be my mother.
Can you briefly describe your experience as rehearsal director for the American Ballet Theatre's staging of The Sinatra Suites with Twyla and Baryshnikov?
Having been an original member of her NINE SINATRA SONGS, I knew most of the roles, so when Twyla and Misha condensed it to create The Sinatra Suites, I was asked to be the rehearsal director. It was such an honor. I was humbled by the opportunity to engage with these legendary artists.

Have you ever been awe-struck by the performer you're hired to work with?
I wouldn't say AWEstruck by anyone, but there have been many that have amazed me with their focus, talent and work ethic.

Your professional resumé contains so many name-dropping gems, we'd be here all week discussing them all. Sooo, allow me to name a few and you say a word or a sentence about each person or show you choreographed, OK?

The 78th Annual Academy Awards' production number of Oscar-winning song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp"-
This was an extraordinary experience. I felt as if I was on the front line of a cultural mash-up.
So You Think You Can Dance -
Am so glad shows like this exist, and have brought dance into the living rooms of people who would not normally get a chance to experience it. Was happy to be part of it.

Dancing With the Stars -
Again, I like the accessibility to dance these shows provide, a fun one.
Kristen Chenoweth in Pushing Daisies -
A divinely charming, hard-working and talented artist.
Emmy nom for The Drew Carey Show -
Having done many episodes, I feel this was instrumental in changing dance on TV at the time. They worked really hard which I really appreciated.

Naomi Campbell in the  SuperBowl SOBE commercial -
She was willing, and beautiful.

Jane Krakowski in Trop 50 commercials -
Such a pro, and so full of willingness and talent.

Meryl Streep & Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated -
Really love the director, Nancy Meyers, and was really taken by Meryl's phenomenal ability to be in the moment, and her consistency. Alec was a lot of fun and willing.

Mel Gibson in What Women Want -
Simply loved his work ethic. He worked so hard, and never gave up.

RENT, the movie -
I'd have to say this was the most meaningful, in that the content, objective, and message were aimed at compassion, kindness and tolerance - virtues I cherish and prescribe to.

So what's in the near future for Keith Young? Any more directorial gigs?
I certainly hope so. I really love the opportunity to affect life through my art, and will hopefully continue to have the chance to honor my craft. I am in the process of creating a show that's been on my mind for a bit .

What dance steps would you love to see your SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! audience attempting as they leave Pasadena Playhouse?
I'd like to see them dance their way over to the box office to get tickets for them and their friends to see SHOUT again!!! 
Thanks again, Keith! I look forward to seeing your dancing feets SHOUT.
For tickets and schedule of SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! through August 20, 2017, log onto

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.