Choreographer to the Stars: Norman Maen

August, 2014  

I had two questions for choreographer Norman Maen:

1. How did he choreograph an ice show for Olympic skating champion John Curry when Maen didn’t skate?

2. What was it like working with Rudolf Nureyev on The Muppet Show?

His answer to the first question was straightforward enough, if a little indecorous. “Wettest ass on the rink, dear,” said Maen. “I’m out there in me crepe soles, bringing everyone down around me, waltzing around, falling a lot, and that’s the way I choreographed it.”

The New York Times dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff, clearly thought Maen did a good job. When the Curry show opened at New York’s Felt Forum in December 1978, Kisselgoff wrote that Maen’s choreography for Curry’s signature piece, Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, was a highlight of the show. Maen had given Curry’s skating movements the “form and structured context of theatrical dance” and in the process had created something unique. “There is a new movement vocabulary emerging here,” wrote Kisselgoff. Clearly, Maen had come a long way from his dance beginnings in small-town Northern Ireland.

As for Nureyev, I wanted to know if it was true what they said about him. Was he really arrogant and petulant and difficult to work with? Was the artistic temperament always on display?

“That’s a polite way of describing it, dear,” said Maen. “I have other names for it, but I don’t think you’d want to put them in print.

His task had been to devise a ballet sequence that Nureyev would dance with Miss Piggy in a 1978 episode of The Muppet Show. “I think he enjoyed it because he wanted to do it,” said Maen. “What he didn’t enjoy was the hassle of getting it done after a very short rehearsal period of only two days.”

The ballet, introduced as Swine Lake by Kermit the Frog, was easy enough to choreograph, said Maen. A principal dancer from London’s Royal Ballet, six-foot-tall Graham Fletcher, was brought in to take the place of puppeteer Frank Oz in the padded Miss Piggy costume. Maen was able to create a sequence without having to worry about the ability of Nureyev and Fletcher to quickly master the steps. “Originally, we thought of having a girl for the ballet,” said Maen. “But that costume – it really is a bit horrendous because you’re surrounded by foam rubber for days. I used the boy for the strength because a girl couldn’t have survived in the costume.”

The ballet took time to put together, said Maen, because it had to be done in stages. For some parts of the routine, Nureyev danced with Fletcher in costume. For other parts, where Nureyev threw his partner in the air, a dummy was substituted. It wasn’t difficult to seamlessly merge the parts, said Maen. His big challenge came later on when Nureyev decided he wanted to end the show with a tap dance number.

“The Miss Piggy ballet was easy because that’s his field,” said Maen. “But tap is not his forte. He had put together a tape of the Fred Astaire numbers to watch, and picked out the most difficult one (Irving Berlin’s Top Hat, White Tie and Tails) to perform. There’s no way you can do that in two days unless you’re a very experienced tap dancer.”

While Nureyev had his heart set on impressing the viewers with his tap-dancing talents, Maen set about persuading the temperamental dancer that simplified choreography would look better on television. “It was a hard job convincing him that the simplicity would read right and make him look good. But we got it in the end. He was one of the most difficult stars I ever worked with. Some of the others – Juliet Prowse, Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr. – were just as big. But if you were prepared to look after them and make them look good, they trusted you and everything worked very well.”

The viewers were impressed by Nureyev’s Muppet Show performance, which also included a duet, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, that he sang with Miss Piggy in a sauna. (The performance can now be seen in its entirety on YouTube.) Viewers sent letters from all over the world, asking for a repeat performance. But with star performers such as Julie Andrews, Raquel Welch and Elton John waiting in the wings, constantly asking to be on the show, repeats were out of the question. “They see the show and want to do it, which is very good for Jim Henson and associates,” said Maen. “A lot of people have asked to come back, but Jim has a policy of not inviting any star back a second time.”

I was curious to know how Maen found himself in such heady company after starting out as an amateur Irish traditional dancer in his native Ballymena, County Antrim. “I wanted to make my career in dance,” he said. “I had won all the cups and medals – my mother still keeps them shined up – and I wanted to go further.” He moved to Canada, where he found regular work as a dancer on a weekly television show starring singer Robert Goulet. From there, Maen moved to New York, where he became an assistant to Broadway choreographer Jack Cole. Then it was back to Ireland, where Maen choreographed variety specials for the new Irish television service, RTE. “They never gave me much money for sets or costumes, but that sort of training is invaluable for later on. When you do get money, you know how to spend it.”

His big break came in 1969 when Maen was hired to choreograph a Tom Jones television variety series that was shown in Britain and in the United States. That brought Maen an Emmy award in 1970. “I’m rather proud of being the only British choreographer who has one,” he said. “Five Americans were up against against me that year and I never thought I’d get it.” For more than three decades after that, Maen was never out of work, choreographing shows in New York, London, Las Vegas, Dublin and elsewhere. He died of cancer in 2008 at age 76. His hometown newspaper in Ballymena referred to him as “the original Lord of the Dance.”

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014

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