What Inspires Broadway Choreographer Spencer Liff

December 5, 2017

Spencer Liff knows how to perform under pressure. Over nine seasons of “So You Think You Can Dance,” the Broadway wunderkind has dreamed up number after Emmy-nominated number within the show’s punishing under-a-week rehearsal period. You might not realize from watching his fast-paced, endlessly inventive numbers that “SYTYCD” was Liff’s first solo choreographic gig, coming right after he danced for and assisted Broadway royalty like Rob Ashford, Kathleen Marshall, and Sergio Trujillo. Liff’s choreo for the acclaimed revival of Falsettos is now streaming on BroadwayHD, and keep an eye out for his latest Broadway show Head Over Heels, hitting the boards in early 2018. —Helen Rolfe

Liff traveling around St. Petersburg (courtesy Liff)

Last March, I was directing a show in Russia and had two weeks afterward before I had to be back in NYC. I decided I’d travel to places I’d never been, all alone, with no itinerary or agenda. I went to Copenhagen, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Paris, and Amsterdam. I took pictures of paintings, images, and sculptures I found, and was so filled with inspiration for the projects I did next.

Classic movie musicals taught me so much. Every day after school, I would watch old MGM musicals the way other kids watched cartoons. I loved all of them, well known or obscure, and that style is ingrained within me now: the way Gene Kelly danced, the way Jack Cole choreographed.

Creating the opening number of “Falsettos” (courtesy Liff)

The design for Falsettos came to me in a workout class at Equinox. I was stepping up and down off of a box, like old-school aerobics. In the next production meeting, I told our set designer David Rockwell that I wanted ‘March of the Falsettos’ to be a black-light number with the actors marching up and down off of boxes, like an ’80s step routine. It just goes to show how one tiny little conversation or sentence can spark a greater idea.

I was at a club one night with my friends, and I saw a girl standing on a pedestal, holding a flower. Over 30 minutes, in slow motion, she picked petals off this flower. I was transfixed by her and knew instantly I could make a dance out of that moment—like, ‘He loves me, he loves me not.’ I’d wanted to choreograph ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret for five years, but hadn’t found the story to go with it. When the next season of ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ came around, I thought, ‘That’s the story. It’s about a girl who thinks she’s found love.’

Liff (center) standing in for one of the lead roles in a “Head Over Heels” rehearsal (courtesy Liff)

My next big project is my favorite thing I’ve ever done: a punk-rock musical called Head Over Heels, based on the Elizabethan novel Arcadia and set to music by the Go-Go’s. The dancing is new-wave contemporary meets ’80s jazz meets Fosse. I’m excited to show off some big production numbers when it opens on Broadway in the spring.

A version of this story appeared in the December 2017 issue of
Dance Spirit with the title “Choreographer’s Collage: Spencer Liff.”