Behind The Scenes At Los Alamos Light Opera: Dancing Into Our Hearts

Los Alamos Light Opera will present ‘Matilda, The Musical’ at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays Feb. 3, 4, 10 and 11 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, at Duane Smith Auditorium.

Los Alamos Light Opera

Dance is a huge part of the live musical theater experience, and the dances in “Matilda, The Musical,” features lots of dancers and lots of variety — and nary a jazz square to be found.

Big Numbers

Director Wendy Caldwell Lanchier — who is herself trained in swing, hip-hop, modern, jazz, ballet, and pointe — said the biggest actual dance number in the musical is “Revolting Children,” which stars many local kids, teens, and adults dancing high-energy hip-hop. 

“It’s about kids learning to stand up for themselves, seeing their own value, and stopping a bully,” she said. “It’s got a great message in the song, and the dance also focuses on the kids feeling empowered.”

“Naughty” is more of a typical Broadway/musical theatre style of dance, but Caldwell Lanchier said she “put a fun spin on it that I think the audience will really like. It’s our first actual dance in the show, and it’s so adorable I can’t help but smile every time I watch it.”

She also took a different approach to “When I Grow Up”, which is not a dance, but is “carefully staged in a way that I think is very effective. I got teary-eyed when I saw it on the big stage for the first time.”

“My House”, a sentimental number, tells the story of Miss Honey’s life through staged movement and contemporary dance. “I think it’s going to really tap into people’s emotions,” Caldwell Lanchier said. “I love how a powerful dance can do that.” 

“Loud” is a fun Latin ballroom number that lets LALO’s adult performers really shine, including Dance Arts Los Alamos Director Jonathan Guise — “hands down the best dancer I know,” Caldwell Lanchier said.  With many scenes and songs highlighting the kids, “I enjoyed getting a chance to give the adults something exciting to do.” 

“’All I Know’ also features adult dancers in some ways that will really connect with the adults in the audience,” she said. 

Caldwell Lanchier said her favorite dance is “Bruce,” but “I’m not going to tell you why. You’ll have to come to the show to find out.”


Directing and choreographing the same show takes a lot of work, “it helps tremendously to have Steeny (Christine Benkoski) as dance captain,” Caldwell Lanchier said. “She has the experience and the talent to run rehearsals when I’m busy with other show aspects, and that’s not an easy task. Getting 20-plus people to do a hip-hop dance over and overtakes a lot of effort, but she’s been fantastic. She’s made videos of dances for the cast that break down the dances by step. Having someone who can be there, learn the dance, make a video of the dance, and help other people get better at the dance is a lifesaver.”

Benkoski, a former ballet and acrobatics teacher who has performed in New York and Maryland, said the dance numbers are “really exciting. (Caldwell Lanchier) has pulled choreography inspiration from hip hop, ballet, ballroom, musical theater, a touch of acrobatics, and even cheerleading. You’ll notice some songs are more scenes, with lots of activity, story, and movement for the audience to follow, while other songs are true dance routines, some with quite advanced steps.”

She added that “Matilda” especially showcases the talents of children, and “our local kids have a lot of talent! It’s hard work to keep vocals strong while dancing energetically, and these kids make it look easy.”

Benkoski said that while it’s not uncommon to have to coax adults into trying a dance step, “kids are always eager to try something new. These kids in particular are such quick learners and hard workers. Throughout the show, kids and adults work together to create really impressive moments of movement and storytelling, whether it’s a large production number that fills the whole stage, or an individual dancer bringing you to tears. Have I teared up during rehearsal? Yes. Yes I have. It’s been really fun to see everyone come together and create this electric production.”

To Dance — Or Not to Dance

Caldwell Lanchier definitely likes to surprise people. For Circle Modern Dance in Knoxville, Tenn., she choreographed a jewel heist to the jazz instrumental version of “Forgot about Dre”. She remembered a moment during the show when someone in the audience asked a friend, “Is that Eminem?”

In her production of “Clue” with the Los Alamos Little Theatre, she offered the audience imaginative touches like colored pawns marking the dinner guests’ spots at the table, a hidden panel with an oversized copy of the game board and living dice that rolled across the stage.

Caldwell Lanchier explained that her dance journey took a pause when doctors diagnosed her with chronic pain in 2008.

“I was told I would likely never dance again — not an unusual prediction given that I couldn’t walk at the time,” she said. “I wasn’t cleared to dance again until 2011, and I went straight from the hospital to the dance studio to register for ballet. I still had my hospital bracelet on.”

When she first started walking again in 2009, I used ballet barre exercises to gain back strength and balance. I’m not as flexible as I was in my 20s, that’s for sure. I’m not as small either. But I still do it. I still take ballet with pointe. I’m dancing with girls who could be my daughters, but they always accept me as just another student, and I love that. I love that at DALA, none of my teachers have ever stopped trying to make me better. I can do things now in ballet that I couldn’t do in my 20s.”

Caldwell Lanchier continues to be passionate about having dance numbers that are fun for everyone — the audience and the dancers.

“They help to tell the story, of course, but I always tell my cast to remember why we do what we do. We share our art because it’s how we connect with people” she said. “Circle Modern had a motto: Every Body Can Dance. Not just everybody. Every. Body. It’s true. And I think this show really demonstrates just how powerful dance can be as a way of telling a story and as a way of connecting with an audience on an emotional level.”

 When she’s not dancing or directing local musicals or plays, Caldwell Lanchier works at LANL as an applied mathematician and planetary scientist and @NASA #DART team member.

Los Alamos Light Opera invites the community to see “Matilda, The Musical”, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays Feb. 3, 4, 10 and 11 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, at Duane Smith Auditorium.

Tickets are available at Matilda Tickets at Eventbrite, Village Arts at 216 DP Road, or at the door.