Education: Breakdancing Shakespeare


Education @ Hartford Stage

Breakdancing Shakespeare Marks 12th Year

By Grace Clark, Education Enrollment and Marketing Coordinator

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”

–Jaques in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It

For teens in Hartford Stage’s Breakdancing Shakespeare program, the quote, “All the world’s a stage” in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It has literal meaning. Since its inception 12 years ago, Breakdancing Shakespeare has fused the intricate texts of Shakespearean plays with the language of rap, hip hop and breakdancing, broadening the stage for youth from various social, cultural and economic backgrounds. About 150 young people from Greater Hartford, ages 14 to 18, have performed a slew of classic Shakespearean works from Romeo & Juliet in 2006 to last summer’s As You Like It. The summer arts apprenticeship program is part of the Greater Hartford Arts Council’s nationally-recognized Neighborhood Studios. During the six-week rehearsal process each summer, students also take master classes with guest artists to explore various production skills, including vocal work, mime and stage combat. This summer’s Twelfth Night marks a dozen years of groundbreaking, energetic performances.

Brandon Couloute
Choreographer Brandon Couloute

Apprentices go through a rigorous audition process. Brandon Couloute, now the choreographer of Breakdancing Shakespeare, started out as a performer in the program himself.  He remembers feeling scared at the thought of those auditions when he first heard about the opportunity at age 13. He later auditioned at age 16 and performed in the program for three years before taking on his choreography role. At auditions, Couloute demonstrates a routine for prospective apprentices, who are required to execute it with precision, expression and stage presence. Couloute is now a professional choreographer and dancer for several productions in Greater Hartford and a dance instructor at institutions including Trinity College and Central Connecticut State University. Couloute noted that Breakdancing Shakespeare trains apprentices looking to take their craft to the next level. “It attracts a certain caliber of performer,” Couloute said. “It’s really the young artist who is taking their craft super seriously. They know this is not a summer camp; this is a job.”

Ashley Morgan and the cast of Breakdancing Shakespeare's As You Like It. Photo by Defining Studios.
Ashley Morgan and the cast of Breakdancing Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Photo by Defining Studios.

Alana Morgan, who portrayed Jaques in last summer’s production, recalls the angst she felt at her first audition for Breakdancing Shakespeare four years ago. “There I was, this little 15-year-old, surrounded by these amazingly talented people who were flipping and breaking left and right while I could only do a couple of the basic moves of hip hop,” Morgan said. “It was quite the intimidating experience. I thought for sure I wouldn’t get in, but I knew I still had to give it my all.”

Morgan landed a spot in the production Love’s Labour’s Lost, adding to the roster of her family members who have performed in Breakdancing Shakespeare; her aunt, uncle and sister were all apprentices in previous years. Morgan’s charge, like about a dozen other students, was to embrace the language of Shakespeare and make it tangible to new, younger audiences and refreshed for older generations. She and her peers worked to break down the complex language to find the story. Couloute noted that, as the choreographer, he emphasizes that telling the story is always first and the movements are secondary.

“The hardest part was in understanding what we were trying to say and executing it with the right emotion,” says Morgan. “We went in-depth with each character, defining their goals.” The text she related to most was the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue. “I think what [Shakespeare] was saying is that we don’t think about how everything we do is plotted out [in life],” Morgan said. “We all fall into different characters. It’s all one big drama, and we’re actors in it. We’re actors performing on a broad stage.”

Nina Pinchin, Associate Director of Education at Hartford Stage, said there have been multitudes of talented youth over the years, each with a unique voice and a story to tell. Pinchin, who holds a Masters of Fine Arts in directing, and has focused much of her career on Shakespearean works, has been at the helm of the Breakdancing Shakespeare program for the past decade. She has often reflected on countless individual success stories and memorable production moments. “I will never forget the way the sold-out, standing-room-only crowd at Hartford Stage leapt to its feet after the first performance of The Comedy of Errors in 2009,” said Pinchin. “I thought, I will remember this moment for the rest of my life.” Pinchin added that talented apprentices like Alana Morgan have shown how Breakdancing Shakespeare has cultivated young artists and challenged them to find their voices. “She is truly among the most improved of our program because when she started she was shy about both her dancing and her speaking,” Pinchin recalled. “Now at 19, Alana is a powerhouse. She brings maturity and wisdom to the group, along with her sly wit and solid technique; her performances can bring me to tears.”

Morgan, who is still involved with the program and now studying theatre in college, reflects on her strengths and challenges throughout her participation in the program. She said that performing freestyle dance, as opposed to precisely choreographed movements, was a challenge for her. She believes her strength as a stage performer has been her physical skill and ability to connect with her character. “I try to be very expressive when we dance. I keep the mood or emotion of what my character is feeling during that scene and show it in my face and movements,” Morgan said. “There’s just something almost magical about doing Shakespeare and incorporating modern themes and breakdancing, of all things, and making it flow seamlessly.”

Morgan added that being a Breakdancing Shakespeare apprentice has added benefits for students off-stage. Originally from St. Catherine, Jamaica, she said it is a great way for students to meet peers from other areas. “I think we have a lot of preconceived notions about what people are like outside the Hartford area and vice versa,” Morgan said. “It’s a good way to meet and network so we can expand our understanding of them.”

Apprentices are teenagers from different cultural, economic and geographic backgrounds, selected from across a 34-town area. Pinchin noted that the diversity of the performers is ultimately their strength on-stage. While some are confident dancers, others are boldly precise with their expression and interpretation of the text. “We bring together talented young people from all over the place and foster in them ownership over difficult nuanced text, made fresh with hip hop and breakdancing, and their own contemporary artistic voices,” said Pinchin. “I think the secret recipe for success is the super strong ensemble we build in the room — everyone is rooting for you to succeed, for you to move your own bar higher — and man, oh man, do they ever!”

There is no doubt that it takes a team to execute this unique art form on stage, but it also takes trust among the performers. “When I’m doing a stunt or someone’s doing a trick that relies on other people to catch me or something, I have to know that they have my back,” said Morgan, who credits the program with helping her to define herself. “When I first started out, I was almost unrecognizable. My voice was so quiet and my dancing needed serious cleaning up. Now, when I watch last year’s production of As You Like It and compare, I see a much more confident person who isn’t afraid to project their voice and go all out to tell the story as well as she can.”

Breakdancing Shakespeare Productions

  • 2018: Twelfth Night
  • 2017: As You Like It
  • 2016: Romeo & Juliet
  • 2015: Hamlet
  • 2014: Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • 2013: Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • 2012: Much Ado About Nothing
  • 2011: The Tempest
  • 2010: Macbeth
  • 2009: The Comedy of Errors
  • 2008: Antony & Cleopatra
  • 2007: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • 2006: Romeo & Juliet