Photo: Lucas Chilczuk, for “Dance” magazine
Skye Mattox is a Broadway performer who has appeared in shows like Carousel, West Side Story, and On The Town. She was a dancer throughout the second season of the NBC TV series SMASH, and is also a dance teacher and the granddaughter of storied jazz choreographer Matt Mattox.
She has danced in two previous JCE Jazz Dance Project performances for JCE in 2012 and 2014, but this year she is participating as a choreographer for the first time. Her piece “Safety Dance” is a duet, which she will be performing with Ryan VanDenBoom.
She was kind enough to answer some questions for us about her life as a dancer, her experience working on both stage and television, and what inspires her as a choreographer.
Your grandfather was the famous jazz dance choreographer Matt Mattox. Does his style influence you at all in the way that you perform, choreograph, or teach?
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to train with Matt before he passed, and there are very few people who teach his technique. But, so much of what he did has been preserved on film and is so accessible to watch. I’m a very visual learner, and I think growing up watching him in movies certainly had an effect on the way I dance. I’ve also always felt a deep connection to jazz dance, because it is such a part of my family history.
What do you think separates jazz dance from other dance genres? What drew you to it?
For me personally, there is a freedom of movement that comes with jazz dance. You have your strong, ballet base, but then you have all of this room to completely mess with it. It seems to me that there is no right or wrong way to do anything. It’s all up for interpretation. Jazz dance can be defined in so many different ways, but it’s always something that’s made sense in my body from the time I was little.
What is your favorite aspect of performing as a dancer?
Put simply, it’s just my favorite thing in the world! I can’t pinpoint one particular thing, because dancing in performance is an all-encompassing feeling. Even if I’m doing the same choreography eight shows a week, I’m absolutely thrilled from the moment I take my first few steps onstage. Anything I’m feeling that day (good or bad), I can translate into energy that goes into my dancing, and I always feel great afterwards.
Similarly, what is your favorite aspect of choreographing dance? What influences your work as a choreographer? What inspires you?
I need music to motivate my choreography and the story I’m trying to tell. It would be difficult for me to come up with a concept and then find music to fit to it. My favorite thing about choreographing is hearing a piece of music that inspires me, coming up with a story, and then listening to the music extensively to figure out the road map of what needs to happen within that story. The movement should always stem from there. And every nuance in the music is another layer that can be applied to the choreography. I grew up watching a lot of golden age movie-musicals, and people like Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire have always been a huge source of inspiration. The next step for me, choreographically speaking, was getting familiarized with the work of Jerome Robbins, doing West Side Story. I was hired to do that show in 2009 when I was 17 years old, and it helped instill the instinct to think of story and movement as one and the same thing.
Do you enjoy performing in your own pieces, or would you rather just choreograph your dances?
It is certainly easier not to perform in my own pieces! It’s a bit more difficult to have an objective eye about the piece, when you’re also focused on your own performance. But there are definitely dances I would like to perform in. I’m not yet at a point in my career where I want to stop performing and solely be a choreographer. I’m still very much in love with performing (which I think will always be the case), and it’s fun to dream up roles for myself occasionally. Because, why not?!
You have performed on Broadway and also danced on a network television show. What are the primary differences between these experiences as a performer?
Doing TV work is a whole different experience as a dancer. Days when you’re shooting a dance can be pretty long and hard on your body, doing take after take at 1000% energy. But, I love doing both theater and film for different reasons. When you’re filming, there is always a bit of excitement in the air because there are so many moving parts to get that one shot. And you get to be in front of the camera, as part of the finished product. You never know which shot is going to be the one that makes it, so you’ve got to be ON at all times. But I love theater so much because you get to play out the entire story in one go. You also have the added energy of an audience in front of you. And your hard work pays off after each number, rather than having to wait months to see it on TV!
You have also choreographed for both the stage and for film. Are there different things you need to consider when choreographing in one medium vs the other?
I tend to see things cinematically when I choreograph. There is so much you can achieve just by doing a small camera move or choosing to shoot something a certain way. What I imagine in my head for a piece almost always looks like a movie to me. So if I want to do it onstage my challenge is to figure out how to evoke the same thing without the help of a camera.
What styles do you include in your teaching? Who influenced you as a teacher? What do you hope to impart to your students?
My class warm-up is a bit of a mixture of classic jazz and ballet. It is structurally similar to some of the classes I took a lot when I moved to the city in 2008 (with the likes of David Marquez, James Kinney, and Josh Bergasse). A lot of what I learned from them, especially in terms of musical theater dance and story telling, I try to pass on to my students. My mom was also a huge influence in my teaching. She trained me growing up, and she was an incredible teacher. She always stressed proper technique, work ethic, and knew how to explain things to get someone to understand.
You have danced in two Jazz Project concerts, but this will be your first time as a choreographer. What is your piece about, and how do you feel it fits in a jazz dance concert?
My dance is about two people meeting on the dance floor at a club and finding a very real connection with each other. I think the JCE concert is a perfect place to be presenting this piece because if you break down the movement separately from the music and the story, it is very much based in classic jazz. There is a lot of isolation, and Jack Cole-type lines. I think it’s a good way to show how jazz is used in modern-day choreography.
Skye Mattox began her career when she moved to New York City at age 17. She has been seen on Broadway in the recent, Tony nominated revival of Carousel, West Side Story, and On the Town, where she understudied the lead role of Ivy Smith. Other NYC credits include American Dance Machine and numerous shows for New York City Center’s Encores! series, such as Little Me and Call Me Madam. She can also be seen as a dancer throughout the second season of NBC’s hit TV series SMASH. In addition to performing, Skye has always been passionate about choreography and teaching dance. She has taught for many studios across the country, as well as two of NYC’s top dance studios, Steps On Broadway and Broadway Dance Center. Most recently, her choreography can be seen in the short film, The Denodnaba Prologue.