📷 : Yellow Belly Photography
Since graduating from Urdang Academy in 2014, Christopher Tendai has appeared in shows such as In The Heights, Jesus Christ Superstar and recently finished a run in the new adaptation of West Side Story at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Christopher was in the Original West End Cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Olivier award-winning musical Hamilton, where he also choreographed the cast for their performance at West End Eurovision. As an established choreographer, Christopher has set up CTC CØMPANY and has created his first piece of work, a short dance film IMPERFECTIONS, and is now working on his new production, IDENTITY, which he is taking to Edinburgh Fringe this summer. Meeting with Christopher, we chatted about his time in Hamilton, starting his dance company and his new production IDENTITY.
What was the experience like in Hamilton?
Hamilton was a dream come true. I had the best time, it pushed me as a performer and I made amazing friends as well. Getting to work with the original American creatives of the show was everything I could have asked for, and more.
How was it choreographing the cast for West End Eurovision?
That was fun! There were a few of us and we wanted to create something really fun but it was quite hard actually because we had show rehearsals going on throughout the day and then we had to make time for rehearsals for that as well. We managed to put something together in the time that we had and everyone was great and totally on-board with it. It was a great experience and it was really fun to choreograph.
Do you have a favourite memory from your time in the show?
I think my favourite, and the one I’ll always remember, is going on stage for the first time. I was a Swing so everyone was already used to performing and my debut was at the end of January. I’d watched it from the audience so many times so then to actually being on the stage was so surreal. Coming out on stage from the wings and doing the first number was amazing.
You’ve appeared in a couple of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s productions, what do you like about his work?
Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius. I’ve been really fortunate to do In The Heights as well as Hamilton and I find the way he writes, and the storylines, are all so relevant. The shows never get old, you can always listen to whatever he has out. I love how all of his work is so meaningful to the audiences and also the people in the show. I bawled my eyes out at the last show of In The Heights because the show was just so meaningful and you can tell he’s put his heart and soul into everything that he does. He said he spent ten years writing In The Heights and a long time creating Hamilton with the researching and studying, and you can tell that he really loves what he does.
You performed for the theatre show In The Willows, how did this go?
In The Willows was a lot of fun and very quick. I jumped in for the last week and I did six shows. It was fun but it really tested me mentally because I only had two rehearsals. I got sent the music material and I had one four-hour session with the MD and then I learnt all the choreography in one day and then the following day I was put in with the entire cast. We then had a run through that evening and I told everyone to push me in the right direction. I found it very challenging but I said to myself that if I can be a Swing in Hamilton, then I can swing anything. I watched the show on the Thursday and then the following week I was in there. The cast are amazing, they were so supportive and they’re all incredibly talented. It was a fun show to do and having the choreography based around British Sign Language was a great skill to learn.
I played the role of Duck and it’s gender non-binary, so it was nice to explore that kind of character. Overall it was a really good experience… very quick but great.
You recently appeared in West Side Story in Manchester, how was it being part of this production?
I’ve always wanted to be in West Side Story and knowing I was part of the first cast of the newly-adapted version at the Royal Exchange is incredible. Everyone knows West Side Story to be a dance musical but they put their own twist on it to make it more about the acting and the storyline. We got a really positive response from it and they’re bringing it back next year because it sold out. The cast that I was working with were phenomenal. Everyone had a West End credit or had been on tour, so it was nice to work with some humble and very hardworking people and learn from them. I had such an amazing time.
In 2017, you were part of the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, what was this like to perform in?
Jesus Christ Superstar is, again, a show that I’ll never forget. I’m a massive Drew McOnie fan and he choreographed it. It was not your average Jesus Christ Superstar, it was very out there and wacky and I absolutely loved that. I was Swing on that show as well and it was so rewarding, you would use every ounce of energy. Everyone was so invested in the show and I’m very upset that I wasn’t able to go to The Barbican, I would jump into that show again in a heartbeat. It was only three months but I will always remember it.
Can you say more about your new show IDENTITY?
Yes, I am very, very excited to be taking my company’s new show IDENTITY to Edinburgh Fringe this August. I’ve been working on this show for the past year and a half and I sat down with my director and we decided we wanted to put something together. We created a short dance film called IMPERFECTIONS, which is on our YouTube account, and that was based upon the voices that we have in our heads that tell us we’re not good enough and we can’t do things and why should we bother. I wanted to show that, through our own self-strength, we can overcome this and choose to be the people that we want to be. From that, it stemmed into IDENTITY. We did a workshop-like show last August where we had three and a half days rehearsal and then showcased whatever we had. We really wanted to highlight certain issues such as mental health awareness, LGBTQ community awareness and the effect society has on us. I really want IDENTITY to showcase the message that being you is the best version that you can be, and as long as you’re happy, that’s the biggest achievement that we can make in this lifetime. I really want to use this show to help others be who they want to be.
One of my closest friends, who I made during the show, had her brother come to see it and he’s a teenager in secondary school who shut himself away in his room and played on games consoles and he was going through the changes of ‘who am I’. He was sat in the front row and by the end of the show, he was bawling his eyes out and my friend said that he’d never opened up or spoke about his feelings, and then she said that after seeing the show, it opened him up and they now have a much closer connection and he now knows what his path is. It made me very emotional to know that this show can actually affect someone like that.
I’m very excited to showcase it at Edinburgh. I want to see how other people feel about the show.
Can you tell us about CTC?
Yes, CTC is my brand name. I’ve always wanted to be on the creative side and I remember I put a name together with my friend at college, which started out as T&T, but then college life got in the way and nothing really happened with it. After around three and a half years I put the brand together as CTC, which stands for Christopher Tendai Choreography. From there came CTC Company and also the short dance film, IMPERFECTIONS. The performers I was working with were such a dream to work with and after filming it I decided I was going to try and put all my eggs in one basket and see where it could go. Luckily, I’m starting to get it out there slowly and people are beginning to know the CTC brand.
What do you enjoy about hosting workshops?
I love teaching, it is a massive passion of mine. I love giving back and passing on knowledge and I think that’s the main importance that teachers should have. When I started at college, I knew I had to take every ounce of information and I’d ask every question and I always find that knowledge is power. I love to see the growth of students and the breaking down of barriers. I think in a few of the workshops that I’ve done, you see that the students are quite quiet and don’t really want to say much, and then by the end of it, you can see the passion in their eyes and that is what I love to see. I always say that following your dreams is the best thing that you can do. I feel like I’ve done my job if the students have left feeling inspired and have that ambition to take it further.
How did you originally get into dance and acting?
I started out more in drama and my older sister used to be in the acting scene so I followed in her footsteps. I started to get into drama at secondary school and I loved acting, it’s still a passion of mine to this day. I then got a passion for music and tried to create my own songs towards the end of secondary school. After that, I got into a performing arts college on the acting course. I remember being in the first lesson and hearing everyone singing in the other room and realised I needed to be in there so asked to change courses, so I ended up being on the musical theatre course. That course taught me a lot about creativity and I am very thankful for that part of my training. It wasn’t until I went to Urdang in 2011 when I started dancing. I’d never really known about dance technique or anything like that and I remember Urdang was my last place to audition because I really wanted to go to Guildford School of Acting. I didn’t get into Guildford but I eventually got into London School of Musical Theatre but I wasn’t sure if that was right for me because it was a one year course. I then auditioned for Urdang and got in and I just fell in love with dance. I was in that building seven days a week, either going over routines, stretching or creating my own material. It’s funny because I originally thought acting was my strength, and then singing, and then dance, and it’s actually swapped around now, dancing is my strongest element, followed by acting and then singing.
What was the first musical theatre production you were involved with and what do you remember from your time in it?
It was in secondary school when my music teacher decided that he wanted to write a musical. I can’t remember what it was called but it was about World War Two and the soldiers’ time away from home and being in the trenches. I loved that experience and I know my teacher was so passionate about it, I adored him. That’s when my love for music started and when I went to college, I started playing catch up and learnt what different musicals like Wicked, Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera were, I started learning all about them. We did a presentation of different musical songs at college from shows, it was good fun.
How was it being involved with the Union J tour?
It was fun. I used to work for a commercial agency and they called me and asked if I wanted to choreograph the tour. I mainly choreographed one of the support acts called Ian Erix, who is apparently massive in America and the Philippines. It was around three days of rehearsals, it was very manic but we had a great time. It was great getting to know Union J and the other support acts. It was a bit stressful because the stages were different so we had to adapt to what we had. It was a lot of fun and I got to do it with my friends who I did In The Heights with.
How do you feel seeing your choreography performed by others?
I can’t really explain it but it gets me very emotional knowing the trust that people have in you to do your work. I remember showcasing IDENTITY for the first time and we did a post-show talk afterwards and I was in awe of the dancers, it was such an achievement. After doing that, I realised, this is what I need to do and this is why I’m on this Earth. It fills my heart every time, no matter if it’s a small performance or whether it is a full show. Even when I’m teaching workshops, seeing other dancers perform the routines, it’s like wow, you’ve created this into a whole other level. It’s nothing but joy and happiness.
Apart from Edinburgh Fringe, do you have other projects coming up that you can tell us about?
I do have something else coming up, but I can’t say what it is yet. It’s very exciting! It will be in London and the news should be out in a few weeks.
Book to see IDENTITY at Edinburgh Fringe 2019 https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/identity
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