USUCC! But Dang, she’s great!

Choreographer Cristyn Dang posed against a white backdrop.
Cristyn Dang is one of many people preserving the theatre experience during the pandemic. Photo from @dangitscristyn on Instagram.

With Broadway shut down and many local theatres still closed, theatre-lovers are left wondering how much longer until they are able to return to normalcy. Luckily, just like how classes have moved to Zoom, musical theatre has also currently been thriving on the virtual platform. One such project that made its way to our home screens is “USUCC: An Original Zoomsical,” written and directed by Brian Ryu and Julia Krom, and choreographed by 2019 USC graduate Cristyn Dang.

But before she came to be involved with the virtual project, Dang has been dancing for as long as she could remember. 

“I wouldn’t sit still,” Dang said. 

When she was only 4 years old, Dang began training in ballet and tap dance. However, it wasn’t until one day sitting on a bench after dance class in middle school that she realized what dance truly meant to her.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I think this is something I really want to take more seriously … to possibly do professionally in the future,’” Dang said. “So from there, I started dancing more days per week.”

As she progressed from middle school through high school, Dang had already added hip-hop and jazz styles to her repertoire, was consistently given lead roles and was competing locally. It was also in high school where Dang had her first taste at choreographing for musical theatre in her school’s production of “The Pajama Game.”

“I think, especially with musical theatre, there’s so much dynamic and so much story left to build,” Dang said. “The storytelling aspects of choreographing intertwined with the technical dance aspects … [are] some of my favorite parts about choreographing musicals.”

Beginning her journey as a Trojan, Dang took up a major in psychology and, unsurprisingly, a minor in dance.

Like most people initially exposed to musical theatre, Dang, driven by her interest, jumped onto the next opportunity to get involved.

“Once I was at USC, I heard about ‘West Side Story’ in my junior year,” Dang said. 

Intrigued by the contributions of talent from three different fields — music, theatre and dance — Dang auditioned and was cast in the production. 

While musical theatre wasn’t her primary focus as an undergraduate in terms of dance, Dang had opportunities to choreograph for the hip-hop team, as well as in the styles of jazz, funk and heels. 

It was also during Dang’s time at USC that marked a turning point in her dance career.

While performing at a tribute to Dean Torrence as a benefit for Cigna Health Care, she was recommended by Glorya Kaufman School of Dance adjunct assistant professor Saleemah E. Knight to Go 2 Talent Agency, which, in signing with them, paved the way to many future professional dance opportunities for Dang.

In the present, with all of her dance background and the ongoing freeze placed on the performing arts due to the coronavirus, it was only a matter of time before Dang happened upon the “zoomsical,” a concept conceived by creators Ryu and Krom as the next installment to their ongoing web series “Hocaca TV” on YouTube

The story follows Hannah the Hound (portrayed by Amanda Kristin Cox), an adjunct professor at the University School of Unified Character Craft, or USUCC. Hannah faces a demand for a tuition refund from her students Nick (Jake Ellsworth), Charlie (Ian Parker) and Emily (Hannah Duran) when they start to feel they aren’t receiving the educational experience they deserve as the school goes online due to the pandemic. Little does she know that another professor (Kevin Herrera) from rival school Hocaca West is planning to take her place.

During the production process, Dang, like Ryu and Krom, was met with new challenges borne out of the switch to working virtually.

“I think Cristyn had a really unique challenge,” Ryu said. “As she was choreographing, we were still recording on the other side so all she had was the bare minimum of piano tracks … and she just somehow made the choreography work.” 

And for this specific project, Dang’s choreography literally speaks for itself.

“I think the thing that’s so amazing about Cristyn is that she really, for this project, choreographed to the lyrics and was able to capture the emotions of the songs and the performers through the movement.” Krom said. “Even though she didn’t have much to work with in terms of the music at that point, she really was able to connect emotionally [to the story].”

To illustrate her creative process, Dang recalls how she came up with the choreography to the antagonist’s lament in the “Villain Song,” performed by Herrera.

“When I choreograph, I really just like to listen to it once. And then kind of improv,” Dang said. “I knew that [Herrera’s solo] was more of a somber, reflective and introspective number. But it’s also him becoming more confident in himself, like the fact that he’s becoming mischievous, [so] I was just really inspired by everything the music had to offer.”

However, the most significant challenge for Dang was having all of the show’s dance instruction confined to the mercy of each cast member’s screen.

“In terms of space, I knew that everyone was limited to just their bedrooms or their living rooms that they’d be filming in,” Dang said. “So the choreography couldn’t include a lot of transitions or large expansive movements and I knew that everyone … couldn’t interact with one another.”

Nevertheless, Dang worked both tirelessly and creatively to produce choreography that went around such obstacles, as seen in the number “USUCC Is Not Our Home,” where each character’s choreography was filmed separately but edited close together to appear as though everyone was grabbing each other’s hands.

Aside from the obvious challenges that a choreographer like Dang would have to face, she also notes the more nuanced upsides to working virtually.

“Seeing everyone in more of a confined space, [I’m] able to watch more closely,” Dang said. “As opposed to having to scan an entire studio and not being able to watch everyone at one time.”

Using this positive to her advantage, Dang also had cast members stop and watch each other closely as everyone performed to receive feedback and reinforce the communal energy of a dance studio lost in a virtual setting.

“I divided everyone into two groups,” Dang said. “And it was just so exciting to see everyone really get into their characters and truly own who they were as dancers and actors.”

Ryu and Krom also pointed out Dang’s energetic and charismatic approach to teaching the choreography to the cast members, which minimized the common notion of the prevailing stress of doing such activities over Zoom.

“It honestly feels like you’re in a Zumba class or something,” Ryu said. “It was amazing seeing how much energy she had for a two-hour long rehearsal process.”

With her experience in teaching dance, Dang was quick to make sure that the unique experience from learning dance in person wasn’t lost. She jumped right into rehearsals, led warm-ups at the beginning of each session and scheduled when each water break took place.

“The whole reason we did this was to have fun,” Krom said. “Every rehearsal was just fun and everybody, I think, really felt the energy.” 

In terms of moving forward from the release of “USUCC,” as an incoming medical student, Dang sees her focus leaning more towards her field for the time being. However, her passion for the performing arts will always have a special place in her heart.

“I would love to continue choreographing and dancing in the future,” Dang said. “I’d love to use additional spare time … whether that be on a musical theatre platform or potentially creating dance concept videos in the realm of more jazz or hip-hop.”

Whatever the case, because of this virtual outlet, there will no doubt be an influx of future performers and creators, like Dang and the team of “USUCC,” that will take advantage of the potential opportunities it has to offer. In doing so, members of the performing arts community have proven that even the coronavirus stands no chance in preventing them from doing what they love while sharing their talents to the rest of the world.