David Byrne's Scene-Stealing Dancers Break Down The Making Of 'American Utopia'

Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba on the "naturalistic" choreography, getting makeup advice from Spike Lee and singing with Mavis Staples.
Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo during the opening number of "David Byrne's American Utopia," now available on HBO.
Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo during the opening number of "David Byrne's American Utopia," now available on HBO.

David Byrne’s American Utopia” begins with Byrne alone onstage, crooning about different parts of the human brain. Bathed in a soft blue glow, he sits at a table, barefoot, for a few minutes. Byrne first rises when another person emerges from behind the shimmering backdrop. Seconds later, someone else steps forward. They join him in song, at one point leaning on each other like conjoined twins. Together, the three of them — Byrne and his principal support — set the tone for the show, gliding across the stage with outstretched arms, their movements welcoming the audience to something both intimate and grand.

Those two dancer/singer/expressionist extraordinaires are Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. Without them, “American Utopia” wouldn’t be what it is. The filmed version of Byrne’s concert, directed by Spike Lee and newly available on HBO, makes that abundantly clear. Giarmo and Kuumba often flank Byrne, wearing cerulean eyeshadow and loud red lipstick. Lee’s camera makes them part of the main attraction.

That egalitarian approach reflects the spirit of Byrne’s show, which toured the world in 2018 and set up shop on Broadway in 2019. Through his solo work and with the Talking Heads, Byrne has always made music that speaks to everyday concerns. Between songs in “American Utopia,” his pithy monologues address the everyday concerns of today: fascistic governments, voter turnout, television and unwanted houseguests. His singers, dancers and musicians, all of whom performed live without a backing track, are part of an interconnected whole. They aren’t just a garnish meant to direct attention to the headliner.

Because Giarmo and Kuumba have such a memorable presence in “American Utopia,” I spoke to the two of them via Zoom about what it was like to be part of the production, the surprising makeup advice they received from Lee and celebrity guests they spotted in the crowd.

Getting Started

Giarmo and Kuumba came to “American Utopia” through two very different routes, but what appealed to both was Byrne’s desire to address the state of the nation. Giarmo had worked with Byrne before, serving as assistant choreographer on the tour that accompanied his 2008 album “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.” During those rehearsals, Giarmo mentioned he was the captain of his high school color-guard team, so when Byrne mounted his color-guard-esque 2016 show “Contemporary Color,” he again enlisted Giarmo’s help. Kuumba, on the other hand, had never met Byrne. She replaced another performer during the tour. Whatever stage the cast graced, they did so without shoes.

Giarmo: I emailed David Byrne and said, “I hear you’re looking for backup singers that can dance. I’m free.” But of course that email was after working with him for 10 years on various things. He said, “Would you also be willing to be dance captain?” I said, “Sure, let’s do it.”

Kuumba: I was coming from another tour and I got off the plane and turned my phone on and had an email from David that said, “Hi, would you like to join my show?” Honestly, I had to google to say, “Is this real?” First I thought it was spam because, if you know David and his personality, which I appreciate so much, the email was written majority in all lowercase letters. Long story short, Lizzy Dement is the assistant choreographer to [lead choreographer Annie-B Parson]. We worked together on a different piece, “Electric Lucifer.” They were looking for someone that could be a vocalist and a mover. I basically had about two weeks to rearrange my whole schedule and learn all 24 songs, both for festivals and for theaters, which are very different.

Giarmo: We all just came together and figured it out. There was a lot of trust and a lot of freedom, I think, in how we put it all together initially.

Kuumba: We’re movers and dancers anyways, so I’m comfortable without shoes all the time. To me, it seems so normal. I’m like, “I’m barefoot all the time, just as life and profession.”

Giarmo: I would say it’s maybe the first time I’ve really gotten a pedicure to make sure my feet look good. I’ve never been filmed that close-up. But Annie-B Parson, her company, Big Dance Theater, I’ve performed with them since 2005, and I’ve never worn shoes in any of those shows. Maybe for Broadway that’s weird, but it’s actually kind of the norm in the dance world, generally.

Giarmo, Byrne and Kuumba.
Giarmo, Byrne and Kuumba.

They Dance Like This

The choreography is another extension of Byrne’s democratic vision for the show. He wanted the movement to be naturalistic. Some of it can seem deceptively accessible, like something you or I could replicate at home. For Giarmo and Kuumba, “deceptive” is the key word.

Giarmo: The thing I think you’re responding to is that the kinesphere is really small. Kinesphere is what space your body takes up. A big high kick is a big kinesphere. I won’t speak for Annie-B, but I know she’s said this about dance before: Her fascination with dance is this catharsis of, “Everyone has a body.” So when we see a body onstage moving, whether or not we can do that movement in that way, we have something in us that responds to that and is like, “I feel that.” I think using pedestrian movement just means taking formal movement that seems like it’s naturalistic or something that people would just do normally, like a normal gesture, but formally warping that and modifying it and making it something else, elevating it. You could look at it and say, “Oh, I could do that.” There’s something I think that’s actually welcoming and inviting.

Kuumba: I definitely came with being a mover and touring with dance companies that are rooted in very big movement. When coming into this work, I got approached many times like, “Oh this must be a piece of cake for you.” I’m like, “You know, you would think that.” I think part of that is shaped specifically from Annie-B and knowing David. It is shaped in a way so that it does look accessible because we’re not the only two that are dancing. The rest of the band is moving as well, and they’re not all technically movers, as well as David. We all have to be able to complement each other.

Giarmo: As someone that has done it for so long, I would say that there are fully dances that you can do. Please, do the “Naïve Melody” dance with us. Easy-peasy, it’s going to be fine. I will also say if you try to do some of the other dances with us, you’re going to lose your goddamn mind. There’s some stuff that looks very easy but is really hard.

Kuumba: It lives in the body — how, even if something looks small, it actually can sometimes be that much more strenuous or that much more complex because the work it takes to make it look small on a big stage actually requires a lot more than you would think.

Giarmo: Even before the tour began, there was so much discussion and creative work with David just from a technological perspective. Formally, this is like something nobody’s ever seen before, but technologically, it’s also that. Every single person had in-ear monitors with their own individual mix. I think there was something like 90 wireless mic channels overall. Every musician is wireless. Everything is live. The lighting is also this crazy high-tech thing. It’s a system called BlackTrax where we each have RFID sensors sewn into our suits, and so all the lights have cameras that can track them.

David Byrne and his band, with Giarmo and Kuumba dancing in the background.
David Byrne and his band, with Giarmo and Kuumba dancing in the background.

Finding The Politics In ‘Utopia’

A lot of Byrne’s music uses surreal imagery to address the passage of time and the way individualism haunts humanity. “Once in a Lifetime,” arguably Talking Heads’ most famous song, is about experiencing life on autopilot, while “I Should Watch TV,” a soaring rock anthem he recorded with St. Vincent, finds Byrne turning to the boob tube “to know what folks were thinking.”

During “American Utopia,” Byrne made the political subtext more overt (though never preachy). He points out that many of his musicians are immigrants and announces voter-registration tables in the theater’s lobby. But the most powerful moment comes toward the show’s end, when Byrne and his band cover “Hell You Talmbout,” a Janelle Monáe protest chant that lists the names of Black Americans killed by police violence. Byrne saw Monáe perform the song at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017 and asked her permission before including it.

Kuumba: When I first was asked to be a part of the show, seeing that David decided to do this song was the reason that I said yes. Because one, I’m a Black woman and I am consistently being aware of who I work with and why and how and in what capacity and the many ways I’m representing myself and my community and having artistic integrity. For an older white man to put this in his work when he does not have to necessarily, to not have to be accountable for these things, for him to take that choice and not only just implement it in the show, but continuously implement this from day one was the main reason why I said yes. I was like, “OK, I can fuck with this.”

Giarmo: We did modify it almost everywhere we went around the world. We added names and we changed names depending on where we were, which is really unfortunate. In America, you could pretty much find an unarmed Black person that was murdered by the police in almost every place that we toured. It was a really interesting experience. We had a lot of discussions about it on the bus at the beginning when we were on the road: where it is in the show, how it works with the show. It was a really experiential process for us. On the road, it was our last encore. It was the final song.

Kuumba: I felt like with this song specifically and with Broadway, my mom had an understanding because we had some confusions when we first went to Broadway [where they performed “Talmbout” earlier in the setlist]. Like, “No, this is supposed to be the last song. When did the switch come around?” But as we know, it’s Broadway, the Great White Way, and we’re down the street from “Lion King” and “Frozen.” My mom was just summing it up as, “It seems that he’s taking this approach and is trying to bring us through to the other side of leaving with hope.” I think on tour it was a really wonderful way of ending it because it’s very easy to get into this euphoric mindset when you go to a concert and leave feeling on cloud nine to escape your reality. Since we’re living in this home on Broadway, I think you can’t necessarily throw mud on everybody and walk away and come back the next day over and over again. In the realistic world that we live in, we know we have to hold hands and walk people through difficult moments. I think that David took it upon himself to find a way of how to come out on the other side with “One Fine Day” and “Road to Nowhere.” We’re still on a road to nowhere, but we can do this together.

GIarmo: It’s a really important message that a lot of his audience might not hear coming from someone that doesn’t look like them. David has this privilege and opportunity to maybe reach an older, white audience that wouldn’t find Janelle Monáe on their own.

Spike Lee and David Byrne at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 4.
Spike Lee and David Byrne at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 4.
Michael Loccisano via Getty Images

Enter Spike Lee

To preserve “American Utopia,” Byrne called upon Lee, who has previously filmed a Luciano Pavarotti benefit concert, “The Original Kings of Comedy” and the Broadway musical “Passing Strange.” Byrne told The New York Times he sought out Lee because of the director’s visual flair and willingness to confront social issues. Lee didn’t merely record the show, though. He immersed himself in it so the final product would feel as dynamic as possible. (Lee had to live up to the legacy of “Stop Making Sense,” the beloved Talking Heads concert film directed by the great Jonathan Demme.) So he set up overhead cameras, plotted out meticulous angles that emphasize the performers’ movements and captured the show multiple times alongside cinematographer Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). By then, the magic of the experience was evident to everyone involved.

Giarmo: I think it’s always great to talk about how long things take. Spike did come and see our show 20 times before he filmed it. He is a genius, clearly, but he also saw it 20 times. It’s a lot of work.

Kuumba: Aside from him filming the live show once, we did extra shots with a limited audience and he was really trying to get these close-cut angles that he may have felt really passionate about. It felt like we were all understanding it more once we kept going through the process of the motions. There were some actual conversations of specific angles that were being caught. I know that bird’s-eye-view angle is very beautiful and important, especially for “Burning Down the House,” to capture these beautiful formations that we do.

Giarmo: Spike Lee did tell me to wear red lipstick. I’d been doing a nudy pink. He said that wasn’t enough. It was a really exciting surprise to get that note. He was like, “I need you to have fire-engine red, FDNY red, and I need the nails to match.” I’m a drag queen, so a matte red lip is a tricky lip, for all your readers out there that may not understand the nuances. Especially a liquid lipstick. You’ve got to make sure you have the right brand, the right finish, one that’s going to last through the show. I had to experiment for a couple performances to make sure that it was the right one.

Kuumba: You would always see his glasses peeking over the edge of the stage in the corner. Like, “What is that? Oh, Spike.”

Giarmo: The icing on the damn cake was when Mavis Staples came and saw our show. Then after the show, she was just hanging out and started singing and a bunch of us just sang “Slippery People” with Mavis Staples.

Kuumba: Sometimes you just get surprised and you look at each other onstage like, “Is that who I think it is?” Bette Midler fucked my mind.

Giarmo: She had a turban and sunglasses. Seeing the film, I was thrilled to see all of the little tidbits, for lack of a better term, like the musical-theater cheesiness that we bring. I will say, at least for me, when I knew that Bette Midler was in the audience, I kicked that up a couple of octaves.

Kuumba: Michelle Obama came. I don’t think we knew until that day, though. You’ve got to know for security reasons. Sometimes it’s a really nice surprise and you just ham it up a little bit.

Giarmo: I think maybe on most Broadway shows there’s more of a fourth wall where the actors don’t look [at the audience]. We’re used to these concerts where it’s all about looking at people and connecting to individuals. On Broadway, we just did the same thing. It’s so funny. You’re looking into people’s eyes and encouraging them. At first I think people were scared. Or, “You can see me? What?” But no, you’re here too. It’s cool. Come on.

Kuumba: “Once in a Lifetime,” one moment that hit me was just from touring. I remember one show, this one kid just bawling his eyes out in the front row. It just gives such a sense of freedom onstage. We’re just shifting and moving through each other’s space, jumping and dancing with everybody in the audience. There were some really emotional moments that I captured every time we sang that song that I saw in specific audience members. And I always love to connect with other fellow Black women in the crowd that jump up and sing with me. It’s like I’m a stake in a part of this history, and it feels sweet.

These quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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