Forty years after cameras first captured John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John hand-jiving their way across Rydell High, Grease still stands as a stunningly choreographed crowd-pleaser. The woman behind its mobile magic? Choreographer Patricia Birch, who celebrated her contributions to both the stage and screen versions of Grease on Thursday night, when the original 1978 film screened in 35mm at the Metrograph as part of the Academy’s ongoing residency.
Following the screening at the Lower East Side cinema, Birch, in conversation with Patrick Harrison, the Academy’s director of New York programs and membership, revealed that she re-watched Grease just a week ago in preparation. Now, though, when Birch takes in the film, “I watch it not as me. I just watch it.” So she’s not following the blocking with eagle eyes, wishing that dancer on the right would have hit that last count more sharply? “No. I did that way back. That was then. Now it is what it is.”
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Of Travolta and Newton-John, with whom Birch says she’s stayed in touch over the years, she recalled that Newton-John took direction very well, while John was quite simply a “natural mover.” “Oh my God,” she continued. “You don’t have to do much there.”