Frank Hatchett: A Celebration of VOP

On Tuesday, April 1st Broadway Dance Center hosted a tribute celebration to the late Frank Hatchett who passed away last December.  Hatchett helped to found Broadway Dance Center in 1984 and was one of BDC’s most impressive teachers.  Hatchett was the kind of master teacher that comes along once in a lifetime, influencing the lives of each and every student he encountered.  Many considered him their “dance dad,” a supportive father figure in the challenging performing arts industry.

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As a performer, Hatchett danced with such stars as Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Pearl Bailey.  But his heart lied in teaching dance.  And truly, his classes were legendary—especially the infamous “3:30 Advanced class.” Hatchett gave attention to every dancer and would publicly call you out—for better or worse—in order to make you shine as a performer.  But above all, Hatchett wanted the best for his students.

Hatchett’s students have gone on to do great things—both as dancers and as
legacy-menhuman beings.  Many have graced the Broadway stage and Hollywood films while others have followed Hatchett’s inspiring vocation to teach.  And one thing is for sure: Hatchett didn’t teach “steps.”  He instilled in his students a sense of self by expressing emotion and overcoming challenges through movement and performance.  Hatchett was not just a teacher, but also a mentor, a father figure, and a friend.  He saw greatness in each of his students and challenged them to explore their true potential.
img_4871On Tuesday afternoon, the Symphony Space Theatre was packed with students, colleagues, and friends who have been touched by Hatchett’s passion for dance.  The nearly three hour-long performance celebration felt like a great big family reunion.  It was a sort of homecoming for all of those lives Frank touched.  Frank’s dance family—his brothers and sisters, daughters and sons—shared memories and performances that were humorous, sentimental, and moving.
img_4793After tripping up the stairs to the microphone (á la Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars), Brooke Shields described how Papa Frank nicknamed her, “Tasty B,” when she was learning to get in touch with her sexy-side in class. “I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror,” she explained, tearing up.  “I didn’t want to seem vain.”  But Frank helped her overcome her fear.  The mirror is not just a tool to see the lines and shapes of your body.  The mirror makes you see yourself: your soul and passion as a dancer.

The songs felt like spirituals.  John Eric Parker’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” was so sentimental (and also quite a contrast to the character he plays in Broadway’s The Book of Mormon).  Alyson Williams sang Bette Midler’s famous “Wind Beneath My Wings,” a poignant depiction of the teacher, mentor, and friend, Frank Hatchett; “Did you ever know that you’re my hero? …I can fly higher than an eagle, ‘cause you were the wind beneath my wings.”  And Vivian Reed concluded the performance with a virtuosic rendition of “God Bless the Child.”

The video montages were a great addition to the performances, allowing those who could not attend the event the chance to say a few words about Frank.  It was incredible to see—both on stage and on camera—the number of people who were so grateful to have had Papa Frank in their lives.  It was thrilling to recognize the influence one man had (and still has) in the lives of so many dancers and performing artists.
img_8498In ancient Greece, Aristotle characterized “good” art as that in which the audience experiences , a purgation of emotions that results in a sense of renewal and restoration.  The performance was an illustration of the power of art—not just dance, but also singing, music, speech, and film.  Art can help us to mourn, to express gratitude, to celebrate, to honor, and to heal.  This event, in my opinion, exemplified the therapeutic and magnificent power of art.In ancient Greece, Aristotle characterized “good” art as that in which the audience experiences catharsis, a purgation of emotions that results in a sense of renewal and restoration.  The performance was an illustration of the power of art—not just dance, but also singing, music, speech, and film.  Art can help us to mourn, to express gratitude, to celebrate, to honor, and to heal.  This event, in my opinion, exemplified the therapeutic and magnificent power of art.

Now, to be honest, I never took an actual class from Frank Hatchett.  But my dancing—all of our dancing—is still inspired by him, by the generation of his students-turned-teachers who are keeping his legacy alive, including Broadway Dance Center’s own Sheila Barker, Lane Napper, Robin Dunn, Michelle Barber, Heather Rigg, and Debbie Wilson.  The celebration of Frank Hatchett created a tremendous sense of family and community within the theater—a feeling, I’m sure, was a part of his classes every week.   Whether we knew Frank personally or not, it was clear to see that he has had an impact on all of our lives.

Thank you, Papa Frank, for inspiring all of us to be the best dancers we can be. 

You’ll be deeply missed, but your VOP legacy will forever live on at Broadway Dance Center.

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BDC Works: Jared Grimes

Broadway Dance Center’s Jared Grimes is not only a triple threat; he’s also a producer, director and choreographer! His unique style of blending tap, jazz, and hip-hop within his performances leaves audiences speechless. Jared has showcased his talent through nearly every facet of the entertainment world, from appearing on television shows such as FOX’s Fringe, touring with stars like Mariah Carey, and recently debuted on Broadway.

He lent his imaginative choreography to commercials for Macy’s and Chili’s, as well as appeared in commercials for Coca-Cola and Subway. He danced alongside legends like Gregory Hines and Wynton Marsalis, and even performed for President Barack Obama. Grimes gives us the chance to take a closer look into his world, and tells us more about choreographing for Cirque Du Soleil and the production of his project Broadway Underground.

What was your dance training like growing up?

My mom was actually my first teacher. I would watch her dance and think, “I want to be just like her!” So, I started off taking tap, and then I tried different styles at other dance studios.

Where did you get the idea for Broadway Underground? Can you tell us a little about it?

When I first moved to the city no one would let me perform, and it was just because no one knew who I was. It was the first couple of months that I had moved here, and I was new. I was like, damn! I called this person and he said no, or this person said that she didn’t have any space. I always wanted to create an outlet for people that gave them an opportunity to showcase their talents, whether they just moved to the city or they recently started dancing. I hoped that one day I would be able to do something like that, and the vehicle that I came up with was Broadway Underground. The whole idea was to mix my Broadway friends with people who are not on Broadway; passionate people who are just looking for a chance.

How can artists become a part of Broadway Underground?

Broadway Underground the remix is kind of like an open mic. In a way, we revolutionized the whole thing. Everybody can bring their own CDs, choreography, and costumes, and showcase their talents. I always have agents, producers, directors, and casting agents there to pick up people that are looking for an opportunity. The acts should be under three minutes each, and the first thirty numbers that sign up get to perform. Then there’s the element of putting together a show on the spot with these acts, five minutes before the show starts. I look at the list, craft the whole show and make sure that it’s all balanced. There can’t be too much of one style of dance back-to-back.

How did you get the opportunity to choreograph for Cirque Du Soleil? What has that experience been like?

They actually saw me at Broadway Underground! A long time ago we used to do it more like a choreographer showcase. It was a production of people that I would see around the city and ask to perform. They happened to come one night, and I guess that some of my material was exactly what they were thinking for their show. I want to say just two or three weeks later I was having auditions for the show. I was one of six choreographers at the time, and I ended up being the only one. Cirque Du Soleil was tough! You know when you envision such an entity, and you have so many thoughts about what it will be like before you get into it? For me, none of those were accurate. It was a lot of mountains to climb daily, in terms of what they expected and how they expected it to be. I didn’t enjoy it at times, but did enjoy at other times. So it ended up being a challenge and one of the toughest and greatest experiences at the same time. I always say if I can make it through that, I can do anything!

Do you prefer appearing in commercials or choreographing for them? What’s the difference for you?

I am a performer first and foremost. I’m really not sure how all of the choreography stuff even started. I began doing choreography in college and then through Broadway Underground, and I didn’t mind doing it for my own projects. Then my career kind of took off, and I started doing everything at the same time. In a way, I was killing many birds with one stone. It was easier to hire me to perform, choreograph, direct, produce, and even compose for one project. To me, appearing in commercials and choreographing for commercials are each their own form of freedom. When you are actually performing, you get to indulge in freedom in the moment. When you choreograph you feel that freedom for a second and then you have to live vicariously through the people that get to do it every night. It’s very bitter sweet.

What would your advice be for any artist trying to pursue a career in entertainment?

My advice would be to do as much as possible. I came to the city and thought that I was just going to be a tap dancer. Then thanks to all of the training that I had done growing up, I broke down all of the doors. The fact that I could do more than one discipline was a huge plus. So, take as many classes as possible and train as much as possible. You need to eat, sleep, breathe your dreams, and you need to be constantly thinking about how you are going to achieve them. There is no down time or time to relax. As soon as you relax, somebody passes you by. So, always keep busy and constantly work. I always say that you should practice as if you are not good; as if you suck! You should be afraid of becoming complacent. The entertainment world is one of those worlds where people become comfortable with their names or their resumes and they sometimes feel that they can relax. I think that’s unacceptable for people that are up-and-coming, and even for people that have already made it. To me, it’s about the heart and it’s about propelling the genres and taking them somewhere. Then maybe one day people will be saying your name. Duke Ellington for example; people will know who he is forever because of how hard he worked.

Who has inspired you the most throughout your career?

My two idols are Fred Astaire and Sammy Davis Jr., for very obvious reasons! My whole goal was to be a different, updated version of those two.

Can you tell us about The Jared Grimes feel?

That’s my band! It’s like Pop and R&B Jazz. We are kind of like the Dave Matthews Band. Well, we don’t play that type of music, but when you hear DMB you know that they have a signature sound. I thought it would be cool to do something where everybody kind of connected to tap and music. I always wanted to be in a band. I am one of those people who set a goal in my mind and the goal was to breakthrough into the music industry, and to change the whole landscape. Jared Grimes Feel is the name of the band because we are probably the only band where the front man can sing, write, compose, and dance as if my tap shoes were a guitar or piano. So we came up with the idea to throw a party at B.B. King Blues Club and Grill where we open up for choreographers that I admire. We do a 45-minute set, and after that we clear the table and open up the floor for the dance performances. It’s kind of like a new version of a speak easy. It’s a Vegas type of feel with a little twist, but in New York. 

Can you talk a little about your experience with After Midnight?

 It’s cool! It’s actually my first Broadway show! I’ve done a lot of regional theater shows and I am really kind of tired of doing regional. I love it, but the whole goal of regional is to hopefully do a show that comes to Broadway. I have done so many shows that haven’t, so it was kind of cool to do something that was Off Broadway but kind of seen as Regional Theater. I always thought it would be cool if it went to Broadway, but in the back of my mind I thought it probably wouldn’t. So, when the buzz started about it might go on Broadway, my good friend, who is one of the producers, brought me on as one of the choreographers. It’s been a blessing, but it’s also still kind of surreal. It really hasn’t hit me yet, because this world is so new to me. It’s a show where I can do whatever I want on stage. I almost feel guilty about that. I have hustled so much until I got to that point, so that was kind of a big payoff. I am blessed an honored and excited to see where that takes me after.

You have been a part of so many amazing projects. Is there one you’re most proud of?

I don’t think that there’s one in particular. Everything is school, and everything is a lesson. With Cirque Du Soleil, I learned how to be a crazy choreographer, with After Midnight I get the opportunity to grow every night in the show. I never look at it like I have a project; I just think about what choreographer I get to work with or how I can’t wait to work with a certain director. I see all of my projects as an opportunity to enlighten myself and those around me, and see what I can add to the pot.

What has been your most memorable TV/FILM moment?

I think it’s the movie I did, The Marc Pease Experience, with Anna Kendrick and Ben Stiller. I got to improvise with Ben Stiller for two scenes. Everyone thought that I was pretty funny, and I don’t think they expected that. Ben and I dug doing improve scenes outside of the stuff we were given to see if we could find anything. I thought he was going to be this really light, fun, loving guy on set but he’s really not. He’s funny but he’s all about the scene and devoting as much energy to the take. So, here I was all smiles ready to do a scene with him. There was a balance between his professionalism and my ambitious personality. I saw it as a challenge to not get blown out of the water, but yet add comically to the scene. The other projects that I have done are more dramatic. Its fun to do more dramatic roles because its challenging, but I enjoy comedy the most because being silly is more my true personality.

Michelle Dorrance: Artist to Watch (And Hear)

Known as one of the most sought-after tap dancers of her generation, Broadway Dance Center’s Michelle Dorrance has undoubtedly left her mark on the world of dance. When she’s not traveling the world teaching and choreographing, you can find her on stage inspiring others with her brilliant performances. Michelle’s impressive resume includes four years with the Off-Broadway show STOMP, performances with the most notable tap companies in the world, and countless festivals.

Sharing the stage with dancers such as Sam Weber and Dianne Walker, Michelle is known for her awe-inspiring, unique routines. As the winner of the 2011 Bessie Award and the 2012 Princess Grace Award, this talented dancer most recently received the 2013 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. Taking a break from her busy schedule, Michelle sat down with us to answer some questions about the Pillow Festival and what advice she shares with her students.

Can you tell us a little bit about winning the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award?

 What I can say is that it seemed absurd to me that I was going to get it. I told Ella Baff, the executive and artistic director, “are you sure there isn’t someone else you want to give this to?”  Ella is a champion for supporting a vision that encourages and promotes change in our culture. She is making sure that tap dance is a part of an institution like Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and supporting my vision for what I what to do with it. Clearly, she can acknowledge famous outstanding choreographers.  For me it’s more of an emerging artist award.

You had put together a show with the award money. What was the process like?

I have always had a huge passion for blues music and its origins. It has influenced me as an artist and a dancer for a really long time. I think tap and the blues have very similar origins and similar stories racially, socially and politically. I wanted to create a piece of work that was entirely blues based. I had worked with a musician, Toshi Reagon, in the past. She has a huge range musically and can take it in any direction. I knew she would bring the same approach to blues that I bring to tap, so I knew she’d be the perfect person to write my music. She was going to bring not just the traditional country blues, but also a more Led Zeppelin feeling. I wanted to explore that musically and I knew that we could create some emotional and political concepts together. We played on a lot of characters, emotions and abstract narrative that can bring you a feeling of different political and social ideas. Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards came on as choreographers with me. It was a godsend to be able to collaborate with some of my favorite artists and move forward with this idea I’ve had.

The list of artists who have won the Pillow Dance Award include Alonzo King, Annie P. Parson and Crystal Pite. Are there any similarities or influences these artists have had on your dancing?

Some of those people were revolutionaries and were willing to take risks in times when their names weren’t so well known. If anything they inspire me to push further.  I can relate to Kyle Abraham because we’re of the same generation. I love the messages and the content that he is bringing to the table, on top of the incredible movement. I am so humble to be in the company of such giants.

What was your dance training like growing up?

My mother was a professional ballet dancer who opened up her own dance school.  Being that my classes were all free, I studied every style of dance at first, but when I started taking tap it became my love immediately.  I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t in love with it. It came to define me, and I felt like it was who I was. It was a powerful feeling and it came much more natural to me than anything I had ever done. I feel blessed to have had my mother as a teacher. She always encouraged me and I learned a lot from her choreography.  I had another incredible teacher, Gene Medler, who had started seeking out the tap community when I was young. He opened up the tap world to not only me, but also many dancers in North Carolina where I was born.  We were exposed to all of the legendary hoofers and professional choreographers, and got the chance to attend some of the first tap festivals.  I couldn’t have asked for a better training experience.

You’ve performed in so many incredible shows with such talented artists. What was your most memorable performance experience?

That’s impossible to answer. I at least have to give you three performances! The three shows that I feel I learned a tremendous amount from are, Imagine Tap! choreographed by Derick K. Grant, STOMP and Jason Smith’s critically acclaimed Charlie’s Angels: A Tribute To Charlie Parker. Performing them is memorable in the lessons you learn along the way, and how it demands more from you as a performer.

 

You teach students all around the world. What is your advice for students who want to pursue a career in tap?

Definitely do it! First piece of advice I have is what I would tell any dancer or athlete. Practice hard and practice smart. Don’t just practice what you’re good at. Have a passionate work ethic, stay humble and never give up. Those seem to be all generic pieces of advice, but they are important. For tap specifically, make sure that you’re approaching the art form with integrity and know your history.  Know the music that has influenced tap, and the tap that has influenced history. Know the styles that have influenced tap, and the styles that tap has influenced. I think that tap is so unique. You are a musician and a dancer and you are responsible for the music that is coming from your feet.  Also, remember that it is an art form because too many people try to lump it into just a form of entertainment.

Do you encourage your students to take other styles of dance?

Yes, you have to know your body, that’s huge! Tap predates all other American street styles and influenced House, Lindy Hop, Boogie, etc. There are so many different movements along the way inside of tap.  You can learn more about yourself physically when you push yourself to do other styles. It gives you a chance to discover why you make certain choices in your tap dancing.

You founded Dorrance Dance in early 2011. What was your vision behind the company?

What I wanted to do was to honor tap’s tradition, incredible legacy and the art form, while pushing it and exploring it rhythmically, aesthetically and conceptually. I never want to abandon its roots, and at the core of what I am, it’s impossible. I know a lot of people who try to take risks and push something in a new direction and sometimes they lose the core of what it is. That I can say will never happen. I had these incredible dancers and too many ideas that excited me. I had too many concepts in which I wanted to kind of show off. I love being able to use tap dancers that have other forms in their bag because it allows you to explore more. For my company it happens organically.

What do you look for in a dancer?

I look for incredibly hard working, inspiring dancers who practice with performance integrity.  There is a dancer that I work with that always stands out to me in rehearsals.  This guy is never less than full out in rehearsal and everyone should practice like that.  I have never once had to ask him to step it up.  I also look for strong improvisers as well as soloists who are interested in creating group energy, and being a part of whatever my vision is choreographically.  I am inspired to work with a dancer who has a unique personality and that is very different. I don’t want a specific body type.  I like the grittiness and the rawness of a bunch of unique dancers, characters and personalities working together. They might have to all do the same thing, but none of them are going to look the same.  I think it’s very powerful as dance and theatre to be moved by a group of diverse people.

How can dancers become a part of Dorrance Dance?

I don’t have actual auditions for the company, but my advice would be to come to class!  I have literally watched students grow in class and saw them attain a new skill set and new level. Whenever you can be connected to someone’s learning process and feel their connection in a room, that’s the first thing to lead you to want to work with them. In a classroom setting you get to know who someone is. People always ask me if there’s a certain skill that they need to know. I want someone with his or her own unique style; I don’t want a bunch of me’s running around!

How would you say that your choreography differs from other tap choreography?

That’s hard for me to say. I don’t know, I think I just manifest my influences a little differently than others.  I have friends who are choreographers, but what comes out of us is very different. With any given choreography, the collections of influences that go into a piece are what make a difference. Lets say one thing that will influence it is that my dancer is 6 foot 8, another thing is a cartoon, and another thing is a really sad song that I used to listen to in high school.

Longchamp scores a SLAM-dunk

Contemporary jazz teacher, Slam, has made his mark on nearly every aspect of the industry from documentary film to the Broadway stage and from international pop tours to memorable TV commercials.  If you’ve watched television or opened a fashion magazine in the past year and a half, you’ve probably seen Longchamp’s campaign starring Coco Rocha.  And who else would be the mastermind behind the movement than BDC’s own Slam!


slamWhat was your dance training like growing up?

I started training to be a classical dancer at age 13. I went to the Royal Ballet School in Antwerp, a school with total of only 100 students.  We danced all day and then had 2 hours of academics – Kind of like the Fame school but just for ballet. It was very strict but I’m very happy I did it because it actually made me the dancer that I am today and taught me to be disciplined. Growing up, I would also take a lot of Jazz dance classes at night. But before dancing, I had a big passion for gymnastics. I was obsessed with Nadia Comaneci…but then realized guys don’t get music on the floor exercise so that was a deal breaker for me.


img_1164When did you begin auditioning and teaching?

I guess I started auditioning at age 13 because I had to audition to get into the ballet school. But my first real audition for work I would say was at age 19.  I used to love going to dance auditions, I remember when I didn’t have the money for class I would just go to auditions to stay in shape – it’s free class!  I started giving classes a couple years after, but the actual teaching the classes came much later.

How did you land the job as choreographer for the Longchamp commercial?

Madonna called them. Just kidding!  The ad agency approached me.  They saw some of my previous work in fashion – Wella, German Vogue, and my recent Glamour Issue with Anne Hathaway – and they were aware of my work.  So the producer contacted me and I had a couple meetings with them, I also had a dance rehearsal with Coco Rocha (who happens to be an amazing dancer and we clicked right away).  Everything kind of fell in its place and all of our creative energies totally worked together. I’m also sure my expertise in working with women and making them look beautiful was a big help, too. I have experience choreographing a lot fashion productions.  In April we just wrapped my second season with Longchamp, shot in NYC with Coco.  I think they released some photos of the print ad already and the commercial should be out soon. Stay tuned!

From a choreographer’s standpoint how’s choreographing a commercial different from choreographing a live performance?

It is different but I enjoy both!  Choreographing a commercial feels a little bit busier, more spontaneous because half of the time you are still choreographing on set (as it becomes more of a meeting of the minds with the art director). But I like that; I like that nervous energy and constantly changing energy. And also when shooting film, you have more options as far as editing.  As a choreographer you can make different versions and edits.  It is stressful, though, with all the different voices on set. But overall, it’s pretty amazing.

Choreographing a live performance feels more structured.  The rehearsal schedule is set up upfront.  When you have organized rehearsals I feel like you have more time to play around with choreography and also get to know the performers more.  It feels a little more intimate to me because you get to connect with your audience on an almost spiritual level.  And what I love about a live performance is its honesty, it’s either good or bad – there’s no editing process!


img_0519What was it like working with models like Coco Rocha and Liisa Winkler?

Amazing! They were both a pleasure.

Lisa comes from a dance background as well; she used to be a ballet dancer in a ballet company in Canada. I liked her innocence.  I didn’t even get to rehearse with her in a studio –  She flew in from Canada straight to JFK terminal 5 where we shot the Longchamp “You Should Be Dancing” commercial! We only rehearsed on set but she did great.

Working with Coco is amazing too, I always call her “the Martha Graham of modeling.” She does it all.  Coco takes amazing direction and it is incredible to work with a true supermodel. And on top of all that she’s the sweetest and most humble person.

Coco has danced before – she was an Irish dancer growing up and she has danced in commercials for Black House White Market and in flash mobs for Fashion’s Night Out. How do you think dance experience helps one as a model?

Everything is movement these days.  As you’ve probably heard, “In fashion, one day you’re in and the next day you are out!”

So if you are a model with dance experience, like in Coco’s case, you’re going to work more. I think it’s going to be more inspiring for the photographer and the client to have a model who can play different parts through her movement and follow direction. But then again, I also like working with models that can’t move at all!  It becomes a challenge for both of us. There’s something raw about their dance inexperience and it captures a different (but still good) energy. I actually encourage  a lot of models – both aspiring and established –  to take a dance class… it’ll most definitely help them out on set, at a casting or anywhere they need to “move.”

I saw you on this season of “The Face” where you led models in a dance/movement challenge. What did you look for when you chose the winner of that challenge?

This was actually a great opportunity to show how dance influences fashion these days.  I looked at each model’s energy, how quickly she picked up direction, her willingness to learn, and her inspiration.  But as it turned out, the girls that had a harder time moving (but still sort of went for it and threw themselves into the challenge) actually photographed great!


0Is choreographing for models different than choreographing for dancers since you have to focus on featuring a specific product?

Yes it is different with models.  The product is the most important. You will have a really good take of a dance section but the product (in this case, the purse) wasn’t turned the right way or flap wasn’t facing up. So a lot times they go with the take we’re the product looked the best and maybe the performance was a bit less.  I must say the energy on a fashion set is different then on a film commercial set with dancers In Fashion there are no rules, you just go!  For example, you will start at 9am until 3am and the next day you start again at 9am again!  But the choreography itself is basically still a creation from the choreographer… so the difference  between choreographing for models  is that you are choreographing around a specific product or message. In dance, you are a bit freer as an artist to take the audience where you want to go.

Check out the television commercials here:
“You Should Be Dancing”
The Making of “You Should Be Dancing”

Josh Bergasse is simply SMASH-ing

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The American musical-drama, SMASH, might be over, but choreographer, Josh Bergasse, isn’t going anywhere.  The long-time Broadway Dance Center teacher landed the coveted choreography job when the show premiered back in early 2012.  In his numerous pieces such as “The National Pastime,” “Let’s Be Bad,” and “Ce N’est Pas Ma Faute,” Bergasse brings the energy and awe of live theatre to the television screen.  Called the “secret weapon” of SMASH, Bergasse went on to win the 2012 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Choreography.  Take a look at BDC’s exclusive interview with Josh and check back on our website to see when Josh will be teaching at the studio again this summer.

BDC: What was your dance training like growing up?

JB: I grew up at my mother’s dance studio just outside of Detroit.  I put my first pair of tap shoes on at the age three and I was hooked.  I studied mostly jazz and tap in the early years, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I studied ballet seriously.  Looking back, I wish I’d been in ballet class much sooner.

BDC: When did you begin auditioning and teaching?

JB: I began auditioning locally in Michigan for small shows and industrials as a teenager.  That’s when I started teaching at my mom’s school as well, which gave me the opportunity to explore different choreographic styles.  My first NYC audition was for a tour of WEST SIDE STORY.  I booked the job and toured for two years.  Shortly after that tour ended I started teaching at Broadway Dance Center.  That was 15 years ago…feels like yesterday.

BDC: How did you get connected with SMASH as actual choreographer and acting as the choreographer on the show?

JB: I was brought on board as choreographer for SMASH by Michael Mayer, the director of the first three episodes and a Consulting Producer.  Michael directed me in a musical in the past, but had never seen my choreography until an NYU benefit two-and-a-half years ago.  Soon after, we started working on SMASH together.  Once we were in rehearsals for the pilot, Theresa Rebeck, the creator of SMASH, asked if I’d play the assistant choreographer.  Of course I said “yes!”  I never thought it would be a recurring part.  I was always surprised when I read each new script and there was a line for “Josh” in it.

BDC: You’ve choreographed for a lot of live theatre in the past – how was choreographing for a TV show different?  Do you prefer one over the other?

JB: Since most of the pieces I choreographed for SMASH were theatrically based, there wasn’t much difference in choreographing for TV.  I’d say the main difference is in theater you craft every moment perfectly in rehearsal so that the audience follows the action and story exactly as you want them to from any seat in the theater.  For television, much of the work is done in the editing room.  The more footage you get, the more options you have in postproduction.

images2BDC: How has your work with SMASH (and your Emmy award!) influenced your career as a choreographer?

JB: SMASH has been a wonderful lesson in the importance of collaboration.  My assignment is to work with the producers, writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, and of course the cast, to develop the choreography that best serves the show.  The visibility of the show (and the Emmy award!) has certainly opened new doors for me as a choreographer.  It’s so important for choreographers to get their work out to the public so people to see it.  SMASH has done that for me.

BDC: What impact do you think SMASH had on both the dance and theatre communities?

JB: I like to think that SMASH has made more people across the country interested in dance and theater.  Not everyone has the means to go to New York and see a Broadway show, but everyone has a TV or access to the Internet.  Hopefully it created a spark in people to go see theater or dance where they live, or even become a dancer or actor.

BDC: You recently choreographed New York City Center’s Encores! performance of “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman.”  What other projects do you have coming up?
images3JB: Right now I’m in the Berkshires choreographing “On The Town” at Barrington Stage Company.  Next up is a developmental workshop of the new musical “Bull Durham” and then the new musical “Secondhand Lions” at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle.

BDC: We know you’re very busy…but will you be returning to teach at BDC soon?

JB: I hope to get back to BDC this summer for at least a few weeks.

Luam Keflezgy…this girl is on fire!

images1Attention! Attention!  Luam is back teaching at Broadway Dance Center! A long-time Hip-Hop teacher at BDC, Luam has danced and toured for many recording artists before choreographing for stars like Britney Spears, Beyonce, Kelly Roland, Carly Rae Jepson, Rihanna, and countless commercials and industrials. A truly inspiring teacher, Luam is also a popular mentor for BDC’s ISVP, Training Program, and Professional Semester students. She’s recently back after serving as choreographer and artistic director of Alicia Keys’ new “Set the World on Fire” tour.  In between her busy schedule, BDC blogger, Mary Callahan, sat down to interview Luam about her experience working on the Alicia Keys tour and what she looks for when hiring dancers.

What was your dance training like growing up?

I was born in East Africa and grew up in Philadelphia, Cali, and Seattle. My family lives in Seattle but I came to New York for college.  Dance was actually not a part of my life until after college.  I was planning on going to medical school.  When I graduated I had a lot of freedom to take classes…and I was hooked!  I said, “I’ll do this for now and then go back to school.”  But I never went back…I couldn’t go back!

It’s kind of funny – I initially began taking dance exercise classes at the local gyms.  Soon after, I quickly found Broadway Dance Center and Djoniba Dance center.  I then realized I needed a better dance foundation if I wanted to pursue this.  I could do African dance and hip hop, but I needed to understand dance as a whole to be a versatile dancer.  So I started taking classes at Ailey and Steps in addition to jazz and ballet classes at BDC.

When did you begin auditioning and teaching?

I was training, training, training, and then started performing in different showcases and eventually danced for artists.  The music industry was totally different back then – there was a lot of work for dancers in New York, big and small.  And this was before any dance agencies were around.  You just went out and did your thing.  It was a small but tight dance community and everything was word of mouth.

At the same time, I was also teaching and developing my classes.  Having trained in African dance in college, I started teaching hip hop at New York Sports Club, Djoniba Dance Center, and then at BDC which was a big honor.  As I developed my choreography while teaching I also began getting small choreography gigs that built my repertoire, experience, and credibility.

How did you get choreography jobs without an agent?

People would see my work and seek me out.  Nowadays I get work through my agency as well, but as choreographers we still shoulder a lot of the responsibility.  You have to become visible by getting your work out there and marketing your “brand.”  You really have to “build your own buzz.”

You’ve really choreographed everything: music videos, tours, commercials, and live events.  Is one type more challenging or more enjoyable as a choreographer? 

It’s not the type that determines difficulty but rather the situation – the conditions that you’re working in.  For example, you may have to change everything on the spot due any number of reasons, or the song arrangement may change last minute, or you artist may not even be able to attend rehearsals…but you still make the artist and performance look flawless.  Situational challenges come up with any type of job whether it’s for the stage, TV, or a commercial.  For me, I love being diverse and working on different projects.  I welcome that challenge.  But I especially love choreographing to music that I enjoy.  If I get to work with music that inspires me, that’s icing on the cake!

What is it like to work with vocal artist who are not necessarily trained dancers?

You have to understand what their goal is, who their market is, and how you can push them to be fresh and new (but still true to their “brand”).  Most vocal artists are not dancers, but they are performers.  It’s about creating a visual around them.  While the artist is telling the story through their music, the story is actually unfolding around them.  But the singer is participating!  Even if they cannot dance a single step, they can walk to the right, walk to the left, look at somebody, look over there, and then they become involved.  You have to be clever about the choices you give them.

I walk in to rehearsals and I get to know how the artist moves.  My goal is to push the artist to be the best at what they do rather than imposing something totally different upon them (unless they are a dancer and then they might want to explore or challenge themselves through new styles of movement).  It’s not about the steps, ever.  It’s about the visual, the feeling, and the total performance.  And you have to be ready to sacrifice.  You can choreograph an entire routine and you have to be ready to say, “Let’s cut it all” because it’s just not working.  You have to put the artist’s agenda over your own.  You have to match the artist.


images2You just finished directing and choreographing for Alicia Keys’ new tour, “Set the World on Fire.”  What is it like being a choreographer for a tour?  Who do you “report” to?

It really depends.  Usually if you’re a choreographer you report to the creative director and show director (though the overall boss of any artists’ project is the artist!).  On this last tour [Alicia Keys] I was both the choreographer and show director and worked alongside the creative director so it was a little more complicated. Also I worked pretty closely with Alicia to make sure the heart and message of the show was on point as she’s such an organic musician and artist. Choreographing eventually became the last thing I did.  I was more concerned with the movement of the stage, changing musical arrangements, the timing of the LEDs, the way the piano was coming in, shooting the content for the back screen, etc etc. I also had an assistant choreographer/artistic director, Jemel McWilliams, who was brilliant and talented and together we kept each other positive enough to handle all creative challenges.

It’s both beautiful and daunting when the artist looks to you for guidance and her team trusts you with the vision. If something doesn’t work, it’s on you!  That’s what directing or choreographing is about really, being able to make the vision come alive no matter what is happening around it. I’m a planner so I was super prepared but that went out the window! The show was a living, organic thing, and evolved as such… So you have to stay flexible when logistical and technical elements change and people look to you for next steps. It’s about being able to manage the changing elements and people and keeping the vision alive. By the way, there’s no time to vet anything, you have to trust your instincts and go! It works out as long as you stay positive, inspired and keep the people around you the same, and I’m very lucky to have worked with such a positive & talented team.  Alicia herself is such a phenomenal spirit, her continued grace always kept me wanting to give my best, my all.

Do you get to go on the tour, too?

I did go for the first few cities, I pretty much stayed with the show until I felt we found our final stage movement, choreography, and lighting.  Jemel is still there to make sure everything’s running smoothly, and is dancing as well.  At this point I’ll check in for maintenance, tweaks, and to keep things fresh.

What do you look for when hiring dancers?

My advice for dancers? Be a very consistent and confident dancer who can represent the choreography as it is taught but still have a great style in the execution.  Performing with your own style is great, but just be careful not to overdo it, you have to add to the vision, not distract from it.

For the past eight months I found myself hiring dancers quite frequently. With not a lot of time for auditions, I preferred to pull dancers that I knew would do well and matched the physical requirements for the artists. Luckily, being a teacher and choreographer in the community allowed me to be familiar with the dance community. When I do hold auditions, I have to be very efficient.  For Alicia I was constantly looking for tall, strong, masculine male dancers because she’s a mature woman with a family and not a young pop star.  I posted a height and body-type specification on the casting notice.  At times dancers would come who were not we asked for and it sometimes became frustrating. I tell dancers to be mindful of that. You may leave a bad impression if you “crash” an audition where you know you’re not the right type. It complicates things for the choreographer a lot of times. But if you fall in the category that works well for the artist, do your best!

Above all, exude confidence (even if you’re nervous), know your body, dress presentable and fashionable, be consistent and solid, and be respectful.  Give them everything you’ve got!  We can tell if you really care about an audition.  Your energy and spirit that you bring into the room can tell a lot about how you will be on the job.  I am excited to hire you and I want to see that you’re excited to do what you love too!

You said that you often don’t have time to audition dancers because gigs pop up so quickly.  Do you ever hire dancers directly from your classes?

The thing is, I want my class environment to be primarily a learning environment.  But I have students who have trained with me for years and if I need a dancer and they’re the right type, of course I’ll recommend them. I think hard work should be rewarded.  But those students weren’t just coming to my class to “get seen,” I’ve watched them grow and train for a long time in my class and in the dance community in New York.  Coming to a class to “audition” isn’t the right attitude for me (come to learn!)…but at the same time, it is good to be “seen” in the dance community.  My class is a part of the greater New York dance community and I want New York dancers to work.  And it’s not just in class. I am always looking for dancers, for talent, for students to mentor.  People should just be giving it their all in class and leaving the rest to the universe. Give freely of yourself to your dance classes, dance teachers, and the dance community.  You’ll be surprised at what will come back to you…

What is it like to be a New York-based commercial choreographer?

I feel very grounded here.  It’s my home.  No matter what’s happening in the music industry, I know I’ll always have myself, my home, here in New York.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the desires of chasing things in the industry, and I try to keep myself from that.  I want my home to be a place where I can reconnect with myself.  I really enjoy LA, but if I travel to LA, it’s for work or pleasure, not to live.  If I lose a few jobs because I’m not there quick enough, so be it. I have me!

“When you have a passion, there is no choice but to follow it, fight for it.  Make it your life’s work…because when you love what you do, you live your destiny.” – Luam

Check out this video from behind the scenes with Luam and Alicia Keys!

Luam’s class schedule:

Advanced Beginner Hip-Hop – Tuesdays 4:30-6:00pm

Intermediate Hip-Hop – Fridays 4:30-6:00pm

Intermediate Advanced Hip-Hop – Tues./Thurs. 9:00-10:30pm and Saturdays 6:00-7:30pm

A lover of music of all genres, Luam adores teaching and choreography and brings to her Hip-Hop classes a fusion of Hip-Hop, street jazz, African, and dancehall. She pushes her students to pair their inner grooves with precision and emotion while exploring the rhythms and lyrics of the music. In her classes ‘the music drives the movement’.

Baby, Dream Your Dream: Lainie Munro wins AUDELCO Award

images1Broadway Dance Center would like to congratulate theater and tap teacher, Lainie Munro, who won the 2012 AUDELCO Award for Best Choreography for her production of “Sweet Charity” at the New Haarlem Arts Theater.

The AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee, Inc.) Awards “promote recognition, understanding and awareness of the arts in the African-American community”.

“Sweet Charity” tells the nostalgic tale of Charity Hope Valentine, a dance hall hostess who remains a cock-eyed optimistic despite her history of not so wonderful  relationships.  The New Haarlem Arts Theater transformed this classic tale of hope and heartache into a more edgy and contemporary show, complete with Caridad, a Latina “Charity.”

Munro’s choreography received rave reviews from Playbill, Theater Mania, and the New York Times.  She focused on the classic Fosse jazz style, characteristic of traditional “Sweet Charity” productions, but added Latin flavor and pizazz for what critics praised as “vibrant,” “sharp,” and “exhilarating” dancing.

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Click here to learn about Lainie’s work with the Broadway Big Brother/Big Sister Program!

BDC Faculty Featured in Dance Publications

Be sure to check out BDC contemporary jazz teacher, Mishay Petronelli, in the October 2012 issue of Dance Spirit Magazine.  In the magazine’s “Style Lab: The Look” section, Mishay is featured for her eye-catching personal style.

In the article, Mishay advises, “Couple unique items with something classic.  Always remember the importance of creating clean, strong lines.  Make choices that will flatter you in the particular style you’re dancing.  And, of course, always be yourself.”

Mishay teaches Contemporary Jazz classes at Broadway Dance Center but has trained in nearly every dance style from commercial to ballet to tap!  She performed in Whitney Houston’s “Million Dollar Bill” music video, Madonna’s “Gimme All Your Luvin” music video, on “Saturday Night Live” with Kanye West, and in commercials for Converse and Verizon.  Mishay is currently a member of Dana Foglia’s dance company.

“Mishay Petronelli is probably the most inspirational person I have ever met. The way she dances and choreographs is out of this world! She truly cares about each student equally and strives to make every dancer improve. After taking Mishay’s class I feel as though I grow as a dancer. She always pushes me to be my best! Mishay Petronelli’s class is incredible and I highly recommend it!” – Makenzie Dascenzo (PS F’12)

“What I loved about Mishay her classes is her eye for detail. Although it was really hard for me to do exactly the thing she wanted she made me want to get her way of moving. She also made me watch better when a teacher was showing something so I could figure out the details myself. Mishay was my mentor, a great teacher and a very inspiring dancer, and I just really like her as a person and dancer!” – Nathalie Bilderbeek (ISVP ’11)

Here is Mishay’s choreography from the 2012 NYC Gala Opening Number of The Pulse: On Tour:

And wait, there’s more! Did you see BDC’s own Matthew Powell featured in Dance Informa?  The extensive article recounts Matthew’s journey from aspiring young dancer, to American Ballet Theater company member, to “A-Rab” in the International Tour of “West Side Story,” to a successful graduate of LEAP, and finally, to acclaimed NYC ballet teacher.

Matthew admits that a strong sense of balance (no ballet pun intended) is much to that for his successful career.  “You have to have a good network of support around you…if you don’t, people will see that and it’ll show in your work too.”

The article explains, “Despite his undeniable success as a performer, it is evident that Powell thrives most with being a teacher. He has a boyish charm and calm demeanor that provides a very welcoming feeling for anyone who takes his class. “

Matthew teaches six ballet classes per week at Broadway Dance Center – Advanced Beginning, Intermediate, and Intermediate/Advanced.  Matthew also has taught/currently teaches at Marymount Manhattan College, the International Tour of “West Side Story,” Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, The Rock School, Brooklyn Ballet, “Billy Elliot” on Broadway, and Ballet Academy East.

“Matthew Powell is a teacher for all students. He has the ability to light a fire underneath you and give you a class full of vitality, substance and liveliness. He offers classes that literally replenish you and leave you with the confidence that you worked hard. It’s very rare to come across a teacher who not only pushes you to perform to the best of your abilities but inspires you to succeed, as well. I would encourage everyone to take his class.” – Alexa Erbach (PS F’11)

Here is a short clip of Matthew’s teaching shot for Dance Teacher Web:

Happy We’ll Be – Al Blackstone

After a much needed catch-up session at Blockheads Burritos, Jason Aquirre (PS S’12), Molly Day (PS S’12) and I headed over to the Roseland Ballroom for the much-aniticipated “Happy We’ll Be,” a dance narrative choreographed by Al Blackstone.  Al is a beloved guest teacher at Broadway Dance Center – just see what some students have to stay:

I have always subscribed to the notion that Al is the ultimate storyteller. Even in class, he brings a magical element to his teaching. The beauty of his movement and narrative is only matched by the warmth and compassion of his heart. – Alexa Erbach (PS F’11)

His class without a doubt always lifts my spirits. The energy he exudes is extraordinary and so motivational. – Nikki Croker (PS F’11)

Al was the 2011 recipient of the Capezio A.C.E Award (Dance Teacher Summit), which “is a great opportunity for emerging choreographers to expose their work to one of the most influential audiences in dance.”  Check out Al’s winning piece, “Brown Eyed Girl.”

As part of their prize, A.C.E Award winners receive a grant to fund their own dance production in New York City.  And thus, “Happy We’ll Be” was born…and for that, we are so happy!

The show is a full-length “dance narrative,” no dialogue – just music and dance.  The show takes a bit after the concept of “6 degrees of separation” (“Six degrees of separation is the theory that anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries.”) In a sort of ripple effect, one character meets and affects another character, who affects another, and so on.  But, only the audience gets to see the full picture.

Each new dance scene witnesses a character’s own pursuit of happiness. ie:

  • A teenaged girl learning to walk in heels to impress her school crush.
  • A man planning to propose to his girlfriend.
  • A young gay man looking for support from his family.

We are all connected in our pursuit of happiness and we all play a role in making others happy.

Al’s latest project is a full-length dance production that defies the convention of any other show you have ever seen. “Happy We’ll Be” is an inexplicable account of love, loss, kindness, wonder and hope. It penetrates the center of our hearts and delves into the source of individual happiness, taking the audience on an unforgettable journey that forces us to marvel at the exquisite beauty in the smallest moments of our own lives. “Happy We’ll Be” is a revivifying reminder that love can be found beyond a lover’s embrace. It reminds us that love is rooted in the slightest touch of a hand, the help of a friend, the kindness of a stranger, and the affection of a parent. – Alexa Erbach

[excerpt from Al Blackstone’s resume]

…My heart’s been stolen.