In October 2015, the five male dancers in Shenandoah Conservatory’s 55-major-student dance program experienced something special – they performed at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theatre as part of the NY Jazz Choreography Project. Their piece: “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” choreographed by Visiting Associate Professor of Jazz Dance Bob Boross, M.A.
The Alvin Ailey theatre is perhaps the best-known small dance space in New York City, and the performance allowed the dancers – Shannon Giles ’15, Michael Ross ’18, Christopher Saunders ’17, Deontay Gray ’17, and Nikolaous Hartnett ’19 – to rub shoulders and network with others from the industry, Boross said. “There’s a little bit of pressure,” in performing at such an event and venue, Boross noted. “The stakes are a little bit higher.”
(Video use granted by Jazz Choreography Enterprises Inc. Anthony Bellov, videographer)
Danced to the Billy Joel song of the same name, the piece is a work of musical theatre-style jazz, Boross said. “It’s very smooth and it’s slinky, and it’s got a jazzy, cool feeling.” The vibe is kind of like the Frank Sinatra-led “Rat Pack,” but a little tougher; a little edgier, he said.
“I’ve never done that style of jazz before,” Hartnett said. “It was a wonderful experience.” And while the style is one of seamless movement, that look isn’t easy to achieve and make look natural, Giles said. “Everything is very sharp and clean,” in the style, Saunders said.
The five were the only dancers in the piece, and “dancing together was a first for most of us,” Giles said, making for an excellent experience. “The bond between the five guys is something nice,” he added. “We could feed off each other’s energy,” Saunders said.
For Ross, who said dance helps him express himself while still remaining private, the piece allowed him to take on a “tough” stage persona that’s unlike himself. In the piece, the dancers’ actions reflect the lyrics, and shed light on a band of guys trying to look cool in all circumstances. Watching the dancers is impressive. “They have a charisma that you want to follow,” Boross said.
The piece received accolades in the online journal Critical Dance, and the performance netted “a very good response” from the New York audience, Boross said. One audience member thanked them for keeping the dance’s style of jazz alive, Saunders recalled.
Barbara Angeline, in the piece “Jazz Dance – Then, Now and Always” writes of the performance, “The dancers layered their cool over magnificent, angular jazz lines, eloquently capturing both small, restrained articulations of limb and larger, charging escapes across the stage. It was stirring to see the camaraderie of the suave, all-male cast.”
While all the students featured in the piece want to pursue a career in dance, that career path isn’t necessarily the culmination of a dream they each began to have in very early childhood. The same goes for Boross, who in high school, was a state champion prep school league wrestler and started college as a pre-med major. Then, he participated in a performance of “West Side Story” that prompted him to change his mind, take some time off and re-evaluate his goals.
“I started dance because of a dare,” said Ross, who before experiencing dance was into soccer and track. Gray’s focus was on instrumental and vocal expression in high school. He didn’t take his first dance class until he attended community college. Now, “Every day I wake up, if I’m not dancing, I’m not leaving the house.”
Hartnett was an avid soccer player who he grew curious about his sister’s dance class. Once exposed to the discipline, he was hooked. “I loved every bit of it – the movement, the music.”
And obviously, dance is a physical expression of thought and emotion, meaning it requires great strength. Oftentimes, people don’t see the athleticism of dance, Gray said. But it’s definitely an important characteristic. “It’s a sport,” he said. “We’re athletes.”
“We train so hard to make it look easy,” Hartnett said.
Check out a “Big Man on Mulberry Street” rehearsal:
While the men of Shenandoah’s dance division may not have started out as dancers in the fashion often associated with the field (a love of dance from the preschool years, etc.) they’re following a pattern well-worn by leaders in the dance world. Many of the most well-known jazz choreographers got what the casual observer would call a late start.
“They all started in college,” said Boross, whose devotion to the dance style he loves is taking him to Russia this month (January 2016), where he’ll be the guest jazz and musical theatre dance teacher at the Boris Eifman Dance Academy and the newly opened Phil LaDuca Russian Broadway Dance Center, both located in St. Petersburg. Designated as a “cultural specialist,” his residency is sponsored by the United States Department of State. Named after Phil LaDuca (the first American to teach theatre dance in Russia in the 1980s), the Phil LaDuca Dance Center is a new initiative to train Russian dancers for a burgeoning Broadway musical theatre movement in Russia. Boross is the first American theatre dance teacher invited to teach.
And, just to think, when he started his university studies, even Boross didn’t know yet that he wanted to dance.
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