Friday, April 10, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Young star Thomas aims to shake up the dance world

Dancer and choreographer Rasta Thomas.

Rasta Thomas, one of the most talked-about dance stars in the world, is as unconventional as he is outstanding. He has been called a cross between Russian ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov for his sensuous line and fiery passion, and Chinese martial arts master Bruce Lee for his pre-ballet training, when he earned a black belt in tae kwon do.

Thomas is one of the few dance stars who succeeds as a free agent. He is in demand by companies across the United States and Europe in classical-ballet roles as well as modern-dance solos.

He made his Kravis Center debut in 2005 as special guest soloist with Miami’s International Ballet Festival. Now through Saturday, the 29-year-old appears at the Kravis Center's Rinker Playhouse with his newest venture, a breakthrough eight-member company based in Maryland called The Bad Boys of Dance. He and the troupe will perform an original, internationally acclaimed show called Rock the Ballet.

Palm Beach ArtPaper’s Sharon McDaniel talked with Thomas about the dance show shortly after the troupe returned from three weeks in Zurich, Switzerland. After the Kravis Center, the troupe performs 10 days in Helsinki, Finland.

McDaniel: How did Rock the Ballet come about?

Thomas: Several things went into the actual show, formed by Bad Boys, which was formed in 2007 at Jacob’s Pillow [dance festival in Massachusetts]. We wanted to try to get a younger audience to appreciate what we do. I got tired of seeing an older generation being the primary ticket buyer. I didn’t know how to attract a younger audience, but I thought. “It works with the boy bands! It worked for the Beatles and the Backstreet Boys!” So this is our first “album” out.

McDaniel: What is the dance like in the show, especially with music by Michael Jackson, Queen, Prince, and even Maria Callas singing Carmen?

Thomas: It’s contemporary: hip-hop, jazz, classical, pop. And the reaction first is so far, so good! This is a hybrid show that doesn’t turn off the regular theatergoer and doesn’t turn off the first-time goer either. So it’s a fine line mixing fine art and new styles. It’s a fun show, it’s athletic, and it’s exciting. It has a little libretto in the first act. And it has just great, fun dancing in the second act.

The primary mission of the actual show itself was to be a fun dance experience. Because being a professional dancer myself and having danced Swan Lake a thousand times and going to (the) Washington (Ballet), I appreciate the technique of the dancers, but at the same time, it’s so boring to me right now.

And it’s sad – I don’t know – it’s just missing something and I don’t know what it is. It’s stale. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s over 100 years old and it’s been done over and over again so many times. But it just needs a freshness. I’m not saying this is the antidote or the answer, but I got tired of doing these roles that I thought were stale, and not enjoying myself dancing, just doing it because (Rudolf) Nureyev did it before me, and (Mikhail) Baryshnikov, and this is just the way it’s done.

But at the same time, you have to take liberties and say, “Well, why am I doing this? How can I make it fun?” It’s my life, you know, and I have to wake up and look at myself every morning. So, I’m not disrespecting it: Classical ballet is what it is. It got me started, and I give great respect to (the dancers and traditions). But as we look forward, we need to, you know, make it fun, and I think this show does that. I can’t remember the last I laughed, I cheered, I clapped at a show – at a dance show, specifically. This is what I’m trying to do.

McDaniel: So why did you call it Rock the Ballet?

Thomas: I think the two words, rock and ballet, they work! They bridge that gap between what we’re trying to do. They shake things up. And it’s the kind of title that gets you interested without necessarily always knowing what it’s about. In ballet, there will be formations, the lines and the clarity. But the rock part has a more cutting-edge freshness, a more youthful approach and a more 2009 feel to it. And I think it’s just what we needed.

McDaniel: Your associate choreographer is your wife?

Thomas: Yes, the assistant artistic director and resident choreographer is my wife, Adrienne Canterna-Thomas [she also is director of the Bad Boys’ sister troupe, the Pretty Girls of Dance].

McDaniel: Congratulations, because I think you had a wedding anniversary on March 31.

Thomas: Yes, it’s the second year.

McDaniel: What’s the company’s style? How does the choreography get put together?

Thomas: The choreography gets put together by music selection. That’s the most important. And then we just try to stay true. Sometimes we’ll tend to be a character or portray an emotion – there always has to be an objective, I feel. I was told in acting you’re supposed to do everything in every scene. And when you write a script, every page is supposed to push the story forward. So I feel we sequence the steps together in a way that we feel, you know, creates an emotion or creates a picture or a scene or has purpose.

But I think every great choreographer or director thinks higher of their work than it really is! (laughs) I won’t say I have a magic touch, but I think the music is a launch pad, then tweaking the style that is fitting of that. If it has a more big-band feel, it’ll be more musical theater. If it is a love ballad, we could be more lyrical. If we dance pop, we could have a little more hip-hop in it. You try to pair it up so it works.

McDaniel: How does the show progress? Is there a story line that runs through it?

Thomas: In the first act, there is this boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story – a love story -- boy gets girl, something like that. In second act, no, we’re not trying to say this is James and Bob and Romeo and Juliet. It’s just good dancing, good music and fun. But there are two separate acts. And I think that that showcases what we can do a little more versus telling a full-length story.

Because after intermission, the audience might think oh yeah, they just got married so Romeo’s going to kill himself right after this! And we want to keep it a little more, you know, exciting and new and un-knowing. The mystery factor is important, especially when you’re trying to make something new. And I think it works, so far. (laughs)

McDaniel: At what point did you decide that putting together a show like this was something you could do and would really be the best way to showcase your own talent?

Thomas: I think I always knew it was a final destination; I just didn’t know at what point it would become a reality. I almost thought that I would be a director closer to the end of my career – maybe that is now, I don’t know (laughs). But I thought that it would be something at the last minute versus a little sooner.

But I’m thankful for it; I think it gives me a little more opportunity to figure out how I can showcase myself and how I can showcase other dancers, and how I can demonstrate and be a role model to my dancers and the dance community and continue pushing the boundaries.

McDaniel: What is the age range of the dancers you’re working with in Bad Boys?

Thomas: They’re 18-25. Just young enough where they don’t know what they’re getting into and you can work them super-hard! (laughs)

McDaniel: What is your ambition for Rock the Ballet? Would you want several casts running in several cities, like some dance shows?

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely! And if the market doesn’t call for more than this one show specifically going one place, then we’ll have time to create a second show, so at least we can have two products going out.

We’re interested in franchising one show and creating another product and franchising both. It doesn’t matter; whatever keeps us dancing and goes along with what our principles and our mission is.

The dancers are hungry, that’s the real truth, and they’re young and ambitious and, you know, they just love performing.

The Bad Boys of Dance appear tonight and Saturday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. today and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $38. Call 832-7469 or visit

From YouTube, here are the Bad Boys of Dance dancing to the Benny Goodman band recording of Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing:

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