Ten years ago, Rasta Thomas was hailed as one of the most promising young dancers in America.
He was 21, classically trained, and had the charisma and stage presence of a performer 10 years his senior. Having swept through the lists of ballet’s most prestigious prize ceremonies, cleaning up at each one, Thomas set out to find the company that he could call home. More specifically, he looked for the choreographer who would push him to become the dancer he and everyone else knew he could be.
“I dreamed of finding the next level, of meeting my Alvin Ailey or Robert Joffrey. I met with many masters, but I didn’t end up working with any of them permanently. I couldn’t find my own company for some reason,” explained Thomas in a recent interview.
After many seasons as a guest of internationally renowned troupes, Thomas came to a realization. “In 2007, I wanted to start a group to push the boundaries of male dancers. I took people like Nijinsky, Nureyev and Fred Astaire as inspiration. I didn’t feel, as an American, that I was being taken seriously. I felt ashamed saying that I was a dancer because dance isn’t appreciated,” he said.
Fueled by the desire to do something unique, Thomas gathered together a few colleagues, other male dancers who had the spark he felt was necessary to win over audiences. Together with his partner, choreographer Adrienne Canterna, Thomas began working on a new show, Rock the Ballet, which will take the stage at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center next week.
“Adrienne and I had to decide what to do – continue guesting, as we had both been doing, or try to strike out on our own. I was 26, Adrienne was 24, and we said we wanted to try doing our own thing.
We started our company, The Bad Boys of Dance, to be the Backstreet Boys, The Rolling Stones or The Beatles of dance. Our first album was called Rock the Ballet,” he said.
At the time, Canterna and Thomas’s relationship, both professionally and personally, was at a tipping point. With their daughter on the way and a new company in tow, the dazzling duo took their cast to Hamburg, where Rock the Ballet would eventually open.
“It was a crazy time. She was running around choreographing, six months pregnant. But we opened, and the show was sold out,” he said.
One of the biggest assets that Rock the Ballet has is its accessibility to a wide audience. The show features seven of the most virtuoso dancers on today’s stages – six men and one woman. Unlike many contemporary companies, The Bad Boys of Dance have entertainment in mind at every turn. Their musical choices reflect a desire to use pop culture in their endeavors rather than turn away from it. And, as they say, the proof has been evident in the pudding.
With more than 200 shows booked each year since the opening in 2007, Rock the Ballet has established that a little Michael Jackson never hurt anyone.
“This is show business, first and foremost,” said Thomas. “I’m an artist. I was trained in Vaganova ballet my whole life. But ballet is a dying art form, and something has to change. Abstract contemporary dance is unfair to the audience. It is 100 percent imperative to put the audience’s enjoyment first. Within what they allow you to do, you give them as much art or commerciality as you can. The truth is that contemporary dance can be entertaining. Ballet can be entertaining. All dance can be entertaining.”
Though the audiences have supported Thomas’s beliefs in their repeated attendances and standing ovations, there are those that have been slower to hop on the bandwagon.
“The critics hate us, the traditionalists despise us. But I think that’s part of being a revolutionary.
When people look back on this point in the century, they’ll see the things that were changing,” he said.
Rock the Ballet will run at the Jerusalem Theater on October 31; the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center (www.israel-opera.co.il) on November 1 through November 5; the Haifa Auditorium on November 7; and at the Beersheba Performing Arts Center on November 8. For tickets, visit www.bimot.co.il.