- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

In the dance world, it is mostly men who run things — they’re the directors, presenters and choreographers. But on dance stages, the audience sees a preponderance of women. Fine male performers are a rare breed.

The imbalance starts early. Mothers are happy if their daughters display a talent in dance, while fathers squirm if their sons do. So girls trip off to dance studios, and boys usually don’t.

As a result, a local company such as CityDance has almost an embarrassment of riches in its female ranks, but good male dancers have been in short supply.

The times may be a-changing. CityDance is presenting a program this weekend with the accent on men. Next weekend, Dance Place is coming up with its Men’s Project — two programs of works created by some of Washington’s outstanding choreographers.

Trying to strengthen the masculine component in CityDance, director Paul Gordon Emerson has signed two high-profile male dancers who will appear tonight as guest artists.

Rasta Thomas, a featured soloist at Dance Theatre of Harlem, is making his fifth appearance as artist-in-residence at CityDance. He will repeat his striking performance of “The Suitcase” by choreographer Vladimir Angelov.

Guest artist Jason Hartley, a principal dancer with the Washington Ballet, is making his CityDance debut with his riveting solo, “Nocturne Monologues.”

The two men have intriguing tales to tell about becoming dancers.

When he was a toddler, Mr. Thomas’ leg was badly broken in an automobile accident. His father was told that his son might not walk properly but that some form of physical therapy possibly might help.

“He went overboard,” Mr. Thomas says. “As soon as the leg healed, he put me in gymnastics, martial arts, swimming, in boxing, in soccer and basketball. I loved it.”

Then came the day when the 7-year-old Rasta sassed one of his teachers. As a punishment, his father told him he was going to put the boy in a tutu in a ballet class until he learned discipline. Mr. Thomas didn’t believe the threat, but the next day, he found himself in a dance studio — minus the tutu.

“I hated it,” the dancer says. He endured classes for several years, and then, at age 11, greed opened his eyes to the glories of a career in dance. After a public performance, he was paid $50, his first paycheck.

“I went out and bought a Game Boy,” he says. “I thought that ballet was the coolest thing, and I began to realize I could incorporate everything — my martial arts and gymnastics, whatever I had to bring to it.”

Mr. Hartley’s path to dance was equally serendipitous. When he was 6, he saw LeRoy, his favorite character in “Fame,” do a back flip on TV. He tried it, pulled it off the first time, and his mother promptly enrolled him in gymnastics. The school, he says, “was one of those multiflavored facilities that also had tap, ballet and jazz.”

“One day before my gymnastics class, I stood in the doorway watching what they were doing, picking up the steps. They saw I was enjoying myself, and I started taking dance classes.”

A couple of years later, he was recruited by Ballet Iowa to play Fritz in “The Nutcracker.” “That was my introduction to seeing that men actually had a career, that they could jump, they could lift and do amazing things.”

All this happened in Iowa. “There was, maybe, one other boy in the state that I knew of who danced. I’d be in these little talent shows. I’d travel around doing a tap number with a little rubber on the balls of my shoes just past where the taps were so I could do back flips in my tap shoes. And I appeared in the Iowa State Fair a couple of times before I went off to do serious training.”

Even with his successful career, Mr. Hartley still feels the sting of prejudice. “There was a time growing up when I was ashamed of dancing, and the kids at school would tease me. So I had to deal with it — I got in a fight, and I won, and then nobody picked on me again.”

Not feeling that approach appropriate today, Mr. Hartley says, “Now I’m a pacifist and an adult; if a stranger asks what I do, I tell them I’m in construction.”

Daniel Burkholder, director of the Playground, an improvisational performance group, and one of the choreographers appearing next week at Dance Place, underscores this. “Since there are less of us, we stand out in class and in auditions, and that can be an advantage,” he says, “but the disadvantages are the stereotypes that still exist that men dancers are effeminate or gay.”

On the other hand, some stereotypes have fallen by the wayside. “In my dances, I don’t distinguish between male and female roles,” Mr. Burkholder says. “In dance now, a woman lifting a man is not any kind of radical act — it’s taken for granted.”

For the Men’s Project at Dance Place next week, founder-director Carla Perlo has assembled a group whose work covers a variety of styles from jazz to ballet to modern. Among them, they have performed all over the world, taught at area universities and national dance festivals and directed their own companies.

The list includes Mr. Emerson; Peter DiMuro, co-artistic director of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange; Melvin Deal, director of African Heritage Dancers & Drummers; Douglas Yeuell, director of Joy of Motion Dance Center; Stephen Clapp; Kevin Malone; Alvin Mayes; David Dorfman; and Ed Tyler.

“I hope our Men’s Project inspires younger men to know that they really can have a career in dance,” Ms. Perlo says.

Mr. Emerson agrees that the opportunities are there. “There’s no denying there’s something spectacular about very fine male dancers, and they do tend to attract a following. I mean, Rasta is internationally known. He’s a superstar in the field.”

In the midst of all this display of testosterone, CityDance tonight unveils a small masterpiece created by a woman, Jane Dudley, one of the most striking dancers in the early Martha Graham company. Miss Dudley’s 1940 “Harmonica Breakdown” was made during a period when dancers were creating pieces about the Dust Bowl and the Spanish Civil War. Her solo was one of the most admired dances of that era.

In spite of such fine female choreographers and a bountiful bevy of ballerinas, men still have a dominant role in the art, and Mr. Emerson thinks he understands why.

“It’s ironic that it works out that way, but there does seem to be something about men who go into dance. They tend to be somewhat stigmatized, and there are not many of them. It’s an unusual career with many obstacles. So men dancers are very motivated, very driven.

“That probably carries over to wanting to do more than just dance. It tends to make you be somebody who wants to push harder to have your own company or to direct or choreograph.

“It’s not just the love of dance,” Mr. Emerson says. “There’s a level of ambition I think you have to have if you’re going to make a career of this as a man in America dancing.”

WHAT: CityDance Ensemble

WHEN: Tonight and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

TICKETS: $35 to $55, $100 for Saturday gala benefit

PHONE: 202/467-4600; for gala 202/238-0172

WHAT: Men’s Project

WHEN: Friday and March 20 at 8 p.m., March 21 at 4 p.m.

WHERE: Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE

TICKETS: $6 to $18

PHONE: 202/269-1600


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