Friday, October 22, 2004

Rasta Thomas, who appears tonight in “Giselle” with the Washington Ballet, is an anomaly in the world of dance. Most dancers with his technical bravura and charisma are attached to a major ballet company that cossets them and guides their development.

This is not the path chosen by the 23-year-old dancer, who has won gold medals at international competitions, appeared as a guest artist with ballet companies around the world and has fan clubs in places as far as Japan.

The irony is that in spite of his international appeal, Mr. Thomas was seldom seen in his home port of Washington, although he has made guest appearances here with CityDance.

This year, though, is different.

Appearing at the Kennedy Center with Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) in June, Mr. Thomas gave a transcendent performance in George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” probably the most iconic male role created in the 20th century.

This week, he is dancing Albrecht at the Kennedy Center in the romantic 19th-century “Giselle.”

In the middle of “Giselle” rehearsals, the dancer hopped up to New York to work with Twyla Tharp on the lead role of Eddie in “Movin’ Out,” her Broadway show set to Billy Joel songs.

That coveted 21st-century role completes his three-century sweep of great male roles. He will dance Eddie in January for a month in the New York company. (A touring company dances “Movin’ Out” here next month.)

“It was odd to go from one to the other,” the dancer says. “The only time I could learn ‘Movin’ Out’ was right in the middle, and now I’m back for a week and a half to do ‘Giselle.’ Coming out of Eddie, the cool guy, tripping on LSD and going to Vietnam and all that is a bit of a change, but this is a sign of what dancers of our generation can do.”

Mr. Thomas says it is daunting to do such a legendary part as Albrecht but adds, “As [actress] Uta Hagen would say, the memory recollection from other ballets help you as a reference. For instance, when I was with DTH, I danced ‘Song for a Dead Warrior,’ where I played a Native American whose girlfriend had been raped and murdered.

“That was the first time I ever had to act out someone dying in front of me,” he says. “Although they’re different, that death scene prepared me for that moment in ‘Giselle.’”

On Nov. 4, Mr. Thomas will appear at a benefit gala for CityDance at the Russian Embassy.

“I’m very grateful to Paul Emerson and his vision for the company. I just want to support what they’re doing,” he says.

Mr. Thomas says it’s great that CityDance will be the resident company at the new Strathmore center.

“I hope to be part of their company for a long time to come,” he says.

At the gala, he will dance “Bumblebee,” a brilliantly inventive showpiece tailored to his spectacular gifts and created for him by choreographer Vladimir Angelov. Every year, the dancer says, he and Mr. Angelov get together and do at least three works — solos, duets or films. They have a film in the works now for CityDance’s film division.

“It’s a complicated funny story,” Mr. Thomas says. “But that’s what Vlad and I do — we just push the boundaries of our art and take chances.”

A maverick at heart, Mr. Thomas gives the impression of someone who can’t abide being hemmed in by rules. Right before DTH’s June engagement, there was a major dust-up with director Arthur Mitchell, ironed out in time for Mr. Thomas to be reinstated and dance here.

One of the benefits of being a freelance dancer, Mr. Thomas says, is that he gets to seize the moment.

“My philosophy from day one was I’m going to dance — and dance. I never really wanted to sit in the back waiting and, quote, working up the ranks.”

His classical technique is impressive, honed first in Saudi Arabia, where his father served as physician to the royal family. There he had a teacher from England who taught Royal Academy style; next he attended the Kirov ballet academy here in Washington and other schools, where he studied jazz, modern and hip-hop.

All the while, his father saw to it that he had physical therapy (for a broken leg) and a strenuous regime of martial arts, gymnastics, swimming, baseball and soccer.

With his drive and wide training, Mr. Thomas’ appearances are equally eclectic. He was slated to dance the lead in “Don Quixote” next week with the National Ballet of Cuba — “Unfortunately, with [new travel restrictions], it’s impossible to get permission to go,” he says.

Next he has a couple of shows in Spain with a flamenco dancer, and after his stint with “Movin’ Out,” he plans to guest with the Joffrey Ballet, dancing in “Romeo and Juliet.”

“Then I want to spend some time in Los Angeles, to try to pursue some dance and film or TV, to get dance more out in the popular culture. Eventually I’d like to go to film school and try to be a film director.”

With all these far-flung projects and engagements, how is Mr. Thomas spending Christmas? He had been slated to appear as a guest artist in “The Nutcracker” both in Japan and here at the Washington Ballet. But he canceled both when a call came recently from his mother — an Army doctor on active duty stationed in Alabama.

“She called out of the blue,” the dancer says, “and told me, ‘You know we never interfere with your schedule, but a little local company here is doing a “Nutcracker,” and they know who you are, and they’d love for you to come down.’

“So I said, ‘OK, Mom,I’ll be there.’ ”

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