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Randy Duncan: The passion of dance
by Andrew Davis
2008-06-01

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One cannot talk about the local professional dance scene without mentioning Randy Duncan. This esteemed individual—who trained under the legendary Joseph Holmes and who has created works for dozens of companies, ranging from the Joffrey Ballet to the Bat Dor Dance Company of Israel—has been consistently recognized for his work, including being a three-time recipient of the prestigious Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Choreographer of the Year.

Duncan recently talked with Windy City Times about Holmes; the biggest misconception about dancers; his involvement with the annual HIV/AIDS benefit Dance for Life; and the movie Save the Last Dance ( for which Duncan choreographed the ballet scenes ) .

Windy City Times: Last year, you were named chair of The Chicago Academy for the Arts' dance department. In what direction are you taking the department?

Randy Duncan: Well, it's very interesting because I've been there for 14 years, and Anna Paskevska, who was the department chair, passed away last year—and I was actually asked to chair a few years ago, but I wasn't looking for that position because I knew it entailed a lot more than teaching classes and choreographing. There are the administrative duties, meetings, roundtable discussions, etc. However, I knew that I didn't want the dance department to change too much because we had a good thing.

It seems like, every year, a dancer or two graduates and goes to a professional company. Also, those who go on to college go to the colleges of their choice, so obviously we're doing something right—and I didn't want to stray too far from that. However, I did want to start creating a spot where the young dancers could learn how to create. Each year, we have to start teaching new choreography to the kids for their shows, whether it's the student-choreographed or faculty-choreographed show. With that, I decided to start a repertory program, which means that these students could continue to learn repertory that has already been presented and that we know works, and it's coming from professional choreographers, including the faculty and myself. When people ask us to perform in venues, we will have something ready for them. So that's one of the big things we want to do.

The other thing is to have a global exchange program. Next month, I'm going to Singapore to teach at an art school for a couple weeks; it's modeled after our school. I'll teach and I'll audition their kids who are coming in for the next season. What I'd like is to have an exchange program with students in Europe [ as well as what is here ] in America. I started something a few years ago with the Milwaukee High School of the Performing Arts, which is a public school; they've come down here but we've never gone there. They've seen our kids perform, and are very interested in what our kids are doing. They can't believe that [ the Chicago students ] are the same age because they're so highly developed in terms of training; that's why they're able to audition for professional companies straight out of school.

WCT: The global exchange program you mentioned certainly allows for cultural exchange. You can pick up certain elements [ in one place ] and take them back home.

RD: Well, that's a reason—and it's also to get the name out there. They can do it with French and German classes; why not do it with the arts classes? [ Laughs ]

WCT: In general, do you see dance headed in a certain direction?

RD: What I'm seeing is that they have melded ballet, modern, jazz …

WCT: A lot of fusion.

RD: Yes, 'fusion' is the word. And when you see things like [ the TV show ] 'So You Think You Can Dance,' you can see where they've fused things together. And my own style has always been a fusion of that, anyway, but you see a lot more of that going on now.

WCT: Speaking of your own style, how has it changed since [ your 1983 composition ] , 'Aretha'?

RD: [ Smiles ] God—you remember 'Aretha'? I wouldn't say that my style has changed so much; it's just that I've evolved because I've been able to work with ballet companies like Joffrey, where I was able to work with classical dancers versus those grounded in modern-dance or jazz techniques. It was easy to get along with them because, when I did choreograph 'Aretha,' the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre was well-versed in ballet as well as modern and jazz. You [ could tell ] that the dancers had ballet backgrounds when you saw them. And because of the individual artists I work with now, my eyes have been opened to so much more.

WCT: Joseph Holmes will always be this iconic figure in the world of dance. Give me some sense of what he was like.

RD: He was a tall man who carried a big stick—literally. [ Laughs ] He was a funny guy and wonderful to be around—outside of the studio. [ Laughs ] Inside the studio, he was very strict; he knew he wanted a dance company that was very similar to Alvin Ailey. He had gone to New York and studied for several years, and came back to Chicago to start a new company; he had one before he went to New York that was a West African dance [ troupe ] . [ In New York, ] he studied at the Ailey school, the Graham school and the Dance School of Harlem, but he always intended to come back to Chicago. As a matter of fact, the second company of Alvin Ailey—Alvin Ailey 2—came into being because of Joseph Holmes, and I heard this from Ailey himself.

But, yes, Joseph Holmes, was very strict. As far as technique, Martha Graham was his idol. What she did was [ bring ] ballet to a whole different level. Her technique is structured from ballet, but it starts on the floor, and it's done without shoes and there are these other elements like parallel position and kneework that you wouldn't get from traditional ballet. She wanted to be closer to the everyday man, as opposed to kings and queens in the ballet world. [ So, ] as elegant and eloquent as Martha was, Joseph modeled himself after her. His training and discipline, as well as bringing Harriet Ross in from New York, helped make the company what it was until we disbanded in '93.

WCT: Let's talk about Save the Last Dance. How did you come to be part of that film—and how hard is it to teach actors to dance?

RD: Harriet, who is my manager [ as well as my friend ] , called me and said that Paramount Pictures was looking for me. They said that they were looking for someone who could choreograph the movie as well as train the lead actress, Julia Stiles; at that time, I had no idea who Julia Stiles was. So I met the director and he was so impressed with what I had to say about working with dancers and actors. The next thing you know, they said, 'We'd really love to use you.' When I said I had no idea who Julia Stiles was, they suggested I rent [ the film ] 10 Things I Hate About You, so I did. Towards the end of the movie, she dances on the table; she could move, but there's a difference between freestyle and ballet.

I said I still needed to see here, so they flew her in the next day. She had taken a couple ballet classes before she met with me. My approach with her was so different than her previous teachers; she said, 'Wow. No one's ever treated me like this before.' Basically, I treated her like any other student.

She was really very interested in working hard for this role, and I told the director I needed a month with her, three hours a day. After two weeks, the director came in and said, 'Oh, my God. Wow!' Then, her parents came in after she told them I was her guru. [ Laughs ] She had a double, but she had to learn everything; when the camera came in, [ the viewer ] had to know it was her. She was lovely to work with. She had no attitude.

WCT: Have you been involved in any movies since?

RD: We did the pilot for the TV series 'Save the Last Dance' a year after the movie came out. There was a different cast. But it's still on the backburner. In the meantime, they came out with Save the Last Dance 2, which none of us was involved in.

WCT: And after Save the Last Dance, there were all of these other dance movies, like Step It Up …

RD: Oh, yeah. They all came out. But [ Save the Last Dance ] was the first time that there was a fusion like that, of ballet and hip-hop—and the movie became a phenomenon.

WCT: I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't kept calling.

RD: Well, I live here in Chicago and they want you to be there; Save the Last Dance was filmed here. They're like, 'Can you be here now?' Also, I've been doing a lot of musical theatre as well as concert dance, and if I seriously want to be in the movie market, I would have to be out on the West Coast.

WCT: You're known for being an advocate regarding HIV/AIDS, taking part in activities such as Dance for Life. What spurred you to become such an activist?

RD: I saw that Keith Elliott, who was a dancer of mine at Joseph Holmes, was doing such a great job with Dance for Life [ which Elliott helped create ] . I wanted to know how I could help, and I decided to go to different dance companies and put together a finale for Dance for Life—which I think would be quite phenomenal because a lot of these dancers have never danced together before. Well, of course, the response was incredible. So, I never audition people for the finale; I handpick them.

WCT: Complete this sentence for me: 'When it comes to dance, it is most important to … '

RD: To have passion—which is number one—and technique. If you don't have one without the other, you're looking at a mess. I tell the kids at the academy that if they're not hungry or if they're thinking of something else to fall back on, this isn't the place for them. And, certainly, talent is important.

WCT: What's the biggest misconception about dance or dancers?

RD: [ Laughs ] That they all eat like birds, and that they're all vegetarians or vegans. The girls might amore [ healthily ] , but I've seen guys chow down on a burger or two, or have seen dancers smoke cigarettes or drink. But a lot of dancers think that smoking helps keep their waistlines small. But your body is an instrument and, like a Stradivarius, you have [ to take care of it ] ; you don't want to leave it out in the rain.

WCT: Is there anything you want to add about yourself or dance?

RD: Dance is like chocolate: You don't why you like it so much—you just do. Dance is like the endorphins secreted when you eat chocolate.

For more about Randy Duncan, see www.duncandance.com . For more about The Chicago Academy for the Arts, see www.chicagoacademyforthearts.org .


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