East Side/West Side Story

November 9, 2008

As a ballet and modern student at North Carolina School of the Arts, I was taught that hip hop, jazz, tap and lyrical were pastimes for the general public—not artforms for the artists we were destined to be. This viewpoint was nothing new: The dance world has long been divided into concert vs. commercial dance. In my teachers’ eyes, only a rebel would waste his hard-earned technique dancing in Pepsi commercials on Santa Monica Boulevard.

I am one of the rebels. I have lived and worked in NYC and L.A. Earlier this year, I was in North Carolina shooting a new movie, Bolden!, which will be released in 2008. The film has a massive budget and employs dozens of dancers from both NYC and L.A. When we weren’t working, we were debating: Which city is more satisfying for dancers? And what are the actual differences between the two dance worlds? In addition to sharing my own experiences, I have asked three top dancers from each city to help me tackle this controversial issue. This is an East Side/West Side Story!

My first exposure to theater was a community production of South Pacific. I was fascinated by the magical world onstage and wanted to be a part of it. I was also intrigued by huge Hollywood musicals from the 1930s, like those of Busby Berkeley, and wanted to make movies like that, too. At age 12, I enrolled in dance classes to become the next Fred Astaire—but instead I found myself in the regimented world of ballet and modern. The fun of South Pacific was not part of the equation. By my senior year in high school, my goal was to be the first from my class to make it in NYC.


My first audition was for Paul Taylor’s second company, Taylor 2. At the time, I didn’t know Taylor’s work, but I knew that working with him would be a huge opportunity. Before getting called in to dance, I stood in line with 50 leotard-clad men, stretching, bending and jumping. Many of them had trained all year for this audition.


Halfway through, Mr. Taylor stood up, pointed to me and said, “I want you.” I spent the next three years working harder than I’d thought possible. In between Taylor 2 tours, I guested with Battery Dance Company and Erick Hawkins Dance Company. I also performed in West Side Story at the La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy.


After West Side Story, I made the decision to leave NYC and the concert life and default to my original childhood dream: to make dance movies. Up to that point, I had been fulfilling someone else’s vision. It was time to strike out on my own, so I moved to L.A.


My second day in L.A., I was in line on La Brea Avenue waiting to audition for the Beyoncé tour. But it wasn’t really a line, it was more of a free-for-all. Characters of all shapes and sizes milled around, “blinged” out to the max, many wearing sunglasses, hats and jeans hung so low I wondered how they would even move in them! To stretch for this audition would be very uncool. These dancers’ main focus was their Sidekicks.

In NYC I’d seen technique, form and commitment to upholding the masters’ legacies. In L.A., I saw attitude, tricks and style. But in both places, I saw something identical—passion and drive.


I didn’t get hired for the Beyoncé extravaganza, but I didn’t give up. I’ve since choreographed and danced for such artists as Elton John, Joss Stone, No Doubt, Mary J. Blige, Tamyra Gray and Norah Jones. I’ve also worked on commercials for H&M, Burger King, Campbell’s Soup and Capital One Bank. I even produced and directed my own version of The Nutcracker starring Pamela Anderson!


I love the opportunities in L.A. I like the excitement of being on a Hollywood set and seeing myself on the silver screen. Sometimes I do fantasize about being back onstage in Paul Taylor’s Airs or Aureole. However, as a young choreographer in film and television, I am learning the skills I will need to follow in Bob Fosse’s footsteps. I can imagine my first ballet teacher, Melissa Hayden, rolling over in her grave if she knew I now choreograph dances that sell burgers—but deep inside she would understand. If I want to make it as a film director, I have to start somewhere!

What are some of the biggest differences between the two dance worlds? One of the most common beliefs is that concert dancers have better technique. But L.A. performer Kevin Stea, who’s worked with pop artists from Madonna to Kelis and is featured in the upcoming film Naked Boys Singing, points out that technique is more than the mastery of one style. “Technique means versatility, and [dancers in the commercial world] are more versatile,” he explains. I personally have worked with dancers in L.A. with great technique—although many of those moved here from NYC!


What about artistic integrity? Among the dancers I talked to, opinions were divided—and surprising. “[Commercial] dancers are more dramatic, and therefore have more artistic integrity,” says Kemba Shannon, who performs on Broadway in The Color Purple. But Stea disagrees: “[Concert] dancers commit their lives to the artform rather than to self-promotion.” L.A. performer Dominique Kelly, who can be seen in the current iPod ad and backing singer Snow, adds that, “Self-promotion is a necessary part of working in L.A.” Advertisers hire dancers to make their products look good, rather than for artistic depth or vision.


Onstage, concert dance can stand on its own. In a commercial gig, dancers are used to complement the main act or provide atmosphere. Alycia Perrin, a Hollywood transplant from Brooklyn, NY, notes that she rarely gets the opportunity to use her classical technique in L.A., and is hungry for more jobs that call on her full range of abilities. Fortunately, she booked two major films this year (one of them was Bolden!) that she hopes will showcase her as an artist.


“Being on television or in films doesn’t compare to being onstage,” says Kevin Aubin, who’s performed on Broadway in shows like Wicked. Marc Spaulding, a ballet and modern dancer from Washington, DC, who danced in the film Hairspray, agrees that “New York has more fulfilling opportunities for dancers,” but adds that opportunities are opening up in L.A. as movie musicals come back into style.


Commercial jobs tend to be short-term gigs and a dancer will often hear from his or her agent several times a day. (Many dancers in L.A. actually leave their cell phones on vibrate during class and rehearsal!) In my own experience, the work environment in L.A. tends to be more relaxed; perhaps it’s the California culture. Most choreographers in NYC maintain a more focused and strict atmosphere. As far as auditions go, dancers in NYC often show up to castings in classic dancewear, whereas L.A. is all about image—everyone shows up in the most trendy and edgy ensembles.


And then there’s the money. Last June, I made more than $20,000 in one month working on a Hollywood commercial!


I can afford to live in L.A. on my dance gigs alone. In NYC, you’ve got to be one of the elite to make a living as a dancer. But of course not every dancer in L.A. is making it big, and many NYC dancers are happy with their artistic lives, regardless of the pay.

After speaking to other performers and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve decided that amazing dancers can be found in both places, and both cities have their benefits—and downsides. I love L.A., but Hollywood is smoke and mirrors, a fantasy of lights, camera, action. The stages of the Big Apple have some of the best dance you can see live. New York dancers must move audiences without the help of special effects, branded pop stars or heavy editing. It’s just a different world.


Deciding to work in NYC or L.A. is a matter of taste. My advice to every dancer: Do it all!