Changing lives in the studio and on the stage

Watching Debbie Allen rehearse Twist—An American Musical, which had its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse in June, is like observing a highly skilled surgeon at work: Precise, dedicated and supremely talented, Allen is directing and choreographing the production she first worked on last year for Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.

“You’re late,” says Allen to a cast member who missed a cue. “It’s run, run, run, trip. That’s it,” she says, clapping out beats as she paces the floor like a lioness checking out her cubs. “I know I’m just sketching things,” she adds, “and I’m gonna probably change it 10 times, but for now, let’s do it again.”

Best known for her roles in the “Fame” franchise, Allen, 61, has been a force in the entertainment world for decades. After growing up in segregated Houston, Texas, in the ’50s, she eventually proved herself on Broadway, in film and in television, racking up a prestigious list of credits along the way as not only dancer, actor, singer and choreographer, but also director, writer and producer.

Seemingly indefatigable, Allen established the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) in Los Angeles in 2001. Her studio has become a dance hub for a new generation of performers and is home to the Los Angeles Tap Festival and the Los Angeles Hip Hop Intensive.

“I take on projects that are meaningful to me,” says Allen during a break from Twist, a reimagining of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist set in New Orleans in the 1920s. “Things that I can wrap my mind and heart around. Being creative is the closest you can be to God—the creator. You have to go in a quiet place and be alone and hope it will come to you.”

“It” has decidedly come to Allen. Whether mounting productions like Twist or choreographing a Mariah Carey tour, she also devotes much of her work to the development and inspiration of young people.

Dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, her long hair pulled back to accentuate soulful brown eyes, Allen has a fierce work ethic that belies her often smiling face. Attributing that to her mother, writer Vivian Ayers, Allen explains:“When you grow up in the segregated South, you have brick walls around you, and you have to work extra hard. At the same time, my mom let us know we could jump over mountains. That was her plan and she wouldn’t let me feel self-pity.

”Although Allen began studying dance as a child, she switched to drama at Howard University, after she was rejected from the North Carolina School of the Arts for having the wrong body type for ballet. Her teacher at Howard was Vera Katz, who joined Allen in L.A. to assist with Twist.“

Brilliant from the start,” is how Katz describes Allen. “For her senior project, she directed Snow Black. She’s very exacting and her work is always fabulous.” 

Twist, with a 31-member cast and 29 musical numbers, is representative of the kind of projects Allen takes on. As artist-in-residence since 1995, she has directed and choreographed productions for the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, including Pepito’s Story, Soul Possessed and Pearl (shows for which she also wrote the scripts), and her most recent production, OMAN…O Man! in 2009.

During the Twist rehearsal, Allen is part cheerleader, part traffic cop and all patience. She encourages those around her, including daughter Vivian Nichole Nixon, who, literally, is following in her mother’s footsteps. A former member of Ailey II, Nixon debuted on Broadway in the 2006 musical Hot Feet, then hoofed in Memphis before joining Twist.

A believer in a close-knit family, Allen directed her sister, Phylicia Rashad, in the first all-black cast of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2008. It was Allen’s Broadway directorial debut, but not her first time on the Great White Way. That was in 1980, when she earned a Tony Award nomination for her role as Anita in the revival of West Side Story.

That year Allen also appeared as dance teacher Lydia Grant in the film, Fame. Indeed, Allen is the only actor to have appeared in the film, the TV series (which earned her five Emmy awards) and the film’s 2009 remake.

“We left an incredible footprint that is still resonating,” says Allen of “Fame.” “When you go to someplace like China, and you’re in a room with 500 young people who want you to teach them how to dance, there is a language that is beyond politics and religion—a language that people speak everywhere. That’s what ‘Fame’ did for me.”

It also jump-started her career directing episodic television, a natural progression, says Allen, after dancing and choreographing. “When the directors didn’t know how to shoot the dancing on ‘Fame,’ because I was in charge of that, I became a director.”

“Fame” then led to other TV directing gigs, including work on “Family Ties” and “A Different World.” More recently, Allen has directed several episodes each of “Hellcats” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” which takes about a month per episode, from the preparation and shooting to postproduction.

“Choreographing and directing are different,” she points out, “but it takes the same kind of hard work, energy, integrity and diplomacy.”

One dancer who has worked with Allen consistently over the years is Desmond Richardson, co-artistic director (with Dwight Rhoden) of Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

“Debbie’s clear, concise coaching and directing challenged me to step into the realm of the ‘real,’” he says, “not forcing it, but having me be in the moment and allowing the audience to genuinely feel my performance.”

Richardson is one of many who teach master classes at Allen’s dance academy. What began a decade ago with 200 students has blossomed into 643, with a full-time faculty of 13 and 32 part-time teachers. The annual operating budget is $2 million, and the academy offers 80 weekly classes in ballet, tap, hip hop, flamenco and jazz, with techniques including Vaganova and Horton. Allen is hands-on, from auditioning new students to selecting paint colors for the walls.

“When we opened, I had a line around the block for kids who wanted to come,” says Allen. She points to her students’ successes as testament to the studio’s purpose. “They’re in Ailey, or starring on Broadway, in movies,” she says. “They’re everywhere.”

One such student was Cathie Nicholas, granddaughter of tap legend Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers. The other half of a tap duo with her sister, Nicole, Nicholas worked as Allen’s assistant on Twist, and also teaches at DADA, where she began studying at 13.

“I’ve known Debbie since I was 2,” says Nicholas, 23. “Vivian [Nixon] and I grew up together, and Debbie is like a second mother to me. She is brilliant, and her joy and passion are indescribable. Debbie’s a wonderful role model.”

With all she has on her plate, Allen says her most precious commodity is time. Multitasking is a must, but it’s her passion that seems to keep her moving and motivated. Take Twist. “I’m doing it because it’s a great entertainment and it’s relevant,” she says. “This kid changes people’s lives, and I think this musical changes people’s lives when they see it.”

Allen believes her dance studio also changes lives—that by learning the language of dance, doors open. “I think the discipline of the dance world is something that has shaped my work ethic, and once I was given the opportunity to dance, I was eating it up like a hungry tiger. But you can’t do this,” adds Allen, “unless your heart and soul are in it.” DT

 

Victoria Looseleaf is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and KUSC-FM radio. She teaches dance history at Santa Monica College and the University of Southern California.

Photo by Rose Eichenbaum

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