What I Learned From Producing a Documentary About Maurice Hines

The author with Maurice Hines. Photo by Anthony R. Phillips, courtesy Hopkins

In March, prior to sheltering in place due to the coronavirus outbreak, my husband and I traveled from New York City to Miami to screen our award-winning documentary, Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back, at the Miami Film Festival.

Our star, Tony Award–nominated dancer and choreographer Maurice Hines joined us in Miami for the festival—stepping and repeating on the opening night red carpet, sharing anecdotes from his illustrious seven-decade career with local tap students, and holding court at a cocktail mixer with lively female fans.

My parting image of the marvelous Mr. Hines from that trip was of him peeking from behind his hotel room door wearing a plush white robe, delighted as we handed him a plate of cookies from the filmmakers lounge. "Bye, sweetheart," he said warmly.

Maurice is the older brother of late, great tap dancer and actor Gregory Hines, who won a Tony Award for his role in Jelly's Last Jam. He was also a bona fide film and TV star—in the 1980s he starred in Running Scared, with Billy Crystal, and in White Nights, with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and in the late '90s he had a recurring role as Grace's boyfriend on the hit NBC sitcom "Will & Grace."

Although Maurice is also a triple threat—he co-starred with Gregory in Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club, and got a Tony nod for his musical revue, Uptown...It's Hot!—his achievements have been largely eclipsed by Gregory's.

That's what attracted me to produce Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back, which will be screening as part of the virtual San Francisco Dance Film Festival beginning this Sunday, October 18. The documentary has already won two coveted film festival awards: DOC NYC's 2019 Grand Jury Prize (Metropolis Competition) and the 2020 Jury Award for Best Documentary at the American Black Film Festival.

Here's what it was like to make a film about this oft-overlooked star—and to get to know him in the process.

A still from "Bring Them Back"; Hines teaching at University of Hartford

Courtesy Hopkins

How I Became a Documentary Producer

I have fond memories of going on bus trips from Baltimore with my mom to catch Broadway shows. One unforgettable matinee was Sophisticated Ladies, starring Gregory Hines and Judith Jamison. My mom and I left the theater in awe of the dazzling dance numbers and humming tunes from the swinging Duke Ellington songbook, and we caught a glimpse of Gregory, a scarf coolly flung over his shoulder, exiting through the stage door. Eventually, Maurice would replace his brother in Sophisticated Ladies. It seems serendipitous that several decades after seeing this Broadway show, I would write and produce a documentary about Maurice and his family.

My husband, independent filmmaker John Carluccio, was introduced to the idea of documenting Maurice through a friend of a friend. Maurice was slow to offer full access, but over time, John gained his trust by being patient, persistent and consistent. After the original production team dismantled, John asked me to come on board. Previously, we had produced lifestyle segments together for Brooklyn Independent Television. Working with my spouse is sometimes challenging, but we make a good team.

Career-wise, I was at a crossroads. For over 25 years, I'd worked in publishing as a lifestyle and entertainment writer and editor for a variety of media companies, including Dance Media. I yearned to switch gears and move in a new direction, and John knew that my perspective as a Black woman knowledgeable about dance and Broadway would be an asset to the film.

As the film's writer and producer, I keep the storytelling streamlined, objective and culturally rooted, and focused on the project's financial goals. Shifting my perspective helped me to see that as a journalist—guiding a story from inception to completion—I was already a producer.

Hopkins (right) with Hines (center)

Carlos Sanfer, courtesy Hopkins

Telling Maurice's Story

Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back is an intimate portrait full of song and dance, and heart and soul. The documentary intercuts rare archival footage of Maurice and Gregory—who began performing together at ages 7 and 5 as the Hines Kids and then cemented their stardom as Hines, Hines & Dad, with a Las Vegas residency and their father Maurice Hines Sr. on drums—with scenes of Maurice in the present day.

We watch the native New Yorker walk down memory lane at the famed Apollo Theater, where he and Gregory performed as kids, and reminisce about tap greats the Nicholas Brothers with modern day tap star Jason Samuels Smith. We also capture poignant moments, like the U.S. Postal Service launch event for the Gregory Hines Black Heritage stamp, where Maurice took the stage with his niece Daria and tearfully confessed how much he misses his brother.

Although I was familiar with Maurice's work (in 2006 I saw his ambitious Broadway musical Hot Feet set to the music of Earth, Wind & Fire), putting the documentary together gave me greater insight into the life and times of this showbiz survivor. In the '80s, he co-created the innovative dance company Ballet Tap USA, with Mercedes Ellington. And during filming, I watched the surprisingly spry senior hold his own onstage with far younger hoofers, dexterously teach tap students a Bill "Bojangles" Robinson step to the beat of Janet Jackson's "Nasty," and show burgeoning bunheads how to be fierce.

But beneath his supportive dance teacher demeanor and energetic stage persona, there's a palpable loneliness as he grows older without his brother Gregory, who died of cancer in 2003. Maurice taught Gregory to tap, yet he would often underplay his own accomplishments and gush about how great Gregory was. He didn't hesitate to yell "Cut!" to us if a conversation became too close for comfort. But over time, Maurice opened up and shared his truth—about how being outspoken and openly gay affected his career, and his complicated, often estranged relationship with his brother.

Shooting With the Stars

My first official shoot on the documentary was at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) in Los Angeles. Admittedly, I was a little starstruck, perhaps because I grew up watching Allen in Fame. Ms. Allen graciously agreed to be an executive producer on our documentary, and it was touching to watch the fellow Howard University graduate affectionately introduce her students to her dear friend Maurice.

Other highlights of the nearly three-year production were a thrift store shoot—a shopping passion I share with Maurice, who has a flair for vintage coats—and coordinating the conversation between Maurice and Broadway legend Chita Rivera (they co-starred in Bring Back Birdie) at Dance Theatre of Harlem.

A still from "Bring Them Back"; Hines teaching at DADA

Courtesy Hopkins

What I'm Taking Away From the Experience

Since we wrapped filming, John and I stay in touch with Maurice, now 76. We're proud to be part of his circle of friends and that our soulful story about this trailblazing elder showman has been well received by diverse audiences.

Writing and producing this documentary has shown me that I enjoy visual storytelling, and that I hope to continue to grow as a film writer and producer to champion underrepresented Black narratives. It has reaffirmed for me that as an African-American woman and storyteller, my voice matters.

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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