From 1990 – 1997, every morning when I entered my office at 250 W. 54th Street, what I remember is looking down through the windows of The Broadway Dance Studios, which were always packed with an endless army of New York City dancers keeping in shape and perfecting their art. It was awe inspiring – in fact, the longer I witnessed it, the more in awe I became. I also came to understand that the New York theatre's greatest asset is it's dancers. And, by extension, choreographers.
Several years ago, an amazing young NYC choreographer named Justin Boccitto came down to Nashville to work with the Theatre Department at Lipscomb University, under the department's remarkable new Chairman, Mike Fernandez. That relationship has continued and grown and Justin can be counted today as one of Nashville's greatest theatrical treasures.
What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
Theater really saved my life as a young student. I started performing at the age of 10, training at a youth theater program called the Centenary Young Performer's Workshop in Northwest New Jersey run Broadway performer, Michael Blevins. This was an amazing program for ages 8-18 to rehearse and perform in, during one semester, 3-5 musicals at the same time. It really became my home a way from home. The family I created at this program continued in my professional career when we created our theater company, The Group Theatre Too, and invited many of the graduates of the Centenary Young Performers Workshop to be company members. It is a gift to work in the theater with artists you truly love and respect.
Tell us about your work with the Lipscomb Theatre Department.
This is my sixth year coming down to work with Lipscomb. My involvement with the theater department has really evolved in those six years. I started by coming down for two weeks, only choreographing the theater department's musical. Now, I spend a full semester in the fall as an adjunct teaching tap and musical theater scene study. Two years ago I directed and choreographed Hairspray for the department and this year I'm assisting our chair, Mike Fernandez, on Les Miserables. We have also created a co-production with my New York theater company presenting the first ever Nashville Choreographer's Canvas. I'm so impressed with how far the theater department has come in six years. This is a testament to Mike Fernandez and the dedicated faculty. This year we also have initiated a dance minor, part of the theater major, as well as our new masters program, The School of Film and Creative Media.
What is the background of Choreographer's Canvas?
The concept of the Canvas stemmed from Twyla Tharp's book "The Creative Habit", where she writes:
"I walk into a large white room. It's a dance studio in midtown Manhattan. To some people, this empty room symbolizes something profound, mysterious, and terrifying: the task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something whole and beautiful and satisfying. It's no different for a writer rolling a fresh sheet of paper into this typewriter (or more likely firing up the blank screen on his computer), or a painter confronting a virginal canvas, a sculptor staring at a raw chunk of stone, a composer at the piano with his fingers hovering just above the keys. Some people find this moment – the moment before creativity begins – so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up a walk away from the canvas."
I created the Canvas in New York City to offer a showcase opportunity for choreographers who normally don't have many outlets to present their work. Every year, through a submission/adjudication process, we select 18 choreographers from all the styles of dance (tap, jazz, modern, ballet, aerial, etc) and present one piece from each of them in an Off-Broadway venue in Manhattan. To this date we have given opportunity to over 75 choreographers and 500 dancers.
What will Choreographer's Canvas be doing at Lipscomb?
This is the first phase of starting a Nashville branch for the Canvas. We are presenting work from several of the faculty members at Lipscomb including Dr. Peter Fields, co-curator of the Nashville Canvas, with his resident company Orchesis Performing Dance Company as well as Kari Smith and, for the first time ever, student choreographer Austin Hunt. I'm also bringing down two guest performers from New York City. Stephanie Sine, an aerialist and clown performer who appeared in the Brittany Spears CIRCUS tour, and Nicky Romaniello, tap dancer extraordinaire who performed on the National Tour of URBAN COWBOY. They will be performing with me in several pieces that involve tap dancing, clowning and playing musical instruments!
What are your thoughts on Nashville as a theatre town?
I think Nashville is a booming theatre town. In many ways it's not that different from New York in the sense that you have the larger more commercial theaters like Tennessee Rep and Nashville Shakespeare as well as the, as we call them in NYC, the "Off-Broadway" theatre companies like Studio Tenn and Blackbird Theater, who I had the pleasure to work with last season playing the role of "Ken" in their production of RED. I also hope that the NASHVILLE CANVAS will become a flagship dance event for not only Lipscomb but for the entire city of Nashville branching out to other dance companies, studios, universities and choreographers in the surrounding areas.