Michael Leon Thomas, Part 2 -- His Choreographic Process

In Part 1 of TheWorldDances.com interview with dancer-teacher-choreographer Michael Leon Thomas, he shares insight into his chameleon-like ability to adapt to multiple choreographic and movement styles, as well as how to develop a keener sense of musicality. Here, in Part 2, he talks about his own choreographic process. It’s an inspiring story of passion, perseverance, and probing. Enjoy!

Choreography—I actually don’t know why they said I was good at it! I choreographed my audition piece for North Carolina School of the Arts and they saw some promise in that. The work I did in classes at school was accepted really well and they had me reset some of my work at Ailey. Even though people kept saying I had choreographic promise—and I had a lot of opportunities to choreograph—I was really like “I just don’t think I can choreograph!” But I continued to try because I love creating movement so much. And people kept asking me to choreograph, so I was like “if they keep asking you, there must be something there.” I had to figure it out, and I realized I didn’t have a process.

It’s just been this summer that I feel like I’ve developed an actual choreographic process. I did a lot of work in my performing career with choreographers choreographing on me. Dwight Rhoden liked to paint choreography onto his dancers, for example. He’d think of the movement, but then he’d have you do it to see what it looked like. But for me, I really have to get into the studio and feel the movement.

Also, now I find I enjoy working with images, essentially working with a storyboard. I love screenplays and movies, and I thought maybe if I tried storyboarding it might help me to develop concepts and narrative. For a long time I was doing steps just inspired by the music, but that’s not necessarily all there is to choreography. Take for instance this one-man show I’m developing. I‘m using the music of Sammy Davis Junior. I was working on this song called “Lush Life.” So what I did was I looked online at different photo images of drunks. Then I went through and wrote a story based on the different images of where this character would be in the bar, and in his head what he’d go through. Then I built movement based on those images and my story about what he was doing. And it was amazing! I realized, “Michael, it’s a one man show!” I’d be dancing the majority of the time, so you can’t—you know—kill it, all the time. Every moment can’t be virtuosic step after step after step. You know? I would be dead! But I realized that, through my storyboard and these images, I could move and tell this story of this man who’s having a hard time. Not only is it more enjoyable, it’s much richer. It has a beautiful sense of space and time to it. My hope is that it will enable the audience to see themselves or someone they know more clearly. That’s what Alvin Ailey always talked about—the audience being able to see themselves through the movements.

I also read books about choreography, and that helps too. It’s important to understand how you learn best—some people learn by talking, or watching, but I learn by reading. If you’re talking to me, after a while I zone out, but if I read, I get the most out of it. Reading different books on choreography was so helpful! Dance Magazine for instance, does this section on choreographers’ voices. I read Paul Taylor, Margie Gillis, and Elizabeth Streb. It showed me that there are all these different ways of going about choreographing, and reading the different ideas of going about it helped me to figure out my own process. I’m working on this one piece for the Ailey BFA program now. It’s based on the idea of a road trip. Not only just straight and narrow roads, but curvy roads and scooters and motorcycles. Then I realized my dad had ridden in a motorcycle club! When I started doing the movements imagining them from a motorcycle, I realized I had so much inside me that was physical memory of riding with him—the handles, the speed, the exhilaration, and physics of driving. It’s much richer expressing all that than me just listening to the music and making up steps.

You can see the road trip-inspired piece at its premier January 15 and 16 during the Ailey School’s “January Explosion.” Aslo, catch some of his work at the performance culmination of the Ailey Extension’s “Voices and Visions” choreography workshop, October 23 at the Ailey Citicorp Theater.