Michael Leon Thomas has had a breathtakingly diverse performing career. He's danced with Judith Jameson, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Lar Lubovitch, Zvi Gotheiner & Dancers, Dance Brazil, Donald Byrd/The Group, and the Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and now has a thriving professional life as a free lancer. Thomas is also an acclaimed choreographer. His works have been commissioned by The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, The Cape Town Dance Company, The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Long Island University (Brooklyn and CW Post), and Encuentro Internacional de Danza in Madrid, Spain, among many others. Additionally, he teaches at the Ailey School and at workshops throughout the world. His teaching style is calm and encouraging, with quiet but intense energy with some life wisdom thrown in. "You dance better when you dance at the front because you force yourself to that extra level of energy." he says, "and that's the way you should move through your life."
I sat down with Thomas in Central Park after a class at New York's City Center recently for tips on how he's achieved excellence in so many areas of the dance universe.
Question: You always emphasize musicality in class. How can a dancer develop his or her musicality?
Thomas: I don't think people really listen to music enough. I was trained in music and grew up around it. My aunt was a music teacher, so that definitely helped. I can see sometimes with my students, they're disconnected from the music and more married to the counts. But the counts are only really supposed to be a guide to allow you to listen to the music. I think once people start to really hear the music, it's a much more enjoyable process for them and for the audience. How can you really enjoy just "1,2,3,4,5,6...?" Even if there is no music, and just some sounds, like with some Merce Cunningham work, you still want to build a relationship between the movement and the sounds. It's really about listening. Most people don't listen-in life, too. Think to yourself: Am I really listening to this conversation? Am I really listening to this music?
Question: Your performing career has been incredibly diverse. How can a dancer prepare for or become better at such a wide range of styles?
Thomas: I'm a graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts. I had 3-4 classes a day in various techniques. The modern department at that time was very interested in making sure you could shift between styles. I had all these teachers from various backgrounds who demanded excellence in various idioms. When I got to NY and started dancing professionally, I found it was the same. Judith Jameson's choreography was one way. Limon was totally different. Garth Fagan was TOTALLY different.
So there's training, but it's partly about your attitude, too. I've always had the ability, for the most part, to be a kind of changeling. I try to become the muse for anyone with whom I'm working. Try to understand the style of the choreography that much. But sometimes it's not until a second chance it's that it's absolutely right and you get that opportunity.
For instance, Lar Lubovitch-Lar's style is very specific. It's very balletic with lots of lines and curves. He's looking for a very specific kind of dancer, and I got cut from his audition the first time I tried out with him. When he came to Ailey after I joined that company, he did several ballets there that I was never cast for. And in "Cavalcade," I was 2nd cast and I only performed it twice. Eventually I just assumed he didn't like me. Then one day I was home being lazy and the phone rang and it was Lar! He invited me to do a workshop, and that began my period of time dancing with him, which turned out to be one of the most amazing, magical choreographic experiences I've ever had.
Being open to shift is important. Lar didn't want me to dance like an Ailey dancer. With Ailey, I feel, you need a much more direct approach to the movement. They play really large houses. The movement has to read all the way to the back and they tend to be big, bold, and sharp in their dramatic choices. Lar didn't want that. He wanted the exact opposite. He wanted me to even do my warm ups in his ballet style, because he required that kind of energy. Had I not been open to that direction, I easily could have felt insulted and closed off to the experience. But I understood he wanted a different dynamic. I just always try to be very open to different ways of working and to embrace their ways of moving.
I've not always been successful. When I was at Dayton, Doug Varone came. I really wanted to be in his piece, but I didn't move in a pedestrian enough way for him so I wasn't cast in it. Some times it works some times it doesn't, but I've always tried to be open to whoever's creating the movement.