Bad Boys of Dance makes ballet basics unabashedly fun

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Rasta Thomas wants to do for modern dance what early Mick Jagger did for rock ’n’ roll: make it sexy. He seems to be pulling it off with Bad Boys of Dance. The company he founded in 2007 at age 26 is gaining fans around the globe with its fast-paced, provocative movement performed almost exclusively by men.

“We want to make dance popular and exciting for the Facebook generation, the iPad generation,” Thomas says on the line from his Baltimore, Maryland, home. “Sex sells. I’m not going to lie. I see us as the dancer version of so many boy bands. If it worked for the Rolling Stones, why not for ballet?”

But Chippendales this is not. Thomas has a dance résumé that would impress Mikhail Baryshnikov himself, and the artists he handpicks to join his company all share his solid foundation in classical technique. What distinguishes Bad Boys of Dance from so many other companies is that its shows are unabashedly fun.

A Chicago Tribune reviewer summed it up this way after the troupe performed in the Windy City last year: “Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance are bad indeed, as in wickedly good—fast and furious pop dancers steeped in ballet basics and unashamedly flaunting their bodies.”

“We’ve been criticized for being too commercial,” Thomas admits, “but people leave our show happy. Really, what’s the last fun dance show you’ve seen?

“There’s so much quote-unquote avant-garde contemporary art that I respect but that’s so melancholy or aspiring to be thought-provoking that you leave at intermission and just go, ‘Huh?’ You don’t scratch your head at our shows. We’re about the sheer joy of dancing. We love to dance, and you can feel that.”

Thomas, who was born in San Francisco in 1981 but grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, got his start in dance when he was in grade school. His father, a doctor, threatened him with ballet classes if Thomas’s behaviour during extracurricular activities didn’t improve.

“Dance was punishment for being rude and disrespectful in martial-arts class,” Thomas says with a laugh. “For a little boy of seven, that’s a fearful thought. But my first teacher offered me a full scholarship. I’m not sure my dad ever thought it would be a profession, but once I started to get job offers, he was supportive.”

Thomas studied at Washington, D.C.’s Kirov Academy before joining Le Jeune Ballet de France in 1995. In 2001, he became the first American to join the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. Two years later, he signed on as a principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem.

He’s performed with the American Ballet Theatre, the National Ballet of China, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, among others. He danced in a GAP ad campaign and worked with the late Patrick Swayze in the movie One Last Dance. Then there was a 1999 appearance at the Academy Awards that landed him an hours-long meeting with Michael Jackson in New York.

“He’d seen the performance I did and called the choreographer, Debbie Allen, and asked to meet me,” Thomas says. “Me and my dad met him at his Waldorf Astoria penthouse suite. We talked about dance and life. It was surreal. He was as excited to meet me as I was to meet him—that’s how humble he was.”

Thomas cites Jackson as well as other legends such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev, and Gregory Hines as influences on his company’s hybrid style, which encompasses classical, contemporary, hip-hop, jazz, tap, and street dance.

“It used to be that you were either a contemporary dancer or a ballet dancer, but now to have a career you have to do both,” Thomas says. “Even the Kirov Ballet is doing [pieces by] [Jiří] Kylián and [William] Forsythe. Most purist companies are now doing contemporary work.”

The Bad Boys of Dance set their fusion form to pop music by the likes of U2 and Lenny Kravitz.

“I dreamed of touring early on, and so I choose music that the whole world knows. It’s not necessarily my favourite music, but it’s what you hear at Starbucks or on the radio. In our next show we’re thinking of using ‘Gangnam Style’ as a comedy number.”

There’s no denying the Bad Boys’ popular appeal. What started out as a company of six now has three casts touring the world at a time. Each show features six men as well as one “pretty girl of dance”, which in Vancouver will be Adrienne Canterna, Thomas’s wife and the show’s main choreographer.

The couple’s goal is to keep bringing their passion for dance to every corner of the map.

“The challenge in reaching the iPad generation is just getting them in the door,” Thomas says. “Once they’re in the door, we do our job; they’re loving life and tweeting about us. It’s about getting them to take a chance. You can’t get them to see Swan Lake if they don’t know about dance and how exciting it can be.”

Bad Boys of Dance appears at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Friday (November 30) at 8 p.m. and Saturday (December 1) at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

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