Good Side to Bad Boys

Bad Boys of Dance perform in New Delhi
A version of this piece appeared in the Asian Age on March 1

On a pleasant, breezy Wednesday afternoon, thirty-year-old Rasta Thomas, the “bad boy” of dance, speaking on the phone from the Pink City of Jaipur where he’s opening his six-city India tour, sounds buoyantly upbeat and unmistakably excited. He has a reason to be rosy: In the evening, he is all set to take Jaipur down a staggering dancing lane at the Birla Auditorium. We speak a few hours after he and his dancer wife, Adrienne Canterna (both vegetarian), had relished dal, aloo gobhi and palak paneer, washed down with sweet lassi. “This is the best breakfast I ever had,” he told his mother, who 
accompanies him on the tour. 

The heady whirl of Thomas’ performance is hours away, but the blithe expectation (he’s performing in India for the first time) from a new kind of audience laces his words with a sense of unbridled joy and energy, even though he remains, for the most part of our conversation, remarkably assured, fully at ease. “I’m eager to find out who comes out to the show,” says the founder of Bad Boys of Dance (BBD), a sensational US troupe that revels in the magic of the movement. In the US and Europe, where Thomas and his boys have performed extensively, the majority of his audience was women. But, at the brief teaser event at Jaipur’s Pink Square Mall, he encountered, for the first time, a “heavily male” audience. If Thomas was disappointed by not having been able to “capitalise on the sex appeal”, he doesn’t say that in as many words. He, however, hopes that “more women” watch his performance, saying, as if he were assuring the fairer sex: “It’s for everyone. Our boys are best in the world – talented, young and athletic.” Perhaps, when his troupe performs at the Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi on March 3 (7 pm), Thomas will get to see more female faces among the audience. And “capitalise” on his sex appeal. Delhi will be followed by Guwahati, Kolkata, Chennai, Vizag and Mumbai. So more female faces? One is almost certain these cities will more than redeem Thomas’ initial disappointment in Jaipur with regard to the audience’s demography.

For any artist, performing in an uncharted country (or in the trade terminology, market), is a voyage into the unknown. Says Thomas: “It’s always nervous to open up a new market. You never know if the audience is going to cheer for you or bully you.” It’s only been a couple of days since he landed in Delhi from a performance in Hawaii, but Thomas seems to be loving his stint with India. “I’m honoured to be here,” he says, 
drawling honoured to emphasise the depth of his emotion for the country where he has got the “great opportunity” to perform. “It’s an eye-opening experience. It’s wonderful to get to experience how so many people live with their differences in cultures and cuisines,” he says.

Thomas’ journey as a dancer so far has been thrilling and, to many, awe-inspiring. He was the first American to become a member of the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg. In 2003, he joined Dance Theatre of Harlem as principal. Thomas has danced his way into diverse roles, from Albrecht in Giselle, Basilio in Don Quixote, Ali in Le Corsaire, to several other classic works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Debbie Allen, Ulysses Dove and Jerry Mitchell. He has been in several TV documentaries and even performed at the Academy Awards. He performed at the White House for the US President and opened for Aretha Franklin at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. In 2005, Thomas starred on Broadway in Twyla Tharp’s hit musical, Movin’ Out. In 2007, Thomas performed as a guest artist in Othello in the title role with American Ballet Theatre for their Met season. He featured with Patrick Swayze in One Last Dance, Lisa Niemi’s exploration into the soul and sweat of three dancers, as Timmy.

All this, Thomas ascribes to his “diverse training”, his skill in many forms, from Korean, Japanese and Chinese forms of Martial arts to jazz, hip-hop, ballet and tap. As a child, while he was too much into Martial arts, his father “punished” him by sending 
him to ballet classes. And that proved to be a turning point in his career. He left the companies he earlier worked for because they were very restrictive in their vocabulary. The content of those companies were never fusion. But he knew he’d make fusion his 
priority, realising, “this is the future”. So, he decided to break free. And started his own 
troupe: The Bad Boys of Dance. His is a vocabulary quite unique: He mixes jazz, gymnastics, hip-hop and ballet to produce something hitherto unseen. His legion of 
influences are far and wide: From Michael Jackson to Bruce Lee. He has embraced, blended and reinvented them all. To be a good dancer, he say, you need: Good body, good teacher, good training. “You must be born with some physical gift,” he adds as an afterthought.

While in India, where dancing is increasingly being taken seriously, Thomas says he’s eyeing all kinds of opportunity. He will not be averse to the idea of working in Bollywood films. “Bad Boys goes Bollywood,” he says, theatrically, as if he were reading an imaginary headline. “That would be great, isn’t it,” he laughs, while talking about his possible venture in the Hindi Cinema. As an aside, he shares that he has seen Ra.One. 
Though he doesn’t remember his name, he can identify Shah Rukh Khan. “I think the whole world knows him. Who doesn’t know him?” he wonders.

From finding a foothold in 2007 when it was started, the Bad Boys Of Dance has come a long way. It debuted at the 75th anniversary season of the famous US dance festival “Jacob’s Pillow”. The “bad boys” have danced on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week for Richie Rich. They have performed on Broadway, been in feature films, shone in Dancing with the Stars, performed at Carnegie Hall in NYC with Sir Elton John for a Rainforest charity event that also starred Lady Gaga, Sting and Bruce Springsteen. They performed at the opening ceremonies of the USA International Ballet Competition. In 2011, they made a special guest performance on Fox TV’s So You Think You Can Dance. Currently touring the world with their hit shows Rock the Ballet and Tap Stars, they are sure to enthral and engage with their genre-defying grooves. 

Lydia Barraza, assistant cultural affairs officer at the American Centre, says bringing the Bad Boys of Dance to India is a part of the centre’s strategic programme to showcase some aspects of the US which can help build cultural connections with India. “What the BBD does is a whole new genre. While ballet is relatively new in India, it’s a traditional US dance form.”

My parting question to Thomas is a quickie: What do you think makes you who you are? “It’s my upbringing. I’m thankful to my family, my parents, my wife, who allowed me to embrace the arts and excel,” says Thomas, adding, “You’re your environment.”


One comment

  1. Hi, nice write-up. I saw them live in Siri Fort in Delhi, and they've totally reinvented ballet and made it 'consumable' for everyone. Just to note: the first picture you have used, with the women in red dresses, is of The Danceworx Company members performing Jaan R. Freeman's choreography.


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