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Debbie Allen: Inside the Frame
During a career that spans four decades, Debbie Allen has become synonymous with dynamic energy, creative talent, and innovation. Debbie recently debuted her anti-violence dance musical, Freeze Frame, during Australia’s Brisbane Festival. The production will run October 27-30 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Debbie sat down for a one-on-one conversation with Dance ICONS to discuss her inspiration and choreographic process; she also shared her wisdom and advice for young choreographers.
Dance ICONS: When did you know you were a choreographer?
Debbie Allen: I was invited to do something in college, at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. I had been making up little things before, but that was the first time I ever really did something that made me understand what choreography was about.
ICONS: What did you learn? What tools did you discover you needed to be a choreographer?
DA: Well, first of all, you need a dance vocabulary; that’s where you start. And you need an opportunity and the creativity to bring your idea to fruition.
ICONS: You’ve worked in so many venues, from the concert stage, to Broadway, film, video, and television. How did you make the transition from stage choreography to other mediums?
DA: There is straight up choreography, and you use your dance vocabulary for that. When you get into film, you need to get a sense of choreographing for the camera. So it becomes a language for the camera. I learned by watching and observing other directors and choreographers. So you ask yourself what shots you want: Is this a dolly shot, a crane shot, or maybe you’re going to use a steady cam. The camera gives you so many things to talk about and options to use. As I said, I learned by paying attention, understanding what is in the frame of the camera and when that happens.
ICONS: When you choreograph and direct for film, do you do a storyboard?
DA: I don’t need to storyboard everything, unless it’s a very complex shot, say using a green screen, and it involves lots of movement, then I’ll storyboard. Instead, what I do is I do my own diagram of how I’m going to shoot something from beginning to end. The script tends to provide you with some direction. Your job is to figure out how to do things that are entertaining and visually interesting. If you just have two people talking, for example, you can go long or do a two-shot. Maybe you do a 360-degree. There are so many different choices.
ICONS: It’s interesting to hear you speak of directing like it’s choreography.
DA: Yes. They do have similarities in how you approach something.
ICONS: What are your perceptions of the state of the field for choreographers?
DA: The state of the field today is so wide open. There are so many venues, so many opportunities nowadays. On a global scale there are opportunities in music videos, on television, MTV is still around, and, of course, video and Internet.
With the Internet, young people are communicating and seeing things they never would have seen before. I see young people who are leaning choreography from the Internet and young people who are putting their own choreography on YouTube to share their works with a far wider audience than they could have had before. With the Internet the world is open to anyone and it shortens the distance for all.
I’m seeing a fusion of dance styles. I think there will always be room for the classics – ballet and modern – but there are new ballets from contemporary choreographers and contemporary composers. That’s a shift that’s growing.
ICONS: Do you think choreographers need to use their works to send a message about issues relevant to our time, or is that not necessary?
DA: I just did a piece called “Freeze Frame.” It deals with issues that we’re facing today with youths in our urban areas. I hope my work will have an impact because it’s about police and gangs. But I’m not here to tell anyone else how to make work. Everybody does what they do.
ICONS: What advice would you give to a young choreographer just entering the field?
DA: Go into that space. Jump out a window and land on all fours. Be a cat on a hot tin roof. Go into that dark place. Pull something out of nothing. You just need to go for it.
Video Sample of Freeze Frame:
More about Debbie…
For her vast body of work, Debbie Allen has earned three Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, five NAACP Image Awards, a Drama Desk, an Astaire Award (for Best Dancer), and the Olivier Award. She holds four honorary doctorate degrees and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Debbie was appointed by President George W. Bush to represent the United States as a Cultural Ambassador of Dance. She has been artist in residence at the Kennedy Center for more than 15 years, creating original works with the legendary Arturo Sandoval and James Ingram, such as: Pepito’s Story, Brothers of the Knight, Dreams, Alex in Wonderland, Soul Possessed, Pearl, Dancing in the Wings, and Oman O Man. She recently debuted her anti-violence dance musical, Freeze Frame, during Australia’s Brisbane Festival.
Her long list of directing and producing credits include television classics such as FAME, Grey’s Anatomy (where she also recurs as Dr. Catherine Avery), Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Jane the Virgin, Empire, A Different World, Everybody Hates Chris, Stompin’ At The Savoy, Polly, That’s So Raven, Cool Women, Quantum Leap, The Fantasia Barrino Story, and on stage, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (on Broadway and London’s West End). She was most recently named the Directing Executive Producer on Grey’s Anatomy for season 12 of the popular program.
Debbie was the creative force behind Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated epic, Amistad. She holds the distinction of choreographing the Academy Awards ten times.
She acknowledges the influence of legendary artists who directed and trained her, among them: Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Donald McKayle, Gil Cates, Alan Johnson, Derek Walcott, Twyla Tharp, Tatiana Semenova, Louis Johnson, Jo Jo Smith, Mike Malone, Henry LeTang, Willie Covan, Patsy Swayze, and George Faison. Debbie has directed and choreographed such legendary artists as Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Will Smith, James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Gregory Peck, Mariah Carey, and Queen Latifah.
With her keen eye for talent, Debbie discovered such entertainers as Jada Pinkett Smith, Gary Dourdan, and Jasmine Guy. She was responsible for giving Mia Michaels her first job choreographing for television.
A true devotee of arts education for young people, she has trained some of the most dynamic young talent on the scene today -- Vivian Nixon, William Wingfield, Jada Grace Gordy, Taylour Page, Dion Watson, Danny Tidwell, Corbin Bleu, Hannah Schneider, and The Crewe, a dynamic, multi-cultural group of young singers/dancers.
In 2001, she founded the non-profit Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles with the mission to fill a void for youth who have an interest in learning dance and performance technique. She recently was invited to teach young dance students at the White House. Debbie has worked tirelessly to enlighten, inspire, and engage young people around the world through dance and theater arts.
A native of Houston, Texas, Debbie Allen is the daughter of Vivian Ayers and Dr. Andrew A. Allen and sister of Tex, Phylicia, and Hugh. Married to NBA All-Star Norman Nixon, she is mother of DeVaughn, Vivian Nichole, and Norman.
Interviewer: Lisa Traiger
Photo Credit: Oliver Bokelberg
Content Editor: Camilla Acquista
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