Tuesday, June 8, 2010

June Teacher Feature: James Kinney

We are so glad to have James Kinney on faculty. Come check out his advanced-intermediate theater dance class Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:00 - 2:30. Experience theater dance from a totally different perspective!

James Kinney
, a new faculty member, is this month's teacher feature. What started as a discussion about his background, transformed into one about today's musical theater world and what dancers need to do to survive in its unique environment.

In addition to being on faculty at Peridance in New York, Mr. Kinney shares his expertise with programs around the nation, Mr. Kinney is a celebrated performer and choreographer. His first professional show came at fourteen and now a number of credits cover his resume. He has appeared on Broadway in Fosse, Dance of Death, Barry Manilow’s Harmony, and Sweet Charity for which he also served as dance captain on the national tour. He has had numerous film and television appearances and has performed at landmarks Carnegie Hall and at The White House. As a choreographer, one of his more recent works, MARCH, created for The New Jersey Ballet, has seen success. Set to the music of Stephen Sondheim and George Gershwin, it is now in a three-year repertory run.

When questioned about choreographing MARCH, Mr. Kinney could not have been more excited to share the process with me. He agreed that having experience as dance captain in Sweet Charity prepared him for the role of choreographer deeming it “the apprenticeship program." Serving in this position allowed him to learn “the tricks from masters” by watching and assisting. Now, he too has found his own voice and style to bring together elements—melding jazz with contemporary, a characteristic he brings to his classes. When staging, his goal is to take the pulse of the scene and bring it to life. To achieve this he encourages dancers, directors, and choreographers to focus on the intention of the movement. For James Kinney, having a sense of purpose makes the number all the more powerful.

In talking with James Kinney it is easy to see his extensive knowledge about and passion for dance and theater. This zeal is something he has possessed since childhood. He grew up surrounded by music. His mother was a Jazz singer and during her parties Kinney, intrigued by the ability of Michael Jackson, would dance around in a white sequin Jacket mimicking Jackson’s style. Kinney’s parents noticed his talent, and decided to enroll him in a local dance studio in Florida, at the age of twelve. He then switched studios to study with Janet Sydnor, “a place you went just to train.” In a big warehouse with a 2x4 as a barre, he not only advanced his technique, but his knowledge of dance history, being exposed to the likes of Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse. After encouragement from Sydnor to pursue a career in the field, Mr. Kinney switched to a specialized arts high school and he began training with The Florida Ballet, later becoming an apprentice to the company. His intentions remained jazz and theater dance, but even at a young age he knew the importance of a solid foundation. At 16, Kinney was given the opportunity to participate in what is now the Broadway Theater Project. He attended the summer training program in Tampa working with founder Anne Reinking and other musical theater heavyweights. Learning and working on repertory with talented established and aspiring performers, Mr. Kinney felt comfortable, “this was my tribe” he told me, he had made his decision. The rest is history.

What does he think of the changing landscape of Broadway? With more alternative shows like Spring Awakening and 9 to 5 appearing, what does this mean for theater dance as a genre? Mr. Kinney embraces this change calling it, “fantastic” and citing Spring Awakening as “genius.” He joyfully chirps “who knew Dolly Parton would be theater?” Therefore, he concludes, theater dance is without lines. “In order for dance to survive in this media it must evolve.” He challenges skeptics to look at the works of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Michael Bennett. From an artistic standpoint it is vital, “the minute you box yourself in, there is no more opportunity for creativity.”

In this modern age, Mr. Kinney’s biggest piece of advice to aspiring musical theater performers is “to be well rounded.” You must be a great dancer—in every style possible. He especially emphasizes the importance of classical technique. “Jazz can not exist without ballet,” he says, “a strong technique is needed to mess up technique…you can’t turn in without turning out first.” While he concedes it is not impossible to have a career in musical theater without ballet, he warns that a dancer can only go so far until ballet crosses his or her path. Because, candidly he states, “that show will close and you will need to find work…One day you will be doing 42nd Street, the next Green Day… You have to do everything—sing like bird, dance like Baryshnikov and sing like a bird—while upside down .”

Mr. Kinney will be in an upcoming issue of Dance Magazine this fall, he was most recently mentioned and pictured in the January 2010 issue. In addition, this summer he will be participating around the country in the Broadway Dreams Foundation workshops and the Musical Theater Performance Project in New York.

Read more about his exciting class!

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