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No dancing around it, Rasta Thomas credits ‘push’ from dad

 

 

By VICTOR GRETO • Special to The News Journal • November 9, 2008

[Edited]

 

When Rasta Thomas turned 7, his parents teetered on the verge of divorce. Like many children his age and in his situation, he acted up and became disrespectful.

So his father sent him to ballet school. “You don’t behave, you’re in a tutu,” he was told. Guy ballet dancers don’t wear tutus, but the 7-year-old Rasta didn’t know that.

“I thought ballet dancing was for sissies,” says Thomas, 27.

Not anymore.

By the time he had turned 16, Thomas had taken the ballet world by storm, won international gold medals and performed as a guest dancer with some of the most renowned companies in Europe and the United States.

Now, Thomas has left the relative obscurity of the ballet world to reach a wider audience. His lithe and disciplined body leads a troupe of 10 men who call themselves the Bad Boys of Dance, a group managed by Marsha Borin, a resident of Chadds Ford, Pa., and former ballet dancer who ran the Russian Ballet Theater in Wilmington. She hopes to find a way to bring Rasta from Maryland to Delaware and make him a resident dancer somewhere.

“I’m trying to find out what we can do to bring him here in some resident capacity, to enhance the quality of this community,” Borin says.

“Delaware can be the home of the next Nureyev.”

In less than two years, the company’s two-hour “Rock the Ballet” has been seen by thousands and received acclaim around the world.

Call the performance — choreography created by Thomas and his wife, Adrienne Canterna — a drizzle of dance styles, from jazz, musical theater, swing to modern, rock and hip-hop, poured over a foundation of ballet.

“Rasta is what one looks for in a dancer,” says Lar Lubovitch, founder of a four-decades-old self-named dance company in New York City and one of the top choreographers in the nation.

“He has both physical ability and technical prowess. But what separates a real artist of breadth is the ability to dance beyond all of that.”

He hired Thomas to dance in an American Ballet Theater production of “Otello,” which Lubovitch choreographed, at the Kennedy Center in Washington and at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

“Artists are very hungry people,” Lubovitch says. “They’re not going to settle for the same meal each day. They need to reach out in untouched directions. They need to be creatively challenged.”

And, let’s face it, many of them need to be praised.

“He’s one of the most respected and admired dancers performing on the stage anywhere in the world today,” says Ella Baff, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow, a dance theater in Massachusetts.

“We met a few years ago and he told me he had an idea to put together a group of people called ‘Bad Boys of Dance,’ and would I be interested in bringing the group to the theater,” she says. “I said sure, let’s try it out, and the company came and they did five performances and we totally sold out.”

It was the Bad Boys’ first performance.

There was nothing, however, in Thomas’ boyhood ballet years to have indicated a storied ballet career and its eventual pop-culture turn. Not before he turned 11, anyway.

 

A lot of moving around

Rasta Thomas was born Rasta Ramacandra in San Francisco, but his mother and father took him to live with them in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from the time he was 3 until he was 9.

His father had gotten a job as physician for the royal family — he got the post via friends — and taught English. He also ran a karate school and a video-rental business.

Soon after their divorce when he was 8, his mother moved to College Park, Md., where she studied biology on her way to becoming a doctor.

His father, impressed with his son’s improvement as a dancer, moved to Washington, D.C. a year later, and put the boy into the Kirov Academy of Ballet there.

But, at 11, and during one of his recitals, a local teacher at an elementary school saw him and asked him to dance for a couple of shows. He wanted to use Rasta at his recital at the George Washington Day School. He paid him $50 and gave him a pair of Guess jeans to wear while he danced.

“I bought a GameBoy with it,” Thomas says about the cash. And he kept the pants. “That was cool.”

Thomas studied at five ballet schools in the mid-Atlantic region during his early teens, including the Susan Ina Dance Studio in Baltimore, where he met his future wife, Adrienne Canterna.

“I was 9, he was 10,” Canterna says. “We were in group classes together. I was the top dancer, and he was the only boy.”

 

Evolving dancer

Meanwhile, Thomas worked harder at ballet, learned the martial arts and excelled in gymnastics and swimming.

At 13, Thomas became the youngest recipient of the Jury Prize at the Paris International Ballet Competition. The head of Le Jeune Ballet de France saw him perform and invited him to join his company for a year.

He moved to France and lived in a group home learning contemporary dance. In America, he had learned other forms of dance, including jazz and lyrical, modern and hip-hop.

“Contemporary dance was a revelation to me,” Thomas says, because it allowed him to mix different dances in one performance. “I had the ability, very young, to blend different styles of dance, and to do it intensely.”

He and others also credit his training in the martial arts for the intensity.

“Rasta has incorporated everything he has learned, from being a competitive swimmer, martial artist, trained in classical ballet,” Baff says. “He’s not only technically superior but he has a very soulful stage presence. When he’s on stage, it’s difficult to look at someone else.”

Thomas finds this form of dance the most liberating.

“I enjoy dance more when I incorporate all styles in one expression,” he says. “I see more of myself in this.”

This, as opposed to pure ballet, is as uncomfortable a form of dance there is.

Ballet is one of the most physically demanding arts, forcing a dancer to turn his or her body into a sinuous expression.

“Ballet chooses you,” Thomas says, “to make a living out of it. The gifts required to be a professional dancer depend on your body and your abilities.”

When he returned to the Kirov Ballet Company at 14, he let himself be chosen.

“I trained like crazy and set my sights on international competition,” he says.

At 14, he won the 1996 Junior Gold Medal at Varna, Bulgaria; less than two years later, he won the Senior Gold Medal at the Jackson (Miss.) International Ballet Competition.

At that competition, he danced with Adrienne, who won the Junior Gold Medal. Canterna still played cautious with him. “I was playing hard to get while he was playing the field,” she says.

 

Transcends traditional

At nearly 5-feet-10-inches and 160 pounds, there seems to be not a gram of fat on Thomas. His thin face includes a sharp intense gaze through wire-rimmed glasses and a trim beard and mustache.

“A more traditional role would have been easier for him, but his interests transcend that,” says Mary Jo Anderson, a lawyer and former ballet dancer and teacher who has seen Thomas perform in New York.

In 1997 at the age of 15, he accepted an invitation to become the principle dancer at the Hartford Ballet. He appeared as a guest artist with the Kirov Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg in Russia — the first American to do so — and also guest-danced with the Beijing Central Ballet, the Victor Ullate, the Inoue Ballet of Japan and the Universal Ballet of Korea.

“I did all of that for the prestige,” Thomas says. “Every year I jumped. I never found the company I loved, or a director I respected.”

After a short stint in Hollywood thinking he wanted to be an actor, he returned to the dance mecca of the world, New York City, and joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem. He stayed with the company for a year.

Then he did something very different: In 2005, he got the main part in Twyla Tharp’s Billy Joel-inspired musical, “Movin’ Out.” He danced and sang in New York and went on the road with the show for more than a year.

Then came Lubovitch’s invitation to appear in “Otello,” and his acclaimed performances at the Kennedy Center and Metropolitan Opera House. “After those two shows, I thought, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Thomas says.

 

And yet another move

After wondering if he would be happy staying in New York and accepting an offer from one of two prestigious New York companies, he called up Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had become a mentor.

“He told me I should just do what I really wanted to do,” Thomas says. “And I knew then I really wanted to do my own thing.”

He also realized he needed a niche in the dancing industry: his own dance company of men performing a myriad of styles in one show.

By this time, he had been dating Adrienne for a couple of years, and they married in March 2007. They had a daughter, Anami (Sanskrit for “Holy One”) Halo, in October 2007.

The Bad Boys first performed at Jacob’s Pillow that year. The first five sold-out performances acted as a test for them, Thomas says. After their daughter was born, the couple decided that the company was the answer. It would work to keep them together as a family.

But he didn’t like the managing, booking and coordinating. So, he and Canterna called Borin, whom they’d met several years before. Borin agreed to become president of the company.

She’s begun talking to people at the University of Delaware and in Wilmington to gauge interest in sponsoring the troupe. “We want a partnership, a place to work from” Thomas said. This will allow the his family and the company to remain in the area he loves best.

On Nov. 1, the Bad Boys performed in Alabama, but they also have shows in California, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia. They will begin a European tour early next year.

“We are currently planning on performing in London, Paris, Helsinki and Zurich with a return to Hamburg next summer in a larger venue,” Borin says.

For now, the Bad Boys of Dance will be performing around the world, a band of gypsies in search of a home.

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