Philadelphia – Award-winning dancer, choreographer, actress and director, Debbie Allen, is bringing her latest production, Brothers of the Knight, to the Merriam Theater, July 3, 5 and 6.
Allen held auditions in Los Angeles, CA, Boston, MA, Charlotte, NC, Washington, DC and Philadelphia, PA. Approximately 2,000 would-be entertainers (about 300 to 400 per city) between the ages of 9 and 22, came out with the hopes of winning a role in Brothers of the Knight, a musical based on Allen’s children’s book of the same name.
Brothers of the Knight is an adaptation of Jacob Grimm’s fairytale, The 12 Dancing Princesses. In the Brothers Grimm story, a king has 12 daughters whose shoes are worn to shreds each morning and their father can’t figure out why. Allen changed the plot to include a minister with 12 sons trying to solve the same shoe dilemma.
The young people who auditioned for Brothers of the Knight didn’t need years of dance classes. It was more important that they showed potential and quickly caught on to choreography.
In an exclusive early morning interview, a deep-voice Allen apologized for her groggy sound by saying she’s been burning the candle at three ends. Her fatigue is understandable as the production enters its second week of performances. Allen explained how all this loveable hard work began with the audition process for Brothers of the Knight.
It Started with Auditions
“I taught them all a routine,” Allen said. “Then I talked to each one of them individually and got them to do something on their own and then I made choices. It was really tough because there were so many terrific kids.”
The cast came with different skill levels, but all were ready to work.
“Some of them are incredibly talented,” Allen, 64, said with a laugh. “This is not their first rodeo. They have ridden a horse or pony somewhere. They come from diverse backgrounds. Some of them are very trained in ballet, some are trained in tap, and some their total experience is hip hop. In this production they have to waltz, do lifts. We cover a lot of genres. It’s been a great education and learning process for them as well as training because there’s some hard dancing.”
The 24 lead dancers are in the traveling company. They spent three weeks rehearsing with Allen at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, in Los Angeles. This group and five chaperones flew from LA to Boston and will reach the other sites by tour bus. They’ll meet up with a core ensemble of 50-60 others who stayed in the cities where they auditioned. Allen’s field generals rehearse with the ensemble in their hometowns for six days before Allen and the traveling company arrive in that city. When the two groups meet up, they rehearse for another two to three days until opening night.
“What’s wonderful about the whole thing is this is such an opportunity for all of them to really be in a professional theatrical production,” said Allen, who starred in Fame the movie and won two Emmy Awards for choreography for Fame, the series and an Emmy Award for The Motown 25th Anniversary Special. “Because in New York when you’re doing a Broadway show, especially if it’s a new show, they might come in one day and say, ‘okay, this is the new number, it’s going in tonight’ and you have to get it.”
The cast of Brothers of the Knight was expected to learn their routines with ease, as well.
“I train the young people. I don’t treat them like children at all. Someone said, ‘how do you get those six and seven year olds to act like that.’ I said, Honey, I threaten their lives,” Allen said with a laugh. “I take them seriously, so they take this seriously. I let them know how important they are and that there is no room for anything beyond success here. So, you have to pay attention. I also teach them that there are no mistakes in the theater because the theater is expressionistic and it’s in the moment, so whatever you do you make it work.”
Allen shared the experience of performing on Broadway after her costume accidentally was torn by another dancer on stage. She was playing Anita in West Side Story in 1980. In the big gym scene, one of the Sharks stepped on her petticoat. She picked up about 10 yards of the ripped purple tulle, wrapped it around her neck and kept on dancing. Allen won a Drama Desk Award and was nominated for a Tony Award for this role.
Brothers of the Knight should inspire boys to dance
Allen is a strong advocate of having arts education as part of the grade school core curriculum. She also would like to see more boys involved in dance. “My goal is that this show will inspire so many boys to dance,” Allen said.
Wearing tights has always been one of the biggest obstacles for boys wanting to study dance, Allen said. “When we did Fame years ago, Leroy didn’t want to put on those tights. At the Debbie Allen Dance Academy they don’t have to. The world of dance is now being recognized for its athleticism with the popularity of shows like, So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars. You have to practice hard to do it right.”
Allen is doing something right because 35 male students are enrolled at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. This Allen believes is a larger number of male students than at most schools. She credits her no tights outside of ballet class rule as a contributing factor.
Taking Brothers of the Knight on a multi-city tour is a group effort. Her husband, Norm Nixon, a former NBA player, is the executive producer and raised the necessary funds for this tour to happen. Their daughter, Vivian Nixon, is in Brothers of the Knight and plays the magical housekeeper, who figures out why the boy’s shoes are worn out every night. This was the role Allen played in the original production in 1998 when the musical was performed three times at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., then in Los Angeles and in South Carolina. Grammy-winner, James Ingram, co-wrote with Allen the stage version of the Brothers of the Knight. The part Ingram played is being portrayed by Matthew Johnson, a former background vocalist for india.arie, Pharrell, Lauryn Hill, and Robin Thicke.
Other cities may get to see performances of Brothers of the Knight as Allen is getting calls to add more cities to the tour or to record the production for TV.
“I want to do this show again,” Allen said. “We’re poised to tour next summer with additional cities. People should come see the show and support the arts and young people.”
After Brothers of the Knight ends its tour this summer, of course the multi-talented Allen has many other projects in the works. She’ll continue acting and directing in Grey’s Anatomy, directing episodes of Scandal, Witches of East End, Jane the Virgin, How to Get Away with Murder and Empire.
July 4th Parade in Philadelphia
Look for a float with Allen and the cast of Brothers of the Knight during the July 4th Parade in Philadelphia. Allen’s newly discovered talented cast will perform a dance routine from the musical during the parade.
After Brothers of the Knight leaves Philadelphia, the show stops in Washington, DC, July 10-13, at the Werner Theater and in Charlotte, NC, July 17-19, at Ovens Auditorium.
For ticket information go to BrothersoftheKnight.com, KimmelCenter.org and Ticketmaster.com.