Lion's Share

Light on their feet: Some of New York's best concert dancers have joined the court of The Lion King.
Joan Marcus

One night, The Lion King's dance captain, Aubrey Lynch II, felt his troops were getting a bit lackadaisical. "Thirty to 50 years ago," he reminded them, "we were not allowed onstage without a chicken bone in our mouths." Broadway has been pretty good to black dancers in recent years, what with the increase in color-blind casting (for example, the new production of On the Town) and shows like Ain't Misbehavin', Jelly's Last Jam, and Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. But the Disney megahit is a potential bonanza for dancers of color. It employs 12— plus "swings" to cover for the injured or vacationing— and will probably run forever. There'll be replacements, a road company. Productions are in the works for Tokyo, Toronto, and London.

The Lion King is also Garth Fagan's first Broadway musical. The Rochester-based choreographer, whose own company is at the Joyce through November 22, pushed to hire concert dancers from among the hundreds who auditioned. "For most Broadway shows," he chuckles, "you either get, you know, languid or sizzle . . . the range between the two you seldom see." Among those he counts himself lucky to have recruited are Lynch, Michael Joy, and Karine Plantadit-Bageot, former Ailey dancers; Camille M. Brown, who danced with Martha Graham's company, Endalyn Taylor-Shellman from Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Mark Allan Davis, who toured with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and presented his own choreography while living in Germany. Seldom have the terms "chorus boy" and "chorus girl" seemed so anachronistic.

For these dancers, The Lion King is a whole new ball game. They execute Fagan's choreography, sing, and manipulate Julie Taymor's magical puppet-costumes. Simply performing on Broadway is new for most of them, and being in a hit has changed their lifestyles both financially and creatively. Few dance companies guarantee 52 weeks of paychecks; seasons grow and shrink. The Ailey company, one of the most successful, racked up 43 weeks in 1997. Lion King salaries are a jump up for most. Equity minimum for chorus is $1135 per week with $5 to $15 add-ons for "specialties" (from making the set revolve to performing a solo). Then there are perks like the residuals from an American Express commercial some of the dancers did with Taymor, and royalties for singing on the original cast album. Brown has bought an apartment ("Of course, me and the bank own it"). Lynch has a new place too. They needn't think twice before hailing a cab.

The Lion King came at a fortuitous time in most of their lives. Those in their thirties— middle-aged in the body-battering dance world— were already planning transitions from the rigors of rehearsing and touring constantly changing repertory. Once a Broadway show is up and running, cast members have some free time during the day for other pursuits— and not just dance classes or the singing and acting courses some of them have taken on. Staying put means Taylor-Shellman can pilot her seven-year-old son through the rigors of second grade and teach at the ballet school her husband Eddie Shellman (also a former DTH dancer) runs in Teaneck, New Jersey. Joy can finally take full advantage of a fellowship he secured three years ago and finish his B.A. at Empire State College. Davis, once a competition figure skater, is coaching the young, black up-and-comer Rheema Ricks, writing a play, and directing some of Lion King's talented cast members in a staged reading of Genet's The Blacks to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (scheduled for February).

Of course, doing eight shows a week drains a person. The biggest challenge is dealing with Taymor's beyond-puppets, light though they are. As Fagan says, "When you have two feet of head on top of your head, your center changes; your beautiful turns go." Strain can lead to injury. Fagan had to adjust Joy's stint as an ostrich ferrying a 70-pound kid, after a year of performances put Joy on disability for two weeks and felled both his understudies.

During the show, the dancers rarely take a breather. Taylor-Shellman starts the evening as a gazelle, then becomes an "anthill lady" who bourrées across on pointe, a lioness, an "exotic giraffe," a hyena, a wildebeest, a hyena again. She opens Act II in a dashiki, reappears as a lioness, handles a shadow puppet, does a pas de deux with Joy ("I'm like a wood nymph or something"), jumps back into the dashiki, and reprises lioness and gazelle. "Did I leave something out?"

Plantadit-Bageot nails it: "After having been a speed runner, I'm now a marathon runner. The change is dramatic." Concert dancers thrive on variety, learning new works in different styles and vying for new roles. It figures that Lion King dancers cherish memories of the process of creating the show. Says Brown: "To work with Julie is similar to working with Martha Graham in the sense that she's a grande dame with a vision of what she thinks theater is, a vision she's been working toward her whole life. And Garth's a wonderful person. He works you hard, but he fills you up too." The principal challenge now is to keep fresh through endless repetition. Night after night, "you laugh in the same place, you hurt in the same place, you sweat in the same place at the same time," says Lynch.

What keeps the dancers happy besides a stable life, a nice paycheck, and the doors that open when they've got a hit of this magnitude on their résumés? They're moved by the entranced faces in the audience. They love the show and are as proud to be in it as Fagan is to count it among his accomplishments. Thanks to him, Taymor, and the additional vocals provided by chorus director Lebo M, this moral tale in the Disney tradition— part Prodigal Son, part Hamlet— transcends its cartoon origins and peoples a mythical Africa with a nobility that's largely black, a land where the beautiful lionesses Fagan took pleasure in creating aren't coy or sexy, but females "who hunt and keep the pride alive while the blooming males sleep and yawn."

"No hookers," says Brown succinctly. And no beleaguered jazz musicians or kids with guns and baseball caps. Until now, Lynch feels, one thing missing on Broadway was "that regal beauty that is so natural in the African American race. And to stand onstage dressed in African cloth with hand-painted silk and real grass and singing in Zulu— a language that's much older than English— is an amazing feeling." What moves Plantadit-Bageot, born and raised in West Africa, is that "Africa, as a continent, is present on Broadway. The subtleties are exquisite; to anyone who knows Africa, this is a very special show."

On the brink of his company's New York season, Fagan prays that the increased visibility the show has given him will reflect on his company in terms of audience building and funding. Some of these performers may branch out into acting (Brown understudies Queen Sarabi). With increased insights into how theater operates, Davis may edge into directing or producing; Lynch, too. As dance captain, responsible for fitting new principals and understudies into ensemble numbers, he's got less free time than the others, but he's learned a lot. "It feels so good to sit on my couch and light the candles and just look at my living room. [I say to myself], 'Look at what you've done, Aubrey. You came here as a 19-year-old kid from a small town in Michigan, and now you're living in midtown Manhattan in a beautiful apartment.' It's more than I could ever have dreamed."

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