When Randy James was a child — he thinks he may have been six or seven years old — he remembers walking on the beach with his mother and counting the seagulls overhead. “I said, ‘Mom, there’s 53 birds up there, and there’s three diagonals and two straight lines.’”
“You’re so weird,” his mother replied.
Now that James is 57, however, he recalls that moment on the beach as the first, lightning-flash sign he would grow up to be a choreographer. “I see space. I see numbers. I see shapes,” James continues. “I’ve always felt like I’m arranging people.”
Today James is a popular dance teacher, and a distinguished member of the faculty at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he began working in 1997. He also directs his second company, a dance troupe called 10 Hairy Legs, founded in 2012. Featuring a stunning all-male cast, and a repertoire that mixes works by various contemporary choreographers, 10 Hairy Legs will perform at the Crossroads Theater, in New Brunswick, on Saturday, March 26. The program features only one dance by James, a delicate, gestural solo called “Rook.”
Cleo Mack has contributed her “Bathtub Trio,” a sultry dance originally choreographed for three women. The dancers will also perform two zany duets by David Parker, a contemporary artist whose work has been influenced by tap dancing and musical theater. These duets are “Friends of Dorothy,” a wistful, coming-of-age piece that recalls the golden age of Hollywood Westerns; and “Slapstuck,” a hilarious yet insightful commentary on co-dependency, in which the dancing partners literally stick together with Velcro. The program concludes with a 10 Hairy Legs commission — the rousing “Trouble Will Find Me,” a virtuosic ensemble number choreographed by post-modern trickster Doug Elkins and set to the seductive rhythms of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
This program reflects James’ years of experience and displays a connoisseur’s taste, but the road he followed to reach this pinnacle of sophistication has been a long and winding one.
The youngest of four children, James grew up in New Brunswick in a family that loved sports but had little interest in the arts. “My brother and my father (a teacher), my sisters, they’re all jocks,” he says. Still, his mother played the piano; and she enrolled him in a summer camp where he could study arts and crafts. The best day of the week was Friday, when the campers climbed aboard a bus to East Brunswick High School and watched performances produced by children’s theater director Elliott Taubenslag. James fell in love with those productions, and when he got to high school he learned he could perform in them. He says the theater became his life, and he decided to become an actor. He did not begin dancing until he was 19, when he started studying at the Princeton Ballet School. Someone told him “If I take the partnering class on Friday night, and lift the women over my head, I could get a full scholarship. So that’s how I did it.”
At the same time, James says he enrolled at Rutgers College and got his first exposure to modern dance. Those classes bewildered him. “It was just such an unknown quantity to me,” James says. “I had this idea that modern dancers wear unitards and crawl on the floor.
“The improv class made me very uncomfortable,” he recalls. “I wanted to smile and kick my legs and be glamorous. I did not want to throw energy to another person and catch it. Now I love those things. Back then I was a scared little boy. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
In any case, the chance to make $15,000 modeling for Evan Picone soon tempted James to drop out of college. When the modeling gig ended, he drifted into a career as a showboy at the Playboy Club in Atlantic City. “I stayed there for 18 months dancing in a G-string, smiling and riding motorcycles and avoiding the tiger that was on stage,” James says. The tiger wasn’t the only danger in that glittering playground. “We had to dance with waterfalls and elephants, and horses and chimpanzees. That stage was going up and down and around, and it was like a circus. It was crazy,” he recalls. Still, James says, club dancing was a great experience. “I was making $400 a week. That was more money than I had ever heard of.”
He kept dancing in clubs until he was 27. Then he had another epiphany on the beach. This time, he had been dancing in Puerto Rico. “I had been there for 13 months, and I remember going, ‘OK, I’m just way too tan.’ I need to do something else. I knew I wasn’t going to smile and kick my legs the rest of my life.”
Flying back to New York, James attended performances by the Paul Taylor Dance Company that he says changed his life. At that time, the company’s stars included legendary figures like the late Christopher Gillis, David Parsons, Cathy McCann, and Susan McGuire. “I was sitting there crying my eyes out and I said, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do. These are dancers.’” Soon James was taking two classes per day at the Taylor company studios; and a friend recommended that he audition for the company of Dan Wagoner, a veteran of Taylor’s original group.
James had never attended a modern dance audition before, and he says he showed up three hours early intending to sign in. Instead of a sign-up sheet, however, he found a nearly empty studio where a man was working alone quietly polishing the mirrors and sweeping the floor. Since it was raining outside, the man told James he could stay to stretch and warm-up. “I talked to him for two and a half hours, and then people started coming in and that man who was cleaning the floors ended up being Dan Wagoner. I thought he was the janitor,” James says, chuckling at his own naivete. That was his first lesson in what it means to be an artistic director in the up-by-your-bootstraps world of modern dance.
James would dance in Wagoner’s company for eight years learning the ropes. During that time Wagoner’s company performed regularly in New York and toured both nationally and internationally. According to James, his mentor was Old School modern. The choreographer was the company’s star; and he expected his dancers to dedicate themselves completely to his aesthetic. “Dan never wanted to hear about us dancing with other people, or teaching anywhere,” James recalls. “He never asked me about my choreography, nothing. Nope. It was Dan Wagoner, and dancers. Did you get that? ‘Dan Wagoner!’ and dancers.”
Still, James gives Wagoner a lot of credit. “He’s a master choreographer. He never asked us to make up one step. I mean, he did everything — every movement, every count, every shape. He had it all organized in his head; and he never changed a thing. He got it right the first time. He’s a master teacher, also. My class is very much based off of his class. I mix my Yoga and Pilates and stretch in there, but basically the formation of my class is his.”
While dancing with Wagoner’s group, James says he also began to develop his skills as a choreographer and teacher; and he built a network of contacts all around the country. “I learned how to run a company, and how not to run a company,” he says. So when he received an offer to teach at SUNY Brockport, James says he knew it was time to leave Wagoner’s group; and shortly thereafter he launched his own group, Randy James Dance Works (RJDW), with a concert at the Cunningham studio in 1992. That group, based in Highland Park, continued to perform until 2008, when James says the death of his close friend, Scott Cagenello, in an automobile accident, delivered a shock that made him re-examine his priorities. By that time, he says, “I was teaching full-time at Rutgers. I was going to school to get my degree. I was running the company, and I wanted to take a break. It was just too much. I needed to balance my life.
“It’s an amazing gift when you can take a break from anything and think, or not think,” he adds. “I’m on a park bench and it’s a beautiful day. And all of a sudden my mind starts drifting into choreography and life. Those times were few and far between when I was running RJDW.”
James says he took four years to decompress. During that time he wasn’t idle. He accepted invitations to choreograph for other companies; and he focused on his teaching including a widely popular dance appreciation class. Crucially, during this time the Rutgers dance department’s decision to begin recruiting men for their programs was also beginning to pay off.
James recalls how this transpired. “I’d been at Rutgers for about six years, and there were no men in the program. And then, all of a sudden, four guys came to the same audition. We went downstairs afterwards, and the faculty looked at each other. And we said, ‘Well, we really hope they’ll come to Rutgers.’ And I said, ‘Hope? Do you think the football team hopes that people come? No, they recruit.’ And I said, ‘Do you mind if I recruit them?’ And they said, ‘No, sure.’” Some money was found, “And we got two of those four guys,” James says proudly.
The presence and energy of men in the program then began to attract more men; and within a few years 22 guys were dancing at Rutgers. “It started snowballing,” James says. Coincidentally, in 2010 he had choreographed a quartet called “Pillar of Salt” on four of his finest male students who were preparing to graduate. “It’s a very emotional piece,” James says. “So I would be crying, and I’d go down to my office and Jeff Friedman, one of my artistic advisers now, said, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I said, ‘Because the men are so beautiful. It makes me sad to have worked so hard training them, and for them to accomplish so much, and then not to work with them again.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you start a company with them?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want to start another company. Do you know how much work that is? Raising money and choreographing? Washing costumes?’”
Yet ultimately that’s what James did. What made the creation of 10 Hairy Legs possible, he says, was finding the right support staff, including executive director Elizabeth Shaff Sobo, board president Phil Levy, and rehearsal director Alex Biegelson. Biegelson also dances in the company, along with the four other Rutgers prodigies who had been James’ inspiration: Tyner Dumortier, Kyle Marshall, Scott Schneider, and Nicholas Sciscione. Plus, the new troupe would be a repertory ensemble meaning James didn’t have the responsibility of creating all the choreography himself. “Now that it’s a repertory company, I can have a life as well,” he says.
The fact that, unlike Randy James Dance Works, the new company would be all-male inclined him in the direction of mixed repertory, too. “I knew with having just one sex on stage, that there shouldn’t be just one voice,” he says. “And the more I thought about it the more it made sense.
“When you watch two men dance, most people will think they’re homosexuals,” James continues. “But when two women dance, they’ll think they’re sisters or something. That’s not a good thing — that people make those assumptions.” By programming varied repertoire, showcasing different styles and offering the perspectives of both male and female artists, James believes he can help change people’s attitudes. Some works in the repertoire, like a duet from Christopher Williams’ “Portuguese Suite,” are unabashedly gay, while others, like the “Bathtub Trio” give gender roles a provocative spin. Still other pieces that 10 Hairy Legs performs, however, like Julie Bour’s “Three Blind Men and the Elephant” or Claire Porter’s tragi-comic solo “Interview,” don’t address sexuality at all.
“That’s just not what their work is about,” James says. “It’s about being human.”
10 Hairy Legs, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Saturday, March 26, 2 p.m. $20 to $25. 732-545-8100 or 10hl.org.