The original poster for the Twyla Tharp/Billy Joel dance production “Movin’ Out” was a battered red, white and blue road sign. What an apt foreshadowing of the touring companies of this Tony Award winning “Best Musical” of 2003.
Speaking with 20-year old-dancer Gregory DeSantis as he talks about the nonstop pace of the schedule of the current North American tour, I thought, It’s a good thing you’re young. They began last November with hops up the center of the United States, and then barreled down through Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and so on, all the way to Florida in December. “When we arrive in a town, we sometimes go directly to the theater, then have the next morning off. Here I was on the beach in Florida. It was gorgeous and it was crazy that this was my job, sitting on the beach while in New Jersey it was snowing,” DeSantis says in a phone interview from where? “Macon, Georgia now, then we’re off to Selma, Alabama.”
Usually the company travels in their own tour bus, with the same driver, a moving community, taking a plane when there’s a particularly long, fast hop to the next performance. “It’s a grueling schedule, but we do get a week off every month or so and we are flown home for a vacation.” Since this is called a North American tour, they covered the west coast as well, starting in Tacoma, Washington, with stops along the way, sweeping down through California, and finally to Las Vegas. And they’ve also played in Canada.
He assures me that they have danced in almost every state in the union. And they only began the tour six months ago. Near the beginning of their travels, DeSantis celebrated his birthday and was thrilled when the character of the “Piano Man” inserted his name into the script as a “shout out” during the performance that day. Of course, there was a cake after the show. Another particular perq for him has been reuniting with other dance friends who are now working all over the country. The company’s last stop will be in Philadelphia at the end of May.
This is their second stop in DeSantis’ home state of New Jersey. They were at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank for one night in April. And on the evenings of Wednesday and Thursday, May 13 and 14, they will perform at the State Theater in New Brunswick. This is a happy return for DeSantis as he danced on the stage at the State when he was a dance student at Center Stage Dance and Theater School in East Brunswick. “It’s cool to come full circle,” he says. He studied first at the school’s Marlboro Campus, which was 15 minutes from his home in Manalapan, beginning with an acting class. “I wanted to do something artistic, but around my school — actually I think it’s a common idea in the United States — dancing was for girls. Funny, because in the beginnings of dance and theater, there were only men.”
When his acting class in his second year conflicted with his mother’s schedule he decided to try a jazz dance class. “After that first day, I loved it,” he says. Since he wanted to join dance competition where ballet is a requirement, “I had to take ballet; now it’s my favorite.” He also studied at the Princeton Ballet School in the summer of 2006.
Since he was only nine when he began dance classes, a family commitment had to be made. His mom, who is a psychiatrist, but wanted as a young girl to be a dancer, was happy to support her son and serve as chauffer number one. As the years went by, she was assisted by his dad, who is a lawyer; a next door neighbor; one of his dance teachers who lived near by, and “Aunt Fran,” who can also be credited with taking him to New York City to see the original Broadway production of “Movin’ Out.” DeSantis’ siblings have probably kept the carpool going as his 16-year-old brother is a gymnast, and his 10-year-old sister takes dance lessons at Center Stage Dance and Theater School.
When DeSantis graduated from Manalapan High School in 2006 he knew what he wanted to do: focus on dance. He began his college dance major at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. “Maybe it wasn’t the smartest plan at the time. Some of my dancer friends were pressed by their parents to go to college with a dance/business major. Something to ‘fall back’ on. I’m grateful that my parents supported my choice. A dance schedule is pretty grueling and I do take some academic subjects.”
When he was in his second year at North Carolina, the casting director for the tour of “Movin’ Out’ came to the school to scout talent. “She remembered me from an earlier audition I had done for something else.” When she told him that Twyla Tharp herself would be at the auditions, he flew to New York to audition. “I’m on a temporary leave from school. But now that I’m dancing professionally, why would I go back to train?” He says that a dancer’s work career span is at most until one reaches age 40, and he hopes at some time to earn a college degree, maybe even in law like his father. But for the immediate future when the tour is over, he’d like to join a ballet company. “American Ballet Theater would be great — one day.”
“Movin’ Out” is especially taxing on the company of dancers. “We have a physical therapist to massage out the kinks,” says DeSantis, “And I take good care of myself. I try to be conscious of what I’m eating, but it’s hard on the road as we stop for lunch and often the only choice is fast food. All of us warm up before each show to get our bodies moving whether you’re performing that day or not. You never know when you may be called to replace someone.” With his strong dance background, he feels that he has it easier than some other dancers in the company whose background is primarily Broadway musical dancing. There is a cast rotation so that every so often, a dancer has a day off. “I dance six to nine shows a week,” says DeSantis.
“Movin’ Out” traces a group of high school students in the ‘60s as they deal with their lives, romances, and the shocking development of being drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam. Using familiar songs by Billy Joel, Tharp has built a rock ballet that, according to DeSantis, she calls “pedestrian.” By that she doesn’t mean ordinary, but rather a person on foot who we all can relate to, someone more “normal,” DeSantis explains. “We don’t always have pointed toes like most ballet.”
In “Movin’ Out,” DeSantis as the character James dances a love duet with the character Judy. He tells me that Tharp calls this “MGM Classicism,” reminiscent of old movie musicals. In the story, James becomes engaged to Judy before he goes off to war. “There’s some mime like regular ballet, but unlike most ballet, we have props. For instance, I have a real ring to give her.” He feels that people will connect to their story for its heart and emotion as well as the fact that they already know the Billy Joel music (including “Just the Way You Are,” “Big Shot,” “Uptown Girl,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire”). “People can connect. It was originally written as a memorial to the soldiers of the Vietnam War. But with recent tragedies and war in the Middle East, we have soldiers today to honor. There are mothers now who have their children overseas fighting. `Movin’ Out’ is very relevant today.”
Movin’ Out, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Wednesday and Thursday, May 13 and 14, 8 p.m. Dance musical based on the music of Billy Joel with choreography by Twyla Tharp. $40 to $75. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.