By Jerome Langston

No, I’m not in Memphis, but the dancers are working with our rehearsal director, getting ready for our upcoming tour,” says Kevin Thomas, the founding Artistic Director of Collage Dance Collective, in reply to my inquiry about his whereabouts. Thomas is currently at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where he is setting a work on dance students there. Collage, a world-class ballet company that is widely celebrated for its racial diversity amongst its dancers and leadership, has been based in Memphis, Tennessee, since 2007, following its inception year in New York City. The company will be in Norfolk next month for a highly anticipated performance at Chrysler Hall — as part of the Virginia Arts Festival.

“The last time we were at the Virginia Arts Festival, we were there with Dance Theatre of Harlem,” he reminds me. “We partnered together to do the ballet Dougla.” I remember that performance in 2019. Dougla, which was choreographed by the great Geoffrey Holder in the seventies, is one of DTH’s most popular, enduring works. I recall that it was quite a magical experience, seeing it live for the first time. “We were supposed to come back in 2020, but because of the pandemic… that just put a halt to everything,” says the dancer and well-regarded choreographer.

Early on in our phone chat, I ask Kevin what drew him to dance. “I fell in love with dance, because I was able to express myself,” he says. Kevin, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, grew up in Montreal, Canada, with his parents and siblings. “Growing up in Montreal, I knew that I was an immigrant… and I always felt very different from everybody,” he tells me. Once his parents put him in dance though, it gave him the creative outlet to express his feelings.

A young Thomas excelled at dance — and particularly in ballet. While in his late teens, he was the only black dancer at Montreal’s prestigious Les Grand Ballets Canadiens. Eventually, work as a principal dancer at the Cleveland San Jose ballet followed, but even still, Kevin wasn’t fully content with his place at those companies, despite his successes. “I always felt that I wasn’t able to be my true self,” he says. “And there were no ballets really, created that was about my community.”

Much of that feeling ended when the young dancer joined Dance Theatre of Harlem in the mid-nineties. As a principal dancer there, and under the tutelage of the great Arthur Mitchell, he would go on to a decade of leading roles. “I worked directly with Mr. Mitchell,” he says. “He was my inspiration.” Being candid, he does acknowledge that the legend was strict, and could be quite hard on him — but it was all for a greater purpose. Mr. Mitchell would remind us that “this is larger than yourself. What we represented [as DTH dancers] was larger than ourselves.”

Mr. Mitchell’s example and encouragement laid the foundation for Thomas to found Collage Dance Collective with Marcellus Harper, in 2006. Once they got to Memphis with their professional company in 2007, they took a couple of years to really ascertain what the community’s needs were, relative to dance and the arts more broadly. “We opened a school in 2009, with one child,” he shares. We both laugh a bit, as that was about as humble a beginning as one could imagine. Yet now, they are in a state-of-the-art new building, that was built in 2020. There are now 440 kids in their conservatory, and they also teach another 500 or so kids, through their community engagement programming, in schools throughout the city of Memphis and its surrounding areas. And their professional company now boasts 17 dancers, who Kevin provides long contracts to, with health benefits.

When Collage makes it way to Norfolk in March, their performance will be the kick-off highlight of the 14th Regional High School Dance Festival, which is being hosted here by The Governor’s School for the Arts. That festival runs from March 7-10, and will feature hundreds of high school students from around the country. Earlier in the week, I stopped by the GSA building in downtown Norfolk, and chatted with both Dr. Michelle Cihak, GSA’s Executive Director, and Deborah Thorpe, the Founding Director of the Regional High School Dance Festival. They both explain what the festival entails, and Thorpe tells me that four of Collage’s company dancers will remain in the area following the March 7th performance, to teach classes for the festival.

Dr. Cihak notes that the partnership with the Virginia Arts Festival “is vital to what we do.” She continues, “The relationship we have with the Virginia Arts Festival is such a gift, in terms of visiting artists that our pre-professional training program — our students get to engage with the international caliber of artists that they’re continually working with. And then in return, we’re also able to provide rehearsal space, workshop unique projects…” She adds, “Rob is always game for our crazy ideas and finding a way to incorporate them, and it’s key to our mission and their mission, to work through educational partnership.”

Before letting Thomas get back to his current commitments at the University, we talk a bit about the works being performed by his company at Chrysler Hall in March. “Amy Hall Garner’s Bluff City Blues is wonderful because it’s ballet to the blues,” he says. And then Luminescent is a new work by Durante Verzola, set to music by Joseph Bologne. Kevin states that the piece has only been performed a few times, and not even yet in Memphis. I then ask him, in closing, what excites him the most about the upcoming performance here in Norfolk. He says, “I’m just excited for the audience to experience Collage Dance Collective, and to experience our diverse repertoire, because each piece is very different.”



Collage Dance Collective

Presented by Virginia Arts Festival

March 7 

Chrysler Hall