"I think of this show as my child," said director-choreographer Billy Wilson while putting the finishing touches on the new "musical entertainment" "Dancin' in the Street!," which opened at Ford's Theatre last night.
"It's a show about kids of the '60s," he said, "gathering on street corners or steps and singing of their dreams--dreams of one day standing out on a stage, in beautiful, extravagant costumes, seeing themselves change like caterpillars to butterflies."
Wilson, whose choreographic and staging credits include such shows as "Bubbling Brown Sugar," "Eubie," and the revival of "Guys and Dolls," as well as ballets like his recent "Concerto in F" for Alvin Ailey's company, could have been talking about his own youth.
He grew up in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, harboring theatrical dreams of his own. "My parents had no connection with the arts," he said. "They were hard-working and very religious--Sundays you spent all day in church. But their greatest drive was to get the best education they could for their children. How they managed to put three kids through college I'll never know.
"My father never worked less than two jobs at a time. He was a barber by trade, but he was also a melter at the U.S. Mint. The amazing thing about my folks was that they didn't stifle their children, they gave them space. They weren't particularly thrilled with the idea of my dancing; they thought it was something I'd outgrow. But they just let me be and do my thing."
Wilson began tap dancing as a child. He attended a public school in Philadelphia with an unusual devotion to the arts. "We used to perform all over in the schools, to everything from Grieg and MacDowell to jazz and swing. By the time I was 11 I'd danced in every school in the city. And we'd be doing things like making African masks and building African villages--no one was talking about 'black awareness' in those days, but in this school every day was a feast of ideas and ideals."
Wilson, at 11, was awarded a scholarship to the Sidney King School of Tap Dancing. "I really loved ballet, but I was afraid to say it out loud--the idea of wearing tights and all that was not exactly what boys in our neighborhood did in those days," he recalled. But a teacher at the King School advised him to audition for Antony Tudor, the noted British-American choreographer who was giving classes at the Philadelphia Ballet Guild. "It wasn't supposed to be for beginners, so I was told to say I'd had two years of ballet," Wilson said. "I was terrified--Tudor was enough to terrify anyone to start with, but there I was at the audition wearing a bathing suit, socks, no tights, and a T-shirt with the Boy Scout insignia on it."
Tudor accepted him but advised him to start at less than the advanced level; "I think there are some things you don't know," he remarked. Wilson continued his studies with Tudor until he was 19 and left for New York, where he appeared in such shows as "Carmen Jones" and "The Bells Are Ringing."
In London, he enjoyed a personal triumph in the cast of "West Side Story," then joined the National Ballet of Holland for five years. During that period, Serge Lifar, the former Diaghilev dancer, created a ballet, "Othello," for Wilson that became what he describes as the "turning point of my life." "Suddenly, I was a ballet star, in demand all over Europe."
He returned to the U.S. to concentrate on choreography and teaching. In Boston, he headed the dance department at Brandeis University, choreographed Berlioz's mammoth opera "The Trojans" for Sarah Caldwell's Boston Opera Company, and created Emmy Award-winning dances for the popular public TV series, "Zoom."
"Dancin' in the Streets!" had its origins in Boston, too. A friend of Wilson's had seen a presentation of some big Motown hits of the '60s and recommended it to Wilson. "It wasn't a show as such, more like a concert of songs," Wilson recalls, "and I wasn't initially interested if that was to be the format. But after numbers of meetings with the producers, I said I'd take it on if I could construct it in a way that would show the beginnings, the roots of this music--how it filtered from street corners and the aspirations of youth, kids who dreamt of becoming the Supremes or the Temptations."
What evolved was what Wilson describes as "a singing and dancing show--it's constantly moving . . . There's no script as such. The story-aspects develop right out of the song lyrics. I also try to bring into focus some of the unrest of the '60s--not a great deal, but after all, the songs mirrored the times, and that's the idea of the show. The choreography is all based on the kind of movement groups like the Temptations and the Spinners were into then, the dances of the period. And the cast is, literally, never offstage.
"They're a marvelously talented group, all of them sing and dance and they're all very individual--three of them are Washingtonians, by the way, plus the dance captain, all of whom we hired by audition here; the rest are from the Boston cast. And it's very much an ensemble show--however thrilling stars and star performances can be, there's something very special about real ensemble theatre. I think that's why people love the Rockettes so much, the charge of watching people work together that way."
Wilson was commuting from New York to supervise the Ford's Theatre rehearsals, because at the same time he was choreographing and doing the musical staging for the new Alan Jay Lerner--Charles Strouse show, "Dance a Little Closer," opens next week on Broadway. He was also putting together a third European touring company for "Bubbling Brown Sugar," and in the meantime, Alvin Ailey had asked him for a new ballet for this fall.
"I'm a little bit wilted from all this activity," Wilson said. "I could sure use a break once this season is over."