Exclusive: With dre.dance, Taye Diggs Proves One Hot Choreographer

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The secret is out: Taye Diggs is a choreographer trapped in a movie star’s body. According to longtime friend and fellow choreographer Andrew Palermo, Diggs, who currently stars in ABC’s Private Practice, would trade a movie set for a dance studio any day. “He always says it doesn’t matter that he was in movies – he would see I was teaching a class at Broadway Dance Center and be jealous.”

Diggs and Palermo met as students at Rochester’s School of the Arts and remained friends even as their careers took different paths: After performing on Broadway, Diggs went on to act in television and film, while Palermo became an in-demand choreographer for stage and screen. In 2004, Diggs finally got a chance to put his choreographic chops to the test when he and Palermo co-founded a contemporary dance company called dre.dance. The company has earned critical praise in the years since, and though Diggs has kept his day job, he and Palermo have proven that dre.dance is no vanity project.

Now the pair is set to present the New York City premiere of beyond.words, an evening-length work that explores autism, April 2 through 4 at Tribeca Performing Arts Center. After the jump, Palermo tells us about the new work and the pros and cons of celebrity.

Flavorwire: You’ve been at this for a few years now. What has it been like getting dre.dance off the ground?

Andrew Palermo: It’s been like any young small business; it’s been a roller coaster. I think that we benefit from Taye’s celebrity and it hurts us sometimes, and that’s something we’ve had to learn over the years. Like, we’ll try to apply for a grant and they won’t even let us apply. They’ll say, “You’ve got Taye Diggs’ wallet.” And we’re making sure that people know we’re legit and that we’re not his vanity project. We don’t like trying to act like we’re the fiercest thing out there. If we wanted to be on Regis and Kelly we could but we don’t take those opportunities all the time because it doesn’t feel like we’ve warranted it yet.

FW: What are the benefits of having your own company?

AP: I think it’s different for each of us. For Taye, it gives him an outlet to do what he loves most. Dance is really his first love, and this is just a great platform for him to be able to choreograph on this level and get it seen. I run the company everyday and I’ve become a jack of all trades, master of none because I’ve had to be. It’s become my passion. What’s great about having your own baby is it’s your world. We can do what we want to do… and to have that kind of freedom is exhilarating but with it comes responsibility. You think, I really care about this. What do I want to say? Do I want to put out cool dances or do I want to try to affect the world in some way?

FW: So what did you decide?

AP: I think that in the first couple of years our pieces had authenticity and small meanings, but they were smaller works. For the last two pieces, beyond.words and the.people … we’ve gone in [a more serious] direction. As much as fun, frivolous work is great, it’s kind of hard to be working on something that you care about and not look at what’s going on in the world and comment on it.

FW: How did you decide to do a piece about autism?

AP: It was one of those things that chose us. A couple of years ago I was on the elliptical machine at the gym and looked up at the TV and there was a CNN feature on Amanda Baggs. She’s considered low-functioning autistic … and she makes videos about what it’s like to be her and puts them on YouTube.

This one that got a lot of attention is called “In My Language” … and basically the crux of it was saying, just because I speak a different language from most of you doesn’t mean that my language isn’t totally viable, and maybe other people should learn to speak it rather than make me try to speak yours. I was pretty blown away by that.

FW: What kind of research did you do for the piece?

AP: In addition to reading and watching videos, we’ve done workshops with children on the autism spectrum. We did one at Heartspring in Kansas… as well as a couple of individual workshops here with children and their parents, just one-on-one in the studio, seeing how we move together. We learned a lot about the movement vocabulary in the workshops. A lot of it is based around stimming – what you would call typical autism behavior, people rocking or tapping themselves, things like that.

More than anything, what came from those workshops was just a better first-hand knowledge of autism, and more specifically, how they process movement and how that affected us and how we felt. For the company members, the hands-on experience has been invaluable.

Photo credit: Cindy Miller