An Eastern Cape man who graduated from a township ballet school has made headlines as a choreographer on Motown, the hit musical which has opened to sell-out audiences on Broadway, New York.
Ballet dancer Warren Adams left the Toynbee Club Ballet School in Gelvandale, Port Elizabeth, 19 years ago on a dance scholarship to England, and ended up performing in and choreographing productions across the globe.
Now he is choreographer on Motown the Musical, which chronicles the emergence of the music genre regarded as “the soundtrack of America”, and which made Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson household names around the world.
Reviewers described the production as a “hit machine” and “a celebration of music that transformed America”. Written by Berry Gordy, who founded Motown records in 1959, the production has taken Broadway by storm, with pre-opening night bookings of $18 million .
Warren’s achievements include choreographing the staged musical version of Toy Story, the hit movie Julie Julia with Meryl Streep, and a production of the opera Magdalena in Paris, which included a performance by another Eastern Cape star, tenor Mlamli Lalapantsi. He also lectures at Princeton and New York universities.
This week the 36-year-old took time out with his brother Christopher, 30, to visit their former dance school in Gelvandale, saying that Motown the Musical “started for me way back at the Toynbee club – it’s not like I just arrived”.
He says the show’s success is an anomaly in entertainment.
“Most shows don’t open like that. If you put up a Broadway show you hope you get half of the response that Motown has achieved. I’m very happy and honoured to be part of that, and I hope it runs forever and goes around the world.
“Motown is probably the most iconic sound in the US or globally. People hear the intro to My Girl and they go nuts, wherever they are from. It’s the kind of show where anyone from the age of 100 down to 15 knows that music, so it has huge appeal to audiences.”
And, he says, the musical points the way to how South African dance companies can ensure full houses and funding for local productions.
“We have to give people what they want to hear and see. The country has changed, budgets have changed. The current model of producing shows has exhausted itself.
“Gone are the days of people spending money to sit in a theatre just to be seen, whether they like it or not. Looking at the socio-economic status of people these days, if you want them to see a production, it had better be good.”
Warren says shows need to be “more interactive”, and explore “new ways of looking at stories” in order to attract new audiences.
Warren and his brother Christopher, also an accomplished dancer based in New York, conducted dance workshops in Cape Town last week, before visiting their family in PE.
Both say the experience highlighted the potential for projects in South Africa, and that talks on a local production are under way.
They are also keen to establish collaboration between the US and South Africa – and specifically, “between New York and Cape Town-PE”, including providing a means of accessing the “bunch of extremely creative people we work with”.
While the talent among local dancers is “phenomenal”, Christopher says local productions must “engage the general population”, and use “our rich culture” and “stories about everyday lives”.
Warren says there are plans to take Motown to other countries and, based on the success of Jersey Boys, it could be seen in South Africa in about three years. He hints that their stint here gave him a chance to identify some potential performers.
When the brothers returned to the Port Elizabeth ballet school where it all started for them, they brought boxes of ballet shoes for the young Toynbee dancers, a gift from friends and colleagues in New York.
“This is really lovely. Shoes wear out quite quickly and they’re not cheap. It’s a great gift and we really appreciate it. Warren and Christopher always do things like that,” their former teacher Gwen-Mary Wells said.