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How a Broadway Choreographer Danced His Way to Success

Ken Roberson, choreographer of "Avenue Q" and the new Elvis-inspired show, "All Shook Up," discusses his beginnings and his love of the theater.

Email icon  ehj207@nyu.edu

On a cold Saturday evening, the choreographer of “Avenue Q” and the new Elvis-inspired musical, “All Shook Up,” opening at the Palace Theatre on March 24, looked like a standard New Yorker sitting in the Westway Diner on Ninth Avenue, eating a pastrami sandwich. But when he leaned forward, his dark eyes earnest, Roberson began to speak with a slow, Southern drawl.

“The fact that I am able to do three quarters of what I dream I can do is astounding. I am eternally grateful for it.”

When he talks about the facts of his life, Roberson stutters, stumbling over his vowels and soft consonants, often changing the course of a sentence to help himself along. However, when he talks about his love of dance and his passion for what he does, his words flow without difficulty.

“It is fulfilling for me. The more I do, the more I get known, the higher the stakes. I love to be in the theater and work in a safe space.”

After 25 years in New York City, Roberson, 49, still views the theater as the place where he can best express himself. It is when he is dancing that he feels most comfortable with himself and with the world around him. His passion has led him through a career that allowed him to choreograph the winner of the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, and a new show that, during its previews in Chicago, Betty Mohr of the “Daily Southtown” called a “slick, fun-loving blast to the past.”

Roberson, however, did not grow up with dreams of dancing or Broadway.

“I grew up in a small town, just outside of Augusta, called Thomson, Ga.,” he said, pausing to spell out slowly the name of his hometown. “We always danced in my family. There was a lot of music and a lot of dance, but I never took a class. I think, deep down inside, I wanted to make a career of the arts, but the practical side of me said that, in the late ’70s, you don’t go into theater. So I got accepted to University of Georgia, and I majored in journalism.”

Roberson smiled, exposing two rows of brilliant white teeth. His eyes crinkled at the edges and the whites of his eyes disappeared into the darkness of his face.

“I think deep down I knew eventually I would come here. I would get the Village Voice at Barnette’s in Athens, and I found myself getting the New York Times on Sundays for the Arts and Leisure.” He rolled his right hand as if he were looking for the words. “I had this kind of lure and attraction to Broadway. I didn’t want to admit it, but there was something innate in me that knew.”

It was in the spring of 1976 when Roberson was going to school in Athens, Ga., that he first got his opportunity to dance. He saw a performance by a small Athens dance studio, Mell Street Studios. Gail Barnes, who ran the studio, remembered her first conversation with Roberson.

“It was right after the ‘Tap Tapestry’ show. I get a call from this guy. He was stuttering so badly, and he was crying. He told me he had seen the show and said he just wanted to dance so much. He was just the sweetest thing, asking if he could come and take classes.”

At age 20 — what most people would consider to be an advanced age for a dancer — Roberson took his first dance class. In that small Athens studio, Roberson’s dance career had its genesis when he first stepped on stage.

Tom Barnes was often paired with Roberson in dance numbers. “If Ken and I were on stage, well, between the two of us, everyone else had to watch out.” Barnes laughed. “We used to do a lot of embellishment with big, expressive faces and movements. If everyone else was going left, we were going right, and that was fine. It wasn’t that we were trying to be the stars; we were just enjoying it so much.”

According to those that danced with him in those early days, Roberson’s natural dancing ability and stage presence was simply an extension of his personality. One of the things that Roberson credits as the source for his open personality is his family.

A dancer’s first time on Broadway is always memorable, and Roberson’s was no exception. However, what sticks out most him about that January 1989 performance of “Black and Blue” was his family’s presence.

“I remember when my mother and father came. And that’s when they realized,” he said, trailing off. “And they said, ‘I didn’t know you could do all that.’ And they embraced it. My father saw the show and saw the crowd, and they were both just blown away. And that right there was enough for me.”

Roberson’s strong roots allowed him to test his ability early on.

In the fall of 1979, after he graduated from the University of Georgia, he attended an Alvin Ailey workshop in Atlanta. After the workshop, he was invited to audition for their school in New York City.

“The only problem was I worked at the [Athens] Banner-Herald in the ads department, and it was Christmastime so all these ads were coming in, and they wouldn’t give me the time off,” Roberson said. “They said if I left I would be fired. So I left.”

In December 1979, Roberson was accepted as a student at Alvin Ailey’s school, where he would study for the next two years. After a stint in the disco group, Fantasy, and teaching dance in Osaka, Japan, in 1983, Roberson realized he wanted to focus on his dancing career.

However, it was not until 1986 that Roberson performed in his first big show, “Black and Blue.” At the time, he was living in New York City and auditioning as much as possible.

“I would go to these auditions, and I would get cut around the time for tapping. I had studied tap with Gail [Barnes], but I didn’t keep it up. So I went to this guy Henry LeTang. He taught a lot of people in New York at the time. I decided to work at a straight job for nine months and hone my craft for tap. I didn’t take a modern class, where I could be a star, or a jazz class, where I could be a star,” he said, waving his hands as if he were batting away flies from his face. “I left my comfort zone. LeTang was one of the choreographers for ‘Black and Blue,’ so that’s how it happened that I got the chance to do the show in Paris.”

It was during the 1988 European tour of “Sophisticated Ladies” that Roberson got his shot at Broadway.

“I left the show in the middle of the night one night because I got a phone call that ‘Black and Blue’ was coming to America. They had started rehearsals, and they wanted me to rejoin the cast. So, in the middle of the night, I left the south of France and got to Paris and got to New York, and I was on Broadway.”

Since that show, Roberson has worked continually on Broadway, in regional theater and on national tours.

After a life of working hard to become a first a dancer and then a successful choreographer, Roberson has no regrets.

More importantly though, Roberson said he has no plans to leave the theater any time soon.

“I love the theater. I love what it does,” he said. “I think of what we can do as ambassadors. The way we massage people’s souls, the way we can bring a great joy a lot of time. I don’t think I want to tell what I still want to do, but it has to with education and educating. We all do that, when we talk to people that are open.” Roberson got up from his chair and reached for his coat. He stopped. “We’re not done yet. We’re just starting.”

Ken Roberson, choreographer of “Avenue Q” and the new Elvis-inspired show, “All Shook Up,” discusses his beginnings and his love of the theater....