I’d never seen Romeo hit a B-Boy stance until I entered the practice studio for the Hartford Stage.
The unique combination of hip-hop inspired breakdancing and the Bard’s lyrical language are the core of the Hartford Stage’s Breakdancing Shakespeare program. As a celebration of its ten year anniversary, the program is going back to the play which started it all for them: Romeo and Juliet. Nina Pinchin, the director of the production and the Associate Director of Education at the Hartford Stage, recalls the conversation which led to the birth of Breakdancing Shakespeare.
“They [at the Hartford Stage] thought, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to take a piece like Romeo and Juliet, which has so much violence, and replace that with breakdancing?” she explained. “Breakdancing has a rich history here in Connecticut.” That thought led to the creation of the program, a six week paid internship for 15-20 high school students from the Greater Hartford area each summer which is funded through the Greater Hartford Arts Council. The actors and actresses work Monday through Friday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. In addition to the $100 stipend they receive every week, the actors and actresses also receive financial literacy training through the program.
Over the last ten years, Breakdancing Shakespeare has performed some of the best known plays in Western theater, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and Hamlet. One of the keys to the success of the program has been the level of consistency it maintains. Ms. Pinchin has directed eight out of the previous ten productions herself. The program also encourages former members to take on leadership roles in the program once they’ve graduated from high school.
One of those former students is Gina Salvatore, the Assistant Director for the production. Gina has been involved with Breakdancing Shakespeare for eight years, and began her career as an assistant director before she graduated from the program. “I love watching their process,” Ms. Salvatore says of the young actors and actresses. “Students come in confused and it’s wonderful to see them grow and gain the appreciation of theater and Shakespeare, and to watch the students learn sonnets and sonnets and lines and lines!” Ms. Salvatore brings her professional experience to the students and gives them insight into the world of a working actress. She has performed with the Professional Reperatoire Theater, the Newington Theater Company and the Wethersfield Theater Company among others.
Another former student is Brandon Couloute, the production’s choreographer. He has also been with Breakdancing Shakespeare for eight years, and has been the choreographer for the last five. He has danced for United Rhythm, the Michael Jackson Experience, and will be teaching a dance class at Trinity College this fall. For Mr. Couloute, Breakdancing Shakespeare is an excellent introduction into the world of working performers for young people. “Students learn professionalism. This isn’t a summer camp. When you’re here, you’re at work, and this is a serious art gig.”
While the adults help to put on the production, no one works harder than the young actors and actresses who perform on stage. Jahleah Harris, 16, plays Juliet. She is a student at Bloomfield High School and a star on the championship track and field team. Ms. Harris was cast in the lead role despite this being her first year in the program. “I’ve always liked theater, but I thought I would challenge myself with breakdancing because I’ve never tried it before,” she says about her decision to do Breakdancing Shakespeare. “It’s a very fun experience. The people are cool and welcoming. You can be the weirdest person and they’ll accept you.” Ms. Harris sees her participation in the program not only as exposure to the arts, but also as preparation for her life more broadly. “[The program] teaches you how you should be prepared for certain things in life, or they won’t come out the way you want. You have to be very mature…you have to go home and memorize by yourself.”
Jerry Hamilton, 15, plays Romeo. A student at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, this is also his first year in the Breakdancing Shakespeare program, although he has performed on stage before. “I’ve been interested in theater and dance and anything involving the performing arts my entire life,” he says. Mr. Hamilton has previously performed in musicals, and is excited to be in a Shakespearean production. “This is my first play, and the fact that it’s Shakespeare propels it to a whole new level. Being in this helps me to understand the language and what it represents. Shakespeare is a tool every actor must have.” Mr. Hamilton wants to pursue acting as a career path after high school, and his enthusiasm for the work bursts out of him. “I really, really, really enjoy this program. I’m so bored on the weekends and I ask myself, ‘Can I go back to rehearsal?’”
I was allowed to watch the group practice the first act of the play. They’d been rehearsing for just over a week, and already I was blown away by the quality of the work I saw. The actors and actresses disappeared into their roles. I didn’t see 16 year old Asaundra Hill before me when she spoke- I saw the Nurse. Marcus Infantas, one of the youngest performers in the group, embodied Paris with the confidence and energy of any veteran stage performer. Tamara Graham commanded my attention as Lady Capulet. And then there was the dancing. Mu Kue and Lili St. Amand displayed more rhythm, coordination and style in their dance than adults twice their age. All of the performers impressed me with their talent and hard work. They are a special group of young people.
As Mr. Couloute said, this is not a summer camp. The professionalism and dedication of the young actors and actresses was on full display during the rehearsal. Lines were memorized, dance moves were performed flawlessly, direction was taken with open ears and minds, and I was thoroughly entertained. All of this, after only one week of having the group together. I walked away from my time with the Breakdancing Shakespeare group ready to see more. I can’t wait until the production premieres on August 11th, so that the rest of Greater Hartford will get to enjoy what I’ve been so privileged to have a glimpse at. I already have my tickets. Do you?