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Dancers Over 40 ARTS Legacy

DO40 Arts Legacy Interview

Dennis Birchall, Jeri Kansas and Francis J. Roach

Dennis Birchall

What inspired you to become a dancer?

Sometimes, you need to listen to the universe. In my sophomore year in college, Myles and Herci Marsden, the founders of The State Ballet of Rhode Island came and offered ballet classes. Turns out, I loved it. The next year they invited me to perform in their major production of Hamlet and I became a member of their company.  I ended up graduating with a BFA in Theatre. When I graduated from college, there were some family issues. I decided that I needed to stay home and protect my family. I got a job binding books for a new home study school and ended up being Administrative Assistant to the Executive VP. As dancers, we learned discipline and focus. I didn’t know that I couldn’t do it, I just did it. I still performed with the ballet company. I would leave the office with my shoes and tights in my attaché case. I moved up in the company and became a principle dancer.

When I was about to turn 25, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens came to Providence with their production of Tommy and I met a few members of the company. When they were playing City Center in NYC, they invited me to come stay with them and I got to take company class. I knew I had work to do, but I wasn’t far behind. I decided it was time for me to pursue dancing or give it up. I didn’t want to be 80 saying I was a “could have been.” I quit my job and moved to NYC. That began my career and meeting all the people who have blessed and guided me.

Who were the most influential people in your career and what teachers had the most influence in your career?

I am so grateful for all the people who were there at transitional moments of my life. When I moved to NY, I got a job working in an office. I started studying at Joffrey in their evening classes. Yup, more shoes and tights in the attaché case. They offered me a scholarship. Then they found out how old I was. They said, “We’re sorry, why didn’t you come when you were young?” I went home, pulled up a chair in front of the refrigerator, and snacked. It was the perfect message. I moved onto Farnsworth and Hauer. I started taking Jazz, Tap, Acro and Ballet. I got a scholarship. I was taking six hours a day of classes.

That’s were Chuck Kelly came into my life. I will always love him. He built tanks. He taught us a technique that protected our bodies. He also taught us to adapt to whatever a choreographer was teaching. The technique never changed. Everything else was just style that was added on. He introduced me to T. Michael Reed and we ended up roommates with David Hodo, who became the Construction Worker in the Village People. When Tom was doing Seesaw, I met conductor Don Pippin. What a gracious giving man. He sent me to Wally Harper for voice lessons. His friend, Gene Kelton, was transitioning to choreography and choreographing his first season at Allenberry in PA. Gene came to watch me take ballet class. I do not “perform” in class. I work my ass off.  He was happy. I had just gone to his callback and sang. That’s how I got my Equity card.
Another life changing teacher was Orrin Kane. He taught at Ruth Page’s school in Chicago. His technique changed my body shape for the better. He came to see me in A Chorus Line. His comment was “Who in the Hell was that? I never saw that in class.” Again, I do not sparkle in class. I’m working.

Dennis Birchall in A Chorus Line

And, there’s Larry Fuller. I took jazz class with him at Farnsworth and Hauer. We connected when I was doing ACL in Boston when Larry was doing the pre-Broadway 20th Century. When they were putting together Evita, he let me come to the callbacks. He knew I could dance. I had to sing. Never thought of myself as a singer, but if I made it to that point, the job was mine. I got the job. I did the entire run and a lot of tours in the 80s. I think I did close to 2,000 performances. I was never bored. It’s an actor’s musical. There are new things to discover every night.

What is the most frightening or funny story?  
I was dancing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet for SBRI. During the dress rehearsal, while I was doing my death scene, the back of my costume split open. Talk about split second decisions. I panicked and forgot the choreography.  At the same time I realized that the audience didn’t know the choreography either. It was so freeing. I kept going and got it back. I looked up and saw that a lot of the dancers were crying. They were in the moment. But, the greatest compliment was that the costume designer didn’t know that the costume had split. I learned to give 100% whenever you are rehearsing. You never know what you’ll discover.

What experience or legacy would you like to pass onto the next generation?

My grandfather was the smartest man I knew growing up. He only got to the eighth grade. He told me to learn something new every day. It wasn’t about what you learned. It was about staying curious. When I switched to performing in college I realized that I wanted to know all the technical aspects, so I started taking backstage classes, including a costume construction class. I wanted to know how difficult something I needed as an actor was to achieve. I was the first man to take a costuming class. There was a discussion in the department. Hey, it was the 60’s. The next semester a few more men signed up. Then it wasn’t an issue.

I joined the Wardrobe Union in 1979 when I left ACL. Maribeth Reagan was my wardrobe supervisor on two tours of ACL. She knew my history and sponsored me to join the union. About two weeks after Evita closed, Barrett Hong offered me a job on the revival of Mame that was coming back to NYC.

1983 was a transition year for me. I had just taken over financial responsibility for the family house when Evita posted notice. I’ve been very careful fiscally, so I could take care of that. But my dearest friend discovered that she was pregnant and the guy didn’t want to have anything to do with the baby. I was blessed to be able to step up, but I couldn’t support myself and two families as a performer. We took Lamaze classes and I got to bring my son into the world. I did the best I could to guide him. But I can’t take credit for the amazing young man he has become.

That led to many other jobs. Throughout the 80’s I flipped back and forth. Every time a tour of Evita went out, I was gifted to be able to join the company. I was able to build up both my pensions – a financial gift. I’m happily retired. Thank you to my Unions which have protected me. I feel like Norma Rae. I guess my message is stay curious. You never know where it will lead.


Jeri Kansas

Jeri Kansas

What inspired you to want to become a dancer?

Living in New Jersey gave my family and me the opportunity to go into New York City, frequently visiting Radio City Music Hall. Looking at that grand foyer my mom recalled my saying I’m going to live here one day and become a Rockette! Not being more than 6 years old, I was mesmerized seeing that golden curtain rise up to reveal a troupe of dancers so precise. Their elegant style and formations were executed with ease. The excitement of a live orchestra and beautiful costumes was overwhelming. Who would not want to be a part of this world! As I continued my dance training, MGM movies were always playing on TV. Fred Astaire and Ann Miller were my idols. My mom bought albums from Broadway musicals which I would belt out with complete joy!  Not until I was a teen did I see a Broadway musical. My high school drama club attended Applause on Broadway and the theatre bug became a part of my soul. Little did I know that years later I would be on Broadway myself with one of the supporting actors from Applause – Lee Roy Reams!

Who were most influential in your career?

I was fortunate to study with one of the members of the Jerry Ames Tap Company, Tony Mineado. He refined my tap technique, clarified the sounds and taught me how to color them. He was elegant and I couldn’t wait for the next challenging tap turns or combinations.  As a teen my father would escort me to dance class in NYC with Peter Gennaro.  Theatre dance moves and going across the floor with “real” dancers was exhilarating! Peter had a signature style that felt like putting on the perfect clothes. I met some Rockettes in class and learned about future auditions at the Music Hall. I remembered watching Peter dance on the Ed Sullivan show and now I was in his class.  I eventually worked with Mr. Gennaro at RCMH and he gave me the opportunity to land my first Equity contract in the Milliken Breakfast Show.

What were your most memorable dance performances?

Jeri Kansas and Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies

The most memorable was when the curtain came up on the opening number of the Tony Award winning musical 42nd Street! The energy from our company was thrilling and I will always hold each member of that cast, crew and production team in my heart.  Most of our 42nd Street family stay in touch and August 25 was the  40 anniversary of our opening night.  Gower Champion and Michael Stewart gave me the opportunity to play the original Phyllis and “Go Into Your Dance” and “We’re In The Money” were numbers we were featured in.  Another memory so vivid is dancing on stage with Ann Miller in my first Broadway Show, Sugar Babies. Having Ann and Mickey Rooney, a part of my young life, watching them on TV and now onstage was so surreal and fun! Their professionalism and energy were unmatched. I would watch their duet each evening in the “McHugh Medley.” They knew how to excite an audience and sell a number as only they could.

What was the most frightening or funny story?

When I became a Rockette at 19, I rehearsed with then choreographer, Violet Holmes, privately in the large rehearsal hall. Being placed into formations, I pictured each of the Rockettes to my left and right. I could always look for each of them as we travelled to each formation on that immense stage.  Not having the opportunity to rehearse onstage and in costume was a bit overwhelming. It was the Easter show and on cue we would each pop out of an Easter egg. My turn came and we were to dance to our first open formation. As I searched for the two dancers I would have on either side of me I realized I couldn’t identify them. We were all dressed alike and in the same exact headpiece!!! Oh NO! Why hadn’t I expected that?! My heart sank as I thought I would open and close on that same day. Luckily for me a senior Rockette realized I was in trouble and moved me into my first position. From then on, I was sure to look for the numbers downstage and not the dancer. The Rockette “sisterhood” continues today as I continue to be a part of that wonderful legacy as a Rockette Alumni.

Francis J. Roach

Francis, next to Ben Vereen, with Luigi students
(and DO40 members Annie Johnson and John Bate)

What inspired you to become a dancer?

A home movie shows me buck naked, at about four years young, jumping on a bed that my dad was laying on (fully clothed) while laughing at me. It splices later into Christmas morning and I'm ''improvising'' to the harsh sounds of the kids’ guitar and drum-set my five and six years older brothers got.  What inspired me? Joy. Since I came one month early into the world I've wanted to share the joy of living.

Who were the most influential people in your career and what teachers had the most influence in your career?

I give gratitude to my earliest teachers, Rosemary Michellini, Janie Marcy, Joanne Petz and Sandra Little, along with the very influential Liza Minnelli in Cabaret.  It sparked my small-town 17 year-old, wanting to be lit, brain.  At 19, Donna McKechnie and originals in A Chorus Line made me cry like a baby, Ben Vereen entertaining in the film Funny Lady, and Luigi, the teacher of most, if not all of those before mentioned and so many others. I met him at 15 or 16 when he taught a master class near my home.  His work gave me my center, so I moved to NYC at 20 to study with him, and that's where I met Liza Minnelli, Donna McKechnie and Ben Vereen. I'm blessed to say that I have worked with each of them, and continue to.

What were your most memorable dance performances?

Performing Luigi's ''It Had To Be You'' around the globe and getting kudos from Gwen Verdon, Ann Reinking, George Chakiris, Hama, Sheila Forbes, Patrick Adiarte, Erick Hawkins, Anna Sokolow, Dennis Wayne, Tommy Walsh, Lee Garrard - president of Dance Masters of America and Don Emmons along with audiences in Los Angeles, Orlando, Yokohama-city and Luigi's Jazz Centre. Also the Statue of Liberty Celebration on TV with Gene Kelly, Liza, Shirley MacLaine, Patti LaBelle and the Pointer Sisters, to name a few.  The Music Man, Carousel and more regionally; Seven Brides For Seven Brothers for Joey Patton as well as two Luigi's Technique and Style videos, one shot in Tokyo and the other in the US. 

What was the most frightening or funny story in your career? 
Gwen Verdon sent me to Fosse's call for  Big Deal, my first and only audition for him. When the others and I crossed in front of him one-at-a-time doing his turned-in passe jumps, right in the middle of the stage, I slipped and fell flat on my back for him!  Image yourself looking up at Bob leaning over you and then him helping you up! He said, ''You okay?'' I knew that I had twisted my ankle because it was swelling but I continued dancing for the next two hours because he kept asking me to stay. I got the callback for two days later but didn't go - my ankle was the size of my neck. But hey, I got called back by him.

What experience or legacy would you like to pass on to the next generation?

Since Luigi is the only dancer/teacher that had a debilitating accident, who then rebuilt his body and had a Hollywood, Las Vegas and Broadway performing career, and went on to share his holistic technique with so many around the world as a master teacher - I'm going to carry on his work.

Background Photo DO40 Cares 2012, By Jeff Eason, Wilsonmodels, Inc