A big winner at the Astaire Awards this year was Broadway smash “Motown,” which took home honors for choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams (they tied with “Pippin” choreographer Chet Walker) and performer Eric LaJuan Summers, who received the award for outstanding male dancer in a Broadway show.
A jukebox musical of Motown hits that range from “Dancing in the Street” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Motown” wouldn’t seem to need much in the way of choreography given that Diana Ross and the Supremes and the rest of the record label artists already created the steps.
Not so, according to Wilcox. “There are certain iconic moves,” she says. For instance, you can’t have someone singing “Stop! In the Name of Love” without the hand in the air. “I think if you put in one of those iconic moves for those groups, then you can essentially do your own take on the steps after that,” Wilcox says. “We both felt this great responsibility to pay homage to the people who came before us, so you take that style that was inherent in that time period, and you expand on it.”
The real-life people being portrayed helped Summers get a better grasp on the choreography as well. “It’s kind of crippling to realize you’re playing icons, but the good thing is they will help you learn,” Summers says, adding that he spent a lot of time watching clips of the men he plays—Jackie Wilson, Marlon Jackson, and Rick James among them—before making their moves his own. “Patti and Warren basically wanted us to tap into our own instinct as a performer,” he says. “What we do is stylistically like them but in our own way.”
Though Summers took home the top award at the Astaires this year, his career as a dancer didn’t begin until he came to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Never having trained, he faked it well enough during his placement auditions that he landed in the advanced class—and stuck it out. “A friend and I would go to a dance studio for hours and hours on end so I could pick up what he’d known for years,” Summers says. “One ballet teacher was like, ‘Eric, I can see your technique—or lack thereof—but I still want to watch you do it!’ And he would literally sit down in front of me at the barre and correct everything.”
That delay in training meant that when Summers finally began taking classes, he was eager and ready to absorb as much as he could, something he says is important for any performer. He also points out that dancing isn’t just about knowing the moves. “When you’re younger, you think you have to do it exactly this way,” he says. “But then you look at the best dancers, singers, or actors in the world, and there’s always something catered to them. I remember watching Rachelle Rak do ‘I Gotcha’ in ‘Fosse,’ and everything about her is completely hers. You literally watch her become herself in someone else’s work. Going into a dance call, it really is what you bring of yourself.”