Are you familiar with the new dance form called "swop"? It's a hybrid, invented by the choreographer of Idlewild, a new musical film scheduled to be released on March 10. The movie is set in a Southern speakeasy in the 1930s and the choreography is a newly minted combination of swing dance and hip-hop.
What choreographer, you may be asking, would have the audacity to create a new dance form for a period musical? Most choreographers would steep themselves in historical research and work on accurately re-creating the social-dance styles of the era. Well, the choreographer of Idlewild is the same guy who was creating dances for pop singers' videos long before most people even knew what a "music video" was. He's also the performer who, while still a teenager, took over a featured acting part during a show's out-of-town tryouts and turned it into one of Broadway's most memorable dance roles. Having never had a tap lesson in his life, he continued his Broadway career by auditioning for one of the Great White Way's biggest tap-dance hits and won a Tony Award for his efforts. As a youngster he pursued the serious study of ballet, undeterred by the fact that, as an African American, there would be virtually no place for him in the professional ballet world at that time. Young black dancers of his day were typically encouraged to study jazz and tap dance.
In more recent years, this courageous terpsichorean found himself growing increasingly disturbed by how few opportunities there are for people of color in professional theatre. So, in his typical pioneering fashion, he created a New York–based company committed to producing plays by minority artists. It's called the Hinton Battle Theatre Laboratory and is named after this maverick artist who has carved a career out of being one creative step ahead of everyone else.
Hinton Battle was an Army brat. He was born in Germany and grew up in Washington, D.C., where as a child he won a scholarship to study at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, one of the only studios in the country dedicated to providing ballet instruction to black pupils. By this time, however, Battle was already a "seasoned" dancer. "My elementary school put on a production of The Nutcracker," he explains. "The directors of the Jones-Haywood School saw me perform in it and that's how I got my ballet scholarship." In addition to dancing two roles, Battle was also the production's choreographer. "It was easy for me to look at steps and mimic them," he says when asked how, with no dance training, he was able to choreograph a full-length classical ballet. "The production became a huge hit," he recalls with amusement. "They were busing kids in from all over Washington to see it, for months and months. It was July and we were still doing The Nutcracker."
At 13, Battle was offered a scholarship to attend the School of American Ballet. He moved to New York and studied at the prestigious academy for three years. "We were living on $200 a month, which even then wasn't enough to survive on in Manhattan, so when we had time off during the summer, I decided to audition for a Broadway show to make some extra money. My real goal was to become a member of the New York City Ballet, but I got the show job, which was The Wiz, and it paid me $248 a week."
Though originally cast as a member of the show's ensemble, Battle ended up originating the featured role of the Scarecrow. "The way I got the role," he explains, "is that the actor who was originally cast as the Scarecrow got ill during the first act of one of the tryout performances in Detroit. They threw me on stage to do his part in the second act. The next day I got a call saying they wanted me to keep the role." Battle had virtually improvised his entire performance; he had not been prepared as an understudy. "But I told myself that I'm playing a scarecrow, so if I forget my lines, it's okay because I'm dumb—I don't have a brain. What I did when I didn't know what to say was fall down, or do a split, a kick, a pirouette, or a jump. And that's how it became a dance part. It was originally to have been played by a comedian, but they rewrote the role for me. I was only 15 at the time, so they made the part a streetwise hip kid."
After performing in The Wiz for three years, Battle decided he wanted to go back and fulfill his "ballet dream." He danced with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and as a soloist with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. "I never got into the New York City Ballet, however," he laments, "because Balanchine thought I was too short. But Bob Fosse was preparing a tour of his musical Dancin' at that time, so I went out on the road with that and then came back and did it on Broadway for a while."
Battle's next Broadway appearance was in Sophisticated Ladies. "And that was thanks to Gwen Verdon. I love her," he says. "For the Sophisticated Ladies audition, they wanted you to tap, but I had no tap-dance training. Fortunately, Gwen Verdon had been working with us as a director on the Dancin' tour and I told her about my problem. Gwen, bless her heart, told me not to worry about it. She said she'd work with me on developing a soft-shoe routine that I could do for the audition. Can you imagine that? Here I am, dancing in her show, and she's willing to work with me on preparing an audition for another production. She helped me create this soft-shoe that I did as my audition. Every time they'd look at my feet, I'd spin around, and when they stopped looking at my feet I'd do the tapping parts, but I had no taps on my shoes, so they couldn't really hear that I didn't know what I was doing." Battle got the job and won a Tony Award for his performance. He went on to perform on Broadway in Dreamgirls, The Tap Dance Kid, Miss Saigon, and Chicago.
During the 1980s, Battle lived in Los Angeles for a while and became one of the pioneers of music-video choreography, working with Rick Astley, among other artists. "I choreographed a lot of videos in the early days, when people were just starting to figure out what this whole new medium was about." He also choreographed for TV specials, commercials, and sitcoms.
In 2002 he founded a nonprofit theatre laboratory: "When I was starting out, there seemed to be lots of opportunities for me, lots of shows I could be in. But that's not true now, especially for performers of color. So I started this laboratory in order to develop new theatrical works with a focus on diversity."
Battle's latest project is the movie Idlewild, scheduled for release on March 10, directed and co-written by Bryan Barber, a top hip-hop video director who is making his film debut. Idlewild is being theatrically released in the U.S. by HBO Films (also one of the producers) and Universal Pictures, stars Big Boi and Andre 3000 (Andre Benjamin), and has a cast list that boasts such names as Patti Labelle, Ben Vereen, Cicely Tyson, and Ving Rhames. "I'm really excited about it," he says. "I had 99 dancers to work with! I took elements from hip-hop and from swing and mixed them together to create something completely new, because even though the film is set in the 1930s, I didn't want it to look like a period piece. I wanted to keep it relevant to today while giving the flavor of that era. I put hip-hop dancers and swing dancers in the same room and made them work together. They freaked out at first, but eventually we developed a great blend of the two forms, which I've called 'swop.' "
Although he wants to continue his choreography career and eventually try directing, his next step is back to performing. "I'm going to be an actor again," he says. Battle has been cast in the upcoming film version of Dreamgirls. "I really just try to keep my fingers in everything because, honestly, I love doing it all."