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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Luis Salgado of 'In the Heights'

This is the first story about Luis Salgado written in English. In Spanish, it's another story. Check out these headlines: "Luis Salgado saborea el éxito teatral" ("Luis Salgado savors theatrical success"), Primera Hora newspaper. "Línea ascendente" ("Rising star"), El Nuevo Día. And when it looked like he'd have his first Broadway role, in 2005's The Mambo Kings, the newspaper Hoy Nueva York proclaimed, "El debut de un grande" ("A great one's debut").

He's known in places where they speak other languages too. The German telecommunications giant Arcor twice hired him for an industrial, first as a dancer and the following year as choreographer. He's gone to Japan three times to be the guest artist with a dance company.

Here in New York, where he's lived for the last five years or so, Salgado currently has his most prominent role to date. In off-Broadway's In the Heights, this season's most ingratiating new musical, he's one of the denizens of that barrio up near the top of the subway map—i.e., Washington Heights. If you don't notice him for his mop of curly hair, you do because of his eye-popping dance moves, especially in the club scene, when he comes between would-be sweethearts Usnavi and Vanessa.

Salgado, 26, first heard about Heights from its original choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, with whom he'd worked on Mambo Kings. About a year and a half ago, Trujillo told the previously close-cropped Salgado to start growing out his hair for a role in the new show. Though he ended up passing on the In the Heights workshop to be dance captain for a regional production of Aida, Salgado let his hair grow all last year, even while he was filming two movies and playing other parts on stage—including prissy Bobby in A Chorus Line. "It gave it a comedy thing—like a little psychotic Bobby," he laughs.

Salgado was billed as a "special guest star" in Chorus Line, which was presented for six performances last fall at Centro de Bellas Artes de Caguas, outside San Juan. He was, after all, returning to his native Puerto Rico with some Hollywood credentials—dance double for star Diego Luna in 2004's Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and parts in scenes with Russell Crowe and Patrick Dempsey in, respectively, American Gangster and Enchanted (both scheduled for release this November).

In 2004, Salgado had made another heralded return—for his hometown's annual Carnaval Vegalteño, which was dedicated to him in recognition of his accomplishments and the example he set. Salgado grew up in Vega Alta, a city of 38,000 on Puerto Rico's north coast, about 25 miles from San Juan. Coincidentally, it's also where the family of In the Heights' creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda hails from. Miranda, whom Salgado hadn't met before working on the show, wrote a lyric—sung by Daniela (Andréa Burns)—about "the hills of Vega Alta" for Heights.

When Salgado was still a teenager, he started a dance academy in a local gym. He notes that, ironically, the government which would honor him with Carnaval after he'd left the island wasn't that forthcoming with financial or logistical support during the five years his school operated. But it had 300 pupils—children and adults—and put on a show every six months. In the spring of 2001, Salgado and his students were invited to perform at New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade (Vega Alta was one of that year's parade honorees).

That trip led to Salgado's decision to move to New York, and by the following year he was living in la Gran Manzana and working pretty regularly. But he'd arrived in the city without the childhood indoctrination most of his colleagues have had. "I was pretty much unaware of the power of musical theater until I came to New York. I didn't grow up seeing Mary Poppins, I didn't grow up seeing The Wizard of Oz," Salgado says, though he does recall being profoundly affected by a nonmusical stage production of Pinocchio as an adolescent. "When I moved to New York, my first voice teacher told me 'See more!' and I'm like, 'Who's Seymour?' And he was, 'No. See more shows. You've got to go and study, you've got to learn.' So I was in Blockbuster every week, renting movie musicals."

Before he left Puerto Rico, he produced one last show with his school—"Por Amor al Arte" ("For Love of the Art"), the story of a Puerto Rican boy who goes to New York to pursue his showbiz dreams. "In a way it was an apology, because I was leaving," says Salgado. Then and now, however, people around Salgado must know how important following one's dreams is to him. He had named his school Ensueños—In Dreams—and his bio in the In the Heights program concludes "Dare to dream." Last May, he co-choreographed and danced in Starting Today Dare to Dream…, a show performed in Jackson Heights, Queens, with students of the Lexington School for the Deaf.

"I am a dreamer, and I will always be a dreamer," Salgado says, er, dreamily. "We can all dream; it's free. If nobody wants to support it, you can go to your room and still dream."

For the Starting Today job, he'd been referred by Maria Torres, who was his dance partner in The Mambo Kings and choreographed off-Broadway's Four Guys Named José. She also was associate choreographer for Enchanted, Disney's live-action/animation mash-up due out later this year, and Salgado assisted her on its Central Park scene. The film's cast includes Hollywood stars Patrick Dempsey, Susan Sarandon and Amy (Junebug) Adams as well as such Broadway faves as Idina Menzel, Brian D'Arcy James, Judy Kuhn and Gregory Jbara.

Salgado also performs in a ballroom scene in Enchanted, one of three fall films in which he appears (barring any prerelease edits). In Julie Taymor's Vietnam-era Across the Universe, which also features some animation as well as a score by the Beatles, he plays a hippie in the "Come Together" number and a sergeant in a draft-board sequence (the movie should be out in September). In American Gangster, a 1970s-set Ridley Scott opus about heroin smuggling, starring Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, he dances in a club scene.

His stage work since moving to New York includes ensemble roles in Fame off-Broadway, Aida at Westchester Broadway Theatre, and Evita (starring Felicia Finley) at Helen Hayes Theatre in Rockland County. He's danced in Madison Square Garden concerts by pop stars Thalía and Paulina Rubio and in the free outdoor "Dancing for Life" performances presented in summer by Dancers Responding to AIDS. He's also worked for SEA, Sociedad Educativa de las Artes, a bilingual youth theater company and arts education program. He performed in SEA's revue of Latino music, ¡Tropical!, and choreographed its original musical Los Desertores/The Dropouts.

One of Salgado's first jobs in New York was a role in "Broadway Workshop," a 2002 miniseries starring Wayne Cilento, Amy Spanger and Alan Thicke that was created for PBS' Egg: The Arts Show. "Broadway Workshop" chronicled the fictional development of a Broadway musical about lobstering, Traps!, but only one episode was televised before Egg went off the air.

A few years later, Salgado would be involved in another aborted project—the attempt to bring The Mambo Kings, a musical adaptation of the Antonio Banderas/Armand Assante movie (which had been based on an Oscar Hijuelos novel), to Broadway. He did the workshop in New York and the spring 2005 production in San Francisco. Then the company came back to New York, put up a marquee on the Broadway Theatre, announced an Aug. 18 opening, and gave the cast a week off. A few days into their paid vacation, they got the call that the Broadway run had been canceled.

"It was devastating, the hardest experience of our lives," Salgado says. "The cast was so united, so committed, and we were all so proud because it was something that spoke our language, that was representing our people. That period—the '50s—was beautifully represented. And suddenly it was gone, done, just out of the blue."

Despite Mambo Kings' collapse, Salgado came away from the show with something valuable: a "new mentor." That would be Sergio Trujillo, the choreographer, for whom he later did preproduction—helping to work out choreography—on All Shook Up, Kismet for City Center Encores! and a piece for Ballet Hispanico. (Trujillo left In the Heights after the workshop and was replaced by Andy Blankenbuehler for the actual production.) Salgado had had a childhood mentor back in Puerto Rico, a dance instructor named José Javier "Pepito" Rivera. "After Pepito," he says, "I hadn't had a person who challenged me, who gave me love within the art, who told me 'You're capable of doing that and I love it, but I want you to do this other thing.' Sergio gave me all of that again."

Salgado had found his first mentor at a crucial time. When he was 9, he went to Hawaii to live with his father, who'd divorced his mother when he was a baby. "I had a pretty difficult time because I didn't speak English and I was pretty much living alone because my father was in the Army, my stepmother was very young—she wasn't really taking care of me—school wasn't in my native language. I had D's and F's in school. It was a tough change, because my mother always took so much care of me, I had A grades [in Puerto Rico]. I went from everything to nothing."

He moved back in with his mother in Puerto Rico the next year, but was still reeling from the painful time in Hawaii. A new afterschool arts program proved his salvation. It was run by Rivera, who became "like my father figure," Salgado says. "Thanks to that program, I started finding again a lot of hope and things to do and focus on. My grades started coming back up, and I became again to be Luis, the same Luis who left town. But now this Luis had another hunger that I'd discovered and that allowed me to be myself."

Rivera taught the kids dance, acting, poetry, and had them put on a performance every week. When Luis and his classmates were moving on to high school—and therefore would no longer be in the school with Pepito's program—Rivera created a company to keep them as students. Around that time, Salgado began his formal dance training at a studio. Rivera introduced him to professional artists, and the connections led to jobs. At age 17, Salgado became a backup dancer for merengue singer Jailene Cintrón. He performed on her TV show, A Reír y a Gozar, and on other Puerto Rican television programs, including Voces en Función, Vale Mas, Eso Vale and De Noche con Iris y Sunshine.

While Salgado was performing and running his own school, he was also enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico in Rió Piedras as an acting student. All the while, his mother was wary of this dream of his. "It was pretty much taboo," he says. "In Puerto Rico, in the United States, no matter where you are, they don't teach us to do what we love. They teach us to do something that can give you money."

He moved to New York before he could graduate from college but has continued taking acting classes. He has plans for putting all the dramatic training to use. "Eventually I want to move more into acting," he says. "Just plays." His role models are Raul Julia and José Ferrer, two Puerto Ricans who were respected dramatic actors in U.S. But this dream is being deferred at present. "I feel I still have a long way to go, with my accent, with many other things," Salgado explains. "When that time comes when I'm going to focus on that [acting], I will have had developed a name and a résumé that will support me and I will have the abilities." Besides, he adds, "I am way too happy dancing at this moment!"

His happiness is due to not just what he's doing but where. "I am so in love with In the Heights," says Salgado, who's the only cast member (besides veterans Olga Merediz and John Herrera) who was born outside the States. "Nothing in New York City has brought what it has. It's not creating a stereotype; it's creating the story of people, and that's where the honesty's at. This show just grabs the music and just grabs a story of people who are struggling."

He's not as effusive about the most famous Manhattan-set musical about Hispanics, primarily because of the image it has fixed in people's minds. "When I step into an audition, I'm not always allowed to step in as Luis, but I have to be Bernardo. I have to represent what someone put out there that the Latino community was. It's been accepted because it was so powerful and beautiful and has so much greatness to it. Yet West Side Story f---ed us up, I'm sorry to say. We have to now become a character that people understand." The authentically puertorriqueño Salgado says he's been told in auditions that he doesn't have the "right accent" by people accustomed to the fake accents of actors who've played Bernardo. Despite his gripes, that was Salgado at last year's Tony Awards, "playing" Bernardo when characters from shows produced by Hal Prince appeared on stage during a tribute to Prince.

Salgado is so satisfied with his current gig, he turned down a role in a new musical adaptation of Carmen, being staged by Cirque du Soleil director Franco Dragone for a June-July run at La Jolla Playhouse. He does moonlight from In the Heights, though: He's choreographing recording artist Jimmy Flavor's performance at the Miss Dominican Republic USA pageant, to be held May 5 in the Bronx, and is restaging SEA's 2002 show The Dropouts for performances at Manhattan's El Museo del Barrio on May 24 and 25.

Salgado, whose yen to perform began with childhood magic tricks using cards and "pañuelos" (handkerchiefs), keeps honing some offstage talents as well. He's an avid photographer, still loyal to 35mm, and has painted art for his apartment—which is in Harlem, not the Heights. And "I love writing," he says. "I write thoughts, I write quotes, I write plays. Hopefully I'll be able to give more effort to do that and I'll have some good material there to publish someday."

Photos of Luis in performance, from top: in a Puerto Rican production of Chorus Line last fall; in off-Broadway's Fame; with Maria Torres in The Mambo Kings; in In the Heights, with Andréa Burns and Eliseo Roman. [Heights photo by Joan Marcus]

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