BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields at The Edison Ballroom preparing
to receive the Oscar Hammerstein Award in 2019.
Lia Chang; photographer

As the critic-in-residence of BroadwayWorld Dance I am pleased to kick off our 2020 Black History Month Celebration by honouring the incredible André De Shields, who recently won the 2020 Grammy Award as a Principal Soloist of Hadestown the musical's Original Broadway Cast Recording. That puts him one award away from joining the EGOT club. He already has the Emmy--which he received for his performance in the television broadcast of Ain't Misbehavin'--as well as the Tony Award which he received last year at the age of 73 years young for his godly portrayal of Hermes in Hadestown. As a believer in breaking the "Methuselah Code"--which means living for as long as the biblical Methuselah, through one's legacy--De Shields has plenty of time to add to his already impressive list of honors.

Many people see De Shields as a more an actor or a singer than a dancer. What they don't realize is that he is a physical storyteller who uses every aspect of his being to transmit information to the audience. It's all very African and connected to the moving others--spiritually as well as viscerally--which is why I consider him a dancer first and foremost. I recently sat down with De Shields in his dressing room at the Walter Kerr Theatre for an exclusive interview for TheBody.com (which you read in full here).

During our chat, which took place the day before his 74th birthday, he dropped so many diamonds of wisdom that I was unable to fit them all into my original reportage. I'm pleased to have been granted permission to share a few of his thoughts on dance, here on BroadwayWorld Dance.

BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
Suave and Debonair: André De Shields
Lia Chang; photograher

De Shields initially demurred when I called him a dancer because he held such great respect for the people he knew who devoted their lives to the art form. After we continued our conversation, he eventually agreed with me calling him a dancer.

De Shields: A professor of mine shared a mantra that I always carry with me. He said, "I'm going to introduce you to a term that you're not going to find in the dictionary; it hasn't entered the lexicon yet. Innatism." You recognize the root: innate, inherent, intrinsic, intuitive. So he says, "We know everything we need to know. We simply don't know that we know it." That's how I have approached my career. I know how to dance. I grew up in the inner city. You know? I grew up in the ghetto. We were out in the streets throwing down. Dropping it like it's hot. I'm not going to become a tabula rasa so somebody can imprint their dogma on me.

Of course, not everyone is as talented as De Shields is. Some of us may been born with "it" but we still need a teacher to help us realize our nascent potential. But if you've ever seen onstage De Shields onstage, you immediately recognize that he has that kinetic responsiveness and rhythmic mastery that all great dancers seem to have naturally. The brilliant ballet teacher David Howard once told me, "It doesn't matter how high you can jump if you can't do it on the beat or in a way that gives something to the audience." De Shields grasps this innately; one doesn't have to jump over the moon to bring the audience roaring to their feet. Sometimes, a simple slink or dig of the hip is enough to arouse their passions. He does it 8 shows a week on Broadway after unbuttoning his jacket and calling out to the audience, "Aight?" They gleefully respond, "Aight" right back because they innately grasp what he is asking without needing an explanation.

BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields in his dressing room at the
Walter Kerr with his Tony Award and Emmy Award.
Lia Chang; photographer

As part of this feature, I am pleased to share photos of De Shields in some of his most favourite roles from the past decade. They include images of him as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, King Louis from The Jungle Book, The Wizard from The Wiz, and of course Hermes from Hadestown. All of these spectacular images were taken by the fabulous photographer and actress Lia Chang, who has been archiving and cataloging De Shield's legacy for the the past three decades. From looking at Chang's photographs, one can see that she has a dancer's eye as well. She understands how the body moves and how to capture the most astonishing images in one go. Or maybe she simply knows her friend André De Shields better than any other photographer in the world. Whatever the case, I am thrilled to showcase her work of this most wonderful man doing his thing. Enjoy!

-Juan Michael Porter II; dance critic-in-residence

BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields as The Wizard in Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS'
special, 40th Anniversary Fundraiser of The Wiz in 2014.
Lia Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields at Feinstien's/54 Below kicking his leg up for the
40th Anniversary concert of Ain't Misbehavin'. 2018
Lia Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields as W.E.B. DuBois in Charles Smith's
Knock Me A Kiss at the National Black Theatre Festival in 2013.
Lia Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields in his one-man-show,
Confessions of a P.I.M.P. at Victory Gardens Theater in 2016.
Lia Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields as King Louie in Mary Zimmerman's version of
Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book at Huntington Theatre Company in 2013.
Lia Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields as Hermes in Hadestown. 2019
Lia Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields as the eponymous Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe in
The Classical Theatre of Harlem's updated version of Moliere's Tartuffe, in 2009
Lia Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields as Frederick Douglass in Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance in 2010, which he conceived, researched, and directed.
Lia Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields at the album recording session of Hadestown
with Ahmad Simmons and Timothy Oliver Reid.
Lia Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields in his dressing room at the
Walter Kerr Theatre, dressed for the 2019
Red Bucket Follies.
LIa Chang; photographer

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BWW Dance: Honoring André De Shields for Black History Month
André De Shields with Murray Horwitz, Ken Page, Charlayne Woodard and
Richard Maltby, Jr. at Feinstien's/54 Below 40th Anniversary concert of
Ain't Misbehavin'; original cast mates and director.
LIa Chang; photographer

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All images are copyrighted by and belong to Lia Chang. They have been used with her express permission for this article.




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