"For the past 20 years Justin's work has been seen Off-Broadway and across the country in both tours and regional/educational theatre. He is a recipient of the Kennedy Center College Theatre Award for his direction and choreography of Hairspray in Nashville and is also the director of the annual Choreographer's Canvas in New York City. Justin has worked closely with such artists as Nicole Fosse, Michael Blevins, Theodore Mann, David Rimmer and is currently a faculty member at Broadway Dance Center and Circle in the Square Theatre School. Since 2003 he has served as Executive Producer to The Group Theatre Too."
How did you hear about Dancers of New York?
I heard about it through Broadway Donation dance classes. You were there taking some photos, and you posted some photos online. I immediately just thought, “Wow, we’re in a dance studio and the photos were just really fantastic.” And then at first, I actually didn’t realize that you were the one who was running Dancers of New York, and I saw it separately on social media, and I thought, “What a great way to get the word out about all the things that we’re doing”--Broadway Donation classes being one of them--and so then I contacted you, and here we are.
Tell me a little bit about how you started dance.
I grew up in New Jersey about an hour outside of Manhattan. First, I tried doing sports, and that didn’t go very well. I tried baseball and played soccer. I think there was a very famous story of me scoring a goal for the wrong team. It was pretty rough. I was out there counting the bugs in the grass. It wasn’t that I didn’t like sports. It just didn’t interest me in the way that something more artistic inevitably did.
There was a college in my hometown, Hackettstown, NJ, called Centenary College. Not many people know about it. It’s a big equestrian school, but there’s an equity theatre called Centenary Stage Company. My mother saw an ad in the newspaper for this program called Centenary Young Performer’s Workshop. She signed me up without me knowing. Apparently in her mind, she always thought that I wanted to be a performer. When my father would bring home a video camera, I seemed to always be in the frames. I had three younger sisters, so I think there was definitely some competition in our house for attention all the time.
This man who ran the young performer’s program, Michael Blevins, he drove out from New York. Michael was a Broadway veteran performer and had done film--he played Mike in A Chorus Line; he had worked with Bob Fosse; he had trained Savion Glover in The Tap Dance Kid, and he was the one who ran this program. It was an amazing training ground. We would rehearse on Saturdays for 15 weeks, and every three hours we would rehearse for a different musical, and we would do 3-5 musicals--full-scale musicals--no junior stuff back then. And we would open them in rep for two weeks, and it was like summer stock on crack. It was really a great program. For me, having a male teacher who was very tap-heavy--he was really known for his tap dancing, but he also worked with some amazing choreographers like Joe Layton, Peter Gennaro, Bob Fosse, so he came from a real musical theatre background. He taught me what it meant to tell a story through dance. I think, up to that point, I just thought dance was, “You go to a dance studio and you learn how to do steps.” That’s where I learned. I studied there for 10 years.
How old were you when you first started?
I was 11.
So you were exposed to the world of musical theatre when you were that young?
Not at all. In fact, I remember Michael introducing himself to us. He was lying on the stage in this big, green army trench coat, and he was smoking--because you could smoke inside back then. I just looked at him and thought, “What a strange person.” I had never been exposed to anyone quite that eccentric, artistic, creative. Years after I graduated Circle in the Square, I started a theatre company with this guy. So it’s always funny to look back on that first day. I think that was like falling down the rabbit hole for me. That was when I realized that this was something that I really wanted to be a part of. It was an interesting world. And you know, this guy was a really a role model in the sense that he had a career and that he had made money doing it, and I never really thought that it was possible.
In high school and even before high school, I worked as a child actor. I think I had gone for an audition for a production of Singin’ in the Rain and Peter Pan at Paper Mill Playhouse. I didn’t get it. I remember being really devastated by that rejection. That was the first time I had been rejected. My mom was the one who said just go back--go back again and audition for the next show. I auditioned for Oliver! and I got into that production at Paper Mill Playhouse. Some great people were involved--Robert Creighton was Dodger, Aileen Quinn was Bet, who was original Annie in the first film version, Judy McLane was in that production, and George S. Irving--so wow, a whole new world now, even beyond what I had experienced at Centenary. This was getting to work professionally and getting paid for it. That kind of paved the way to me for getting representation as a young actor, doing some commercials and doing some TV spots. My mother would drive me into New York, and I would audition. This was probably around when Macaulay Culkin was really big. I remember doing a commercial with one of the kids who was in that movie Richie Rich. It was that era for me. I felt like, “Why not start now?” And then I got really bad grades in freshman year of high school, and I had gotten into some trouble. My parents were just like, “ You’ve got to stop until you get through high school. You have to at least graduate high school, because you’re not going to if you keep going on this track.” So that was good.
It was important for me to separate myself as a child actor and then move into New York truly as an adult actor and not feel that weird transition that I think a lot of kid performers go through. So that was my high school career. Having to finish high school and work on getting out of my hometown, because I knew immediately when I graduated high school, I wanted to move to New York.
What happened right after high school?
I had no money. My parents said that they couldn’t afford college. I think that conversation kinda went something like, ”I don’t really think I want to go to college,” and they probably thought, “Great.” We really couldn’t afford it. So I had a garage sale. I sold everything that I owned, including my car, a lot of childhood stuff--my Nintendo, my Super Nintendo, my Gameboy--all the stuff. At that time in the summer, right before I was planning to move to New York, I started teaching private tap lessons at people’s houses. I drove my car, before I sold it, to kids’ houses, and I would teach them privately out on the porch, in the kitchen, down in the basement. I made money doing that, and I was able to save up enough. At that point, I had just learned that I had gotten accepted into Circle in the Square’s 2-year conservatory musical theatre program. I had money to at least kinda survive in New York, but the big thing that really made it possible was that Michael Blevins allowed me to live with him for the time that I was at school. If he hadn’t done that, there’s no way--there’s no way that I would’ve been able to come to New York. I would’ve had to travel from New Jersey or something. It probably wouldn’t have happened. Without him offering that, I don’t know how things would be today. That was a huge gift.
How did that conversation come about with Michael?
I think Michael just saw that I was really serious about it. He helped me decipher what schools to audition for. He was an integral part of me figuring out what my track, my journey, was going to be. I guess there are people that come into your life that just really, really believe in you. Sometimes more than you believe in yourself. I could get emotional about it because it is something that I try to instill as a teacher today. I think people feel very alone in this industry sometimes. Without someone like that, without a mentor like that, I don’t know where I would be, honestly. I mean I was a pretty bad kid growing up. Gotten into some trouble and stuff. He and the world of theatre that he created for me saved my life. I think it was a natural progression for him to offer this opportunity to me, because I think he believed in me and saw that I had probably as much drive as he did when he was first becoming a performer.
It was a big decision, but I had tunnel vision. I really knew that I wanted to be in the arts. Still to this day, it was never about instant gratification or anything. I never thought, “I am going to go to New York and be on Broadway.” It was more realistic than that. I was going to go to New York, and I was going to make a career--a long-term career. I dabbled in this teaching thing, and I thought I could always think about that if money isn’t going well with the performing. But I really wanted to make the decision after I got out of the two year program at Circle that I wasn’t going to work a regular job. I was really going to just try to do everything I could do to make money performing, teaching, directing, choreographing. And then things got a little side tracked from there, and I started a theatre company. But that was my goal, and I think that’s what helped make a decision for everybody.
Hearing about your garage sale and your first teaching gigs, it seems like you were a good hustler. How did you find people to teach privately?
At this program, as I was getting older, I started to become an assistant to Michael. A lot of the kids would come to me and say, “We want to get better. Do you teach privately?” That allowed me to move into having clients, so to speak. After Circle had ended, around 2001, I had done some summer stock, and then 9/11 happened. Things just kinda came to a halt. Everything just kinda stopped for the entire world. I felt like I really needed to do something to start making money on a serious level. So I just put my resume out to a couple dance studios throughout the five boroughs, and I got a hit at this place called Astoria Dance Center. I went there, and I taught for about three or four years. That was great, because it was teaching kids, but I had never taught at a dance studio before. I hadn’t even gone to a dance studio. I didn’t even know what dance studio life was like. So it was a nice trial-and-error time for me. I was able to work on things. I was developing myself as a choreographer and a teacher. That led me to do some youth teacher jobs throughout the outside of the New York City area. I worked at a few youth theatres up in Rockland County. I used to call it my playground because it was a place where I had a lot of restriction--because I was working with kids who didn’t really know how to dance. You were doing these junior productions, which were very consolidated--not a lot of scenery, and you had to be very, very creative to make this stuff look good. That’s where I honed my skills both as a teacher at Astoria Dance Center and as a choreographer up in these programs working with high school students.
Could you tell me about the transition from being a performer to a teacher / choreographer?
Two were happening at the same time. Performing was going really well. I was doing a lot of regional theatre. I got a job working at the Metropolitan Opera for a few years. I performed all the fight sequences in Carmen and Otello. That was a great job, and what a strange, different world to be in. Around 2003, I think I was just getting antsy with performing and choreographing. I started working professionally as a choreographer, and I was really enjoying it, but I wanted to do more things. I wanted more responsibility. I decided to start a tap company called Generation Tap. We had performed in Tap City, and Tap Extravaganza, and then like six months after that, I still was feeling antsy.
I decided to, with Michael Blevins, my business partner with the theatre company, start this theatre collective called Group Theatre Too. I think right around that time is where things started to shift for me. I really focused on producing and also directing. I was really interested in creating opportunities for all my artist friends who were all in the audition scene and all trying to find work, whether they were performers or writers or directors, dancers, choreographers, combat choreographers. Our collective was a unit of all these artists. We just started creating yearly seasons, and we produced a revival of the musical Seesaw, and that’s when I met Crystal Chapman.
Through Crystal Chapman, I subbed a few classes at Broadway Dance Center, and that opened up a whole new world of teaching for me. I came on as a full-time faculty member, probably just about a year after subbing and guesting at BDC. I’ve been teaching there full-time ever since. I teach tap and theatre there. That really was when I realized there was something about teaching that I really, really, really, really, really enjoyed. Getting to work with actors and professional dancers and seeing their progression. That was just always exciting to me. I really focused on teaching at that point. Kinda did these little things here and there. I always say jack of all trade, master of none. But I never had a problem with that. I think I seek a lot of stimulation and getting to have my hands in all these different things that are thrilling and fulfilling. I am a very lucky person to do all that.
Where do you see yourself going from where you are right now?
It’s something that has come up through this event that my theatre company has produced for the last eight years. It’s called the Choreographer’s Canvas. It’s an annual dance showcase for choreographers of all styles. We get submissions from all around the world. We select them, and we showcase their work one night here in New York. That event, I think, might answer the question of “Where do I want to go?”
I am really interested in creating new work that is outside of the realm of musical theatre. I think I got stuck, trapped, felt a lot of restriction, when having to choreograph always for a musical or for class choreography. I always had these little blips of ideas. I was always interested in having dancers play musical instruments and tap at the same time. That was something I always wanted to get into. So Choreographer’s Canvas kind of became a platform for not just me, but all these other choreographers that were selected to bring work that they could do and take a risk, do something different, do something out of the realm of formula of dance.
We were saying this last night because we saw a showcase here in New York where a majority of it was hip-hop. I was saying, “Wow, I wonder if jazz dancing is really a thing of the past.” We’ve lost recently a lot of these great pioneers of jazz--Frank Hatchett, Luigi, and Matt Mattox--and I was just thinking in my head, “Where is theatre dance, where is theatre jazz--however you want to label it--where is that going to go now with this world of contemporary and hip-hop?” I mean, I am excited about it. The musical Hamilton is the perfect example. What an exciting time! I think that’s something for me that I really want to do as an educator and as an artist. To find a way to retain and almost time-capsule the great work of these Broadway choreographers and jazz teachers. To find a way to be a pioneer or help cultivate other pioneers of what’s to come. How theatre jazz in this contemporary world is going to be is something very, very exciting. I only hope to be on that bandwagon.
And trying to really focus on the work...It’s hard to do that. Because you teach at Broadway Dance Center, and you don’t want to think this way, but every now and then it creeps into your mind, “Man, I am in competition with all these other teachers,” because we get paid by how many students are there. You do sometimes have those doubts of, “Man, do people just see through that I really don’t think I am as good as I am,” or all that stuff. I think that happens to everybody. All performers. You’re on such a roller coaster all the time, as a dancer specifically. It’s hard for dancers. I was watching all these amazing hip-hop dancers last night, but I was thinking, “What do they do? What kind of jobs do they get?” The days of music videos seem to have gone. I guess if you move to LA the commercial dance scene is little different there, but it’s such a hard career. It really is. That’s why I think it is so important to try to just be as innovative as you can. And think out of the box.
A part of what the theatre company meant to do too was allow for me and Michael and all of my friends to have a place where they can come and do work and be seen by people in New York and be recognized. That’s the most important thing. Not being in competition with outside forces but being in competition with yourself. Always striving to be better at what you do and overcome all the distractions that I think this industry that ultimately has ingrained in it, whether it be self-doubt, fear, jealousy, and bitterness.
You always hear people when you say, “How are you doing?” and you have this answer: “Livin’ the dream.” And it sounds sardonic, sarcastic. I am sure everyone’s situation is different, but I would only hope that people could turn that around and make that phrase into a very positive thing. Because there are a lot of people in this world who can’t even get out of their hometown to get to New York to even try to make a career in the thing they love to do. So in my mind, we are living the dream. Even if we’re not performing on Broadway. Even if we’re not the next best thing. That doesn’t really matter. You are in some capacity getting to do what you love to do. And that’s what being an artist is about. Not about this success. Success is something that just comes along with it. The integrity is in how important it is to you to be an artist. I think that is just the truth when it comes to getting results in your career.
You have to do things that are outside of yourself even if it’s humbling yourself for somebody else or doing something for somebody else in a way that is bringing them some kind of confidence or some kind of awareness that their work is good because they need that as much as you do. And in some way that does come back to you. I think that for me, that has a lot to do with teaching. It’s hard as a teacher-- you want to expect immediate gratitude from your students, but you shouldn’t. You just shouldn’t. You’re teaching because you love to teach. If they are thankful, they’ll let you know at some point. It could be as simple as a note or an email or just going off and making something of themselves. That’s gratitude as well. That’s respecting all that you’ve done and helped them do. That’s something I’ve learned from Michael. The biggest thank you I can give to him, for letting me live with him and mentoring me and teaching me, was to go out and make something out of myself. That was the best reward to give back, and I hope I’ve done that in some way.
How long have you been in the city?
Over 15 years. This is definitely the city that I want to be in. There was a time where I was living in Nashville for like three months out of the year. It was a great experience, and I was working at a bunch of different places down there. But New York is really home. I think the thing about New York, and maybe this is something for people who are first moving to New York and trying to be dancers and actors, it’s really important that you find a safe haven in your home. That, I recognize being so important. Immediately, I was living with Michael, so there was familiarity. But after I moved out of there, I had lived in a couple of chaotic situations. Lots of people living in an apartment together. That wasn’t always the greatest environment to be in. Because I love to party. And I will always choose the party over the audition. There was always that danger. That’s gotten better as I had gotten older. That safe environment, a place where you can come home and just let yourself completely go and not feel like you have to be entertaining people or worried about your roommate and her boyfriend being there and it’s just like, you have to sleep on the couch that night, whatever. All those kinds of things I think really pulls you out of what you’re trying to do.
Everyone talks in acting about the idea of focus. I think that focus has to bleed into real world at all times. The amount of focus you bring into your everyday life, it has to be so specific. You’re willing to take the time out of your day for it. New York is such a crazy overload of the senses that finding solitude, which is an important thing for an artist, most people probably never do for themselves. I mean, I hope that they do, but finding some positive solitude, not isolation, but solitude. A place where you can really reflect on what’s happened during the day. Where you want to go. What your next steps are in your career and in your life. Just the time to figure shit out. It’s so hard to figure shit out when you’re everyday having to put on that armor of going out into the city.
With all that being said, and I don’t want to sound negative--the city is an amazing place, an amazing place that inspires. How lucky are we to, if we can find a way to get to the shows for free, get to see what is happening on Broadway, and of course that being the forefront of the future of theatre, and dance, getting to see amazing companies...With all of that, with all of those creative juices to pull from, New York City is a really great place...New York is a great place if you know how to make it work for you. You can’t let the city work against you. Some days, it does. Some days, the subway doesn’t run. Some days, you are stuck on 44th Street in traffic for two hours like yesterday. Literally. Going from 10th Avenue to 8th Avenue was like a 25 minute event. But these are the things we are willing to sacrifice to work here in the city and try to make not just a career but a life. That’s the important thing as an artist to make sure you’re balancing what you’re doing in your work and what you’re doing in your life.
It’s always hard. I value myself sometimes based on what I am doing. You ask somebody in the industry, “Hey, how are you doing?” And they rattle off every credit they’re currently working on. And you just kinda want to shake them and be like, “How are you doing? What’s going on with you? What’s your life like? What are you excited about today?” It’s a hard thing to do. I fall into the trap all the time of valuing yourself based on what you did and what people thought about it. How about what you thought about it? I had this great acting teacher at Circle who every time we finished a scene he would never say any notes to you at first. The first question he would ask you is “How is your work going?” This acting teacher’s name is Alan Langdon. He trained Phil Hoffman, and a whole bunch of people who went to Circle. That’s something I keep in the back of my mind when I am working with people. I always try to make it not about me and my opinion about it right away but more about how is it going for you? How are you feeling about it? Recognize how you’re feeling about it. In the end, that is more important than what other people think about it.
How did you deal with the issue of focusing on your work while having to make a living? Did you have to take any side jobs?
I worked at a bookstore...It was a good job because it stimulated me intellectually. I didn’t really read a lot as a kid. I was just more into music. My father was a musician. I was more into movies. Really into independent film. So that job was really good for me, because it helped stimulate something at least that was not just mundane. I think if there is the possibility--and I am not saying this is an easy thing to do and I think today it’s even harder--it is important to find some job that excites you. Now some people would say the opposite. Some people would say, “I want a job where I just go in; I am a robot for that 8 hour period; I can go back and focus on my work.” Some people like that. It’s the money-maker job. For me, I would say it’s just really important that you find work that does not bleed into the rest of your life. Because the rest of your life is going to be spent being a performer and trying to be a performer. Obviously, working late nights is not a good idea, because if you’re a non-equity performer, you gotta wake up even earlier than the equity actors and get in line, stand there all day, and maybe not get seen.
I have a lot of friends who just work for the theatres. They work concessions; they work as ushers; those are great jobs. I mean you can get into the union as an usher. You can get health benefits doing that, and you get to see shows every night. You get to be in the theatre. Of course, I am sure you’re meeting other actors who are in the business. For some people, that kind of work balances them very well because they feel like they’re somehow engaged in the industry. I think that’s what ultimately worked well for me--being a teacher, being a choreographer, being a director. When the performing wasn’t going well, those things might be going well. It just kept me afloat. It’s finding something that keeps you afloat. Not just financially, because you may have to work more than one job to do that. But just keeps your spirit up and doesn’t push you downwards. It’s always hard to get out of that downward spiral of finding yourself in bitter, jaded mentality. So something that encourages you to think that the world is not a bad place and that you haven’t made the wrong decision moving to the most expensive city, or one of them in the world, to have a career in an industry that in some cases makes the least amount of money you can make.
But what an accomplishment for people who do it. I am not even talking about big movie stars and big Broadway actors who are making $500,000 a week. I mean, just even the little ones. The creative people who do something. I always think of this production of Into the Woods I just saw that came from McCarter Theatre, and it was just Off-Broadway at Roundabout. It was like eight people. They just had this whole new concept about the show, and they just did it. They focused on the work, and they got The New York Times to come and see it at McCarter. They got great reviews and there they are making their New York debut in this revival. That kind of stuff to me--that’s the encouragement that I need. That I can see other people doing that and really focusing on the work and how important it is. And they’re recognized for it. They’re acknowledged for it in a very, very, very positive, commercial way.
Is there anything that you’d like to share with the world?
Community. You have these communities when you’re on the shows, and the shows end. It’s a weird feeling because you became very close with these people, and some of them you stay close with, but they all disperse. They all go into their lives. Maybe you see them again. Maybe you’re on a show with them again, but then you end up in a whole new family. It’s ever-changing. The people that you’re around. Creating a community here in New York with some real consistency, for me, was very important and helped me succeed--if you wanna call anything I’ve done successful. It’s because of the community of people I have around me. And always putting way more talented or creative people in the room than myself so that I can steal their ideas [laughs].