VSAA students perform with Broadway actors




The two singers were bathed in a red glow from the stage lights as they belted out their upbeat duet.

Then, just as their song reached its raucous crescendo, the audience gasped in delight a large group of teenagers filed in from the back of the room, clapping and swaying.

For the next few minutes, the students performed an intricate dance routine around the two stars, spreading infectious energy in the large room. Their efforts were rewarded with loud applause by the audience of about 300.

The singers flew in special for this evening, but the teens didn’t need a plane to get home — they just hopped on their school bus back to Vancouver.

Dreams came true Monday night for 29 students from the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, when they performed on the big stage with professional Broadway actors. The students made up the chorus line during a sneak preview of next season’s Broadway Across America series at the Keller Auditorium in Portland. It was the first time a student group danced in such a series preview.

The students performed at the end of a medley of tunes from upcoming shows. They kicked and spun to the beat of “Steal Your Rock ’n’ Roll,” which is the rousing finale of the season-opening musical, “Memphis.”

The evening was a win-win situation for everyone involved. The Broadway show didn’t have to fly in dozens of dancers. Promoters fanned interest in theater among the younger crowd. And the aspiring actors, singers and dancers got a hands-on education.

Their glimpse into the professional artist’s life started that morning.

Shortly after the bell rang first period, the students gathered on the stage of the Royal Durst Theater inside their school. Waiting for them was Jermaine Rembert, assistant choreographer of “Memphis,” flown in from New York City for the season preview.

He wasted no time getting his teenage troupe ready. Within seconds of his introduction, Rembert walked the students through the dance steps involved in the number. They started with a side-stepping, thigh-slapping routine that looked simple enough.

“It’s very tiring, trust me,” Rembert told the students.

He continued to coach the fledgling dancers step by step. The group clearly understood his language. When Rembert spoke about movements performed within four eight-counts — a measure of time in music — he was met with a collective nod from the performing-arts students.

They hung on his every word as he explained the short dance routine in staccato bursts of stage language.

“Pull right, pull left, stay — and drop and pop and drop,” Rembert shouted out as he demonstrated the moves.

Twenty-nine pairs of eyes followed along. Arms and legs slowly tracked Rembert’s movements.

Not 15 minutes into the lesson, the coach had his team performing a dry run without music. It looked awkward, as is to be expected with so little practice.

But when Rembert turned on the music moments later, the group found a common rhythm. About 20 minutes after they first met the New York performer, many of the students popped and dropped in close-to-perfect synchronicity.

The students quickly learned about another aspect of show business, too — the audition.

While Rembert taught the students their moves, he scanned the group and separated them by skill level. After 30 minutes, the choreographer split them up into two groups. One would later be on stage, the other in front of it.

He also shuffled students around on stage, positioning a few of them at the center of the group. And Rembert singled out one as dance captain, making her his de facto assistant for the rest of the day.

“The (professional) audition process is pretty much what we did just now,” he told them after rehearsal. “I just did an audition with you.”

Rembert then answered the students’ questions about life as a performer.

Never, ever stop taking dance and singing lessons, no matter how good you think you’ve become, he told them.

Be patient. Don’t lose confidence if you don’t land a role on Broadway.

“It may take years,” he said. “But don’t let that stop you.”

He also reminded them that there is much work to be had that’s not on the main drag of New York’s theater district.

“Broadway may be the goal,” he said. “But don’t let that be your end all, be all.”

Students asked how professional actors keep their performances fresh, keep from getting bored with a part they have to play over and over during a long show run.

“It’s a job,” Rembert reminded them. “Like any job, you go in day after day. It’s easy to say, ‘I don’t want to do this today.’ But the audience is seeing you for the first time.”

The students’ dance teacher welcomed his comments.

“It’s good to hear a professional support what they’re learning here,” said Fern Tresvan.

She was happy to hear Rembert emphasize the work ethic necessary to succeed, she said.

Taking the students to the big stage lets them see where their classes could lead them. “It’s incredibly motivating,” Tresvan said.

Giving the students an opportunity to perform with Broadway actors is part of “getting them out of the nest,” Tresvan said.

“A good teacher pushes kids to grow,” she said.

The students Rembert put at the center of the dance routine likely won’t need much of a push.

Haley Van Nortwick, who was made dance captain, is only 16. But she knows she wants to be on Broadway some day, as does Natalie Hovee, whom Rembert positioned on center stage next to Haley.

Natalie is a senior. She traveled to studios across the country this winter, where colleges auditioned students for their performingarts programs. She won’t hear back until later this month, but said she had a good feeling about her acting and singing auditions, which are her strong suit.

Haley is focused on dance, which showed when the professional singled out the sophomore. She and Natalie were “freaking out” when they heard about the Keller opportunity, she said.

Both seemed well aware of the hard work ahead of them.

“I know it’s a really competitive field,” Haley said. “And it’s going to be hard to get used to (New York City).”

But that’s where both girls are headed, they said. They seemed emboldened by their meeting with a New York professional.

“I mean, would I rather just get by and make money or live my dream?” Natalie asked rhetorically.

The girls and their classmates answered that question later that night — with their huge smiles as they stepped off the stage.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com; http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.