Hinton Battle puts 19 young dancers through their paces

March 04, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

Of the epic struggles in life, this is surely one: dancer vs. choreographer. No one understands that better at the moment than Sandra Greer and Hinton Battle.

She has been frowning for the last 15 minutes, struggling with a solo that hasn't jelled yet. Her self-confidence is as wobbly as her pirouettes.

Mr. Battle, the choreographer, is pacing off stage, hands on his hips. He refuses to cut her any slack simply because she's a high school student, and he's a three-time Tony winner. I don't see attitude. . . . You're just whizzing around. . . . Go faster!

Those made from lesser stock would have run for the curtains, but Sandra's expression belies her grit. She watches Mr. Battle repeat the combination and count out her steps. Gradually, her arms and legs obey her brain. The audience, an informal group of student dancers and school administrators, witnesses the tension level ebb. She finishes center stage and allows herself a shy smile.

Mr. Battle slaps his hands against the stage: Goooood -- yeah!

But as she walks away, he shouts out three words that have become his theme: One more time.

As the visiting artist at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Hinton Battle faces a formidable challenge: take 19 students with varying degrees of talent and turn them into the stars of Expressions, the school's annual fund-raiser to be held Saturday. "Ballet with funk" is one teen-ager's apt description for "Jam It Up," the number Mr. Hinton is choreographing to music by Michael Jackson, Color Me Badd and other groups. Several dancers will reprise their roles on April 11 when they perform at a Center Stage benefit starring Mr. Battle.

His love affair with the school began five years ago when the dance department chairman asked him to participate in the visiting artist program. "No matter what I'm doing or where I am, I come down every year," says the 30ish actor, who lives in Manhattan.

A multitalented performer, he faces a challenge juggling professional pursuits and teaching. He's currently playing a Marine in the Broadway production of "Miss Saigon" for which he won his third Tony. (He previously won for his work in "Sophisticated Ladies" and "The Tap Dance Kid.") He also just finished a comedy pilot for NBC and is gearing up to record an album.

To teach at the school, he often has had to take the 6:50 a.m. train to Baltimore, rehearse with students until 3 p.m. and then race back to New York for the 8 p.m. show. After several weeks of this schedule, he admits that his life is becoming a cycle of "sleepless nights, long days and brainstorming all the time."

A question, then: Why is Hinton Battle doing this?

"I guess I want to do it all before I'm too old," he says with a deep laugh. "When I was in school, there weren't these kinds of outlets. I used to carry my stuff in plastic bags and shopping bags so kids in the neighborhood wouldn't know my ballet tights were in there. . . . But even if you had a bag they wanted to see what was in it. You had to chase them all around the block because they started getting out the tights and ballet slippers. -- 'Twinkletoes,' you got all those kinds of names."

The irony, however, is that Mr. Battle has no real desire to dance these days. In "Miss Saigon" he does not have a single choreographed move, which pleases him immensely. "I think I burned myself out with dance. I've done so many shows. Whenever I did a show, they decided I should flip backward, split my brains open and kick 120 times. They would take me to the extreme of everything I do.

"But when I see dancers like this, I say, 'Wow, they're so beautiful. I should get back in shape.' Then I think about the work it takes, and I say, 'No way.' "

He makes no apologies for demanding a lot of these teens. "I try to make them more aware of what they're in store for, what it's going to be like once they get out of here," he says.

Yet there is a lighter side to the choreographer. He's known to give students nicknames, begin speaking with an accent (Southern gentleman, Valley girl, British snob) and even break into song during rehearsals.

And students have come to recognize his moods. "If we walk in and he's sitting down, he's usually in a good mood. But if he's goofing around with the music, we're going to work for four hours straight with no break," says Jessica Miller, a freshman in the show.

No one seems to mind.

"We're very fortunate. A lot of kids in Baltimore don't get this chance," says Sandra Greer, a 17-year-old senior. "He really can fuss though. He screams, he cusses, he gets to calling you names. But when he says you're going good, you must be really doing good."

Not too much looks good to Hinton Battle this afternoon. Just days from the show, he's racing to finish a number with younger students set to the music of Color Me Badd.

Dancers are tripping over their shoelaces, colliding with each other and yawning on stage.

"You're frying my brains," he says. "You can laugh all you want but you better learn this step if you want to be in this number."

They work for hours, abandoning that piece for the finale. What song they will dance to is still up in the air. The young men like Hammer's "Too Legit to Quit," while the women prefer Michael Jackson's "Jam." But this is no democracy. The choreographer will have the final say.

Mr. Battle seems oblivious to the fact that it's approaching 7 p.m. and parents are waiting for their children. He's too busy analyzing moves and wiping the sweat from his brow.

Fifteen minutes later, he ends the rehearsal. Youngsters groan when they hear warm-up begins the next day at 9:30 a.m. New steps are swimming in their heads, and even the advanced dancers wonder whether there is enough time to learn everything by Saturday.

Hinton Battle senses their unease and sends them off into the night with three words that coming from him sound like high praise:

Good work, everybody.

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