New Canaan’s hometown contemporary dance company
Published 6:47 pm, Wednesday, December 14, 2016
NEW CANAAN — For years, Ted Thomas has said that once he turned 50, he’d no longer perform in the New England Academy of Dance’s annual performance of the Nutcracker. With the run of shows recently finished, Thomas, now at the half century mark, intends to keep his promise.
“I don’t want to have someone say, ‘He should retire.’ I’d rather them say, ‘Hey, you could still do it,’ ” Thomas said from his Main Street studio, the headquarters of both the Academy of Dance and the nationally noted contemporary dance company he helped found, Thomas/Ortiz Dance.
It is a second retirement of sorts for Thomas, who capped an impressive professional career in 2001 after eight years touring with the legendary Paul Taylor Company, to start the New Canaan-based company with his wife, Frances Ortiz.
The pair met at SUNY-Purchase in the early-1990s, where Ted was a junior and Frances and her twin sister Ginna — now a partner at Thomas/Ortiz and co-director at the New England Academy of Dance — were then incoming freshmen. A friendship was quickly formed, though collaboration and a relationship between the company’s two namesakes would not begin until Thomas retired from Taylor’s company.
“You always miss performing professionally because along with that came youth and vigor. Youth and vigor are taken for granted by the young. But as a professional teacher and choreographer, I enjoy the fact that my life can still consist of dance and movement. I can’t jump as high as I used to, but I get to go in there and still jump around as part of my job,” Thomas said.
From an early age, dance and movement have been a big part of Thomas’ life. Thomas was encouraged by his mother to pursue a career in entertainment. As a baby, he acted in commercials for Burger King and Underoos and took singing lessons. As an early teen in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Queens, he was inspired by celebrity break-dancer Shabba Doo, performers Michael Jackson and James Brown and the B-Boys who would dance on New York streets in the early days of hip-hop.
Dance was at first a way in which to entertain his mother’s party guests.
“Shabba Doo would come on TV and do the kind of street pop and lock thing. Then you had Michael Jackson and James Brown, I was totally into them. I would watch Michael and try to imitate him when I was a kid. At parties, my mother would put on a James Brown record and I’d try to do the James Brown thing,” Thomas remembered, laughing.
His dance career didn’t begin until his older brother, who sought more time with his ballerina girlfriend, forced Thomas to take a class in ballet.
To his brother’s surprise, Thomas took quickly to the class and enjoyed the attention awarded him as a boy taking ballet.
“I realized I was needed as a boy in dance. It felt great to be needed somewhere. If I didn’t come to dance class, the other people would wonder where I was. They needed me for lifting and partnering,” Thomas said. “My brother and his girlfriend broke up and he said I didn’t have to go anymore. I said, ‘Hey, I love doing this. This is so much fun.’ ”
Thomas parlayed that love into a career teaching ballet, which became one of his favorite styles, and touring as a professional contemporary dancer. His time working with Taylor, one of the world’s premier choreographers, for whom Thomas auditioned six times before being chosen for the 16-member company, led to Thomas’ later work as a teacher and a choreographer.
“Paul Taylor is a genius. It’s interesting to watch a genius work. They make it seem so easy. They have simple concepts that tend to work every time. I learned a lot as a company member, working with him creating dances, which I apply to the creation of dances now for the professional company and for our student company,” Thomas said.
Merging contrasting styles with his wife, who earned her master’s in dance and dance education at NYU, Thomas has choreographed more than 15 dances for his company.
Inspired by works of Taylor’s such as 1992’s Speaking in Tongues, which addressed issues of race and religion, Thomas, when founding his own company, recruited a culturally diverse roster of dancers capable of addressing difficult social issues.
He is currently working on a social justice piece called “From Birmingham to Baltimore,” comparing race relations in the 1960s to those of today. It is a subject Thomas feels particularly well-suited to examine because of the diversity of his company and his own unique perspective.
Away from work with the company, Thomas helps to run the academy with Frances and Ginna and has choreographed school plays for many local high schools. Though he misses his time touring the world, he’s content training the next generation of dancers.