‘Memphis’ dancer says his life imitates the play’s heart

MICHAEL MUCKIAN, Contributing writer

For every loss, there is equal gain, and for every gain equal loss, according to Kyle Leland. That life philosophy has helped the out dancer and choreographer through difficult times, but his current role as dance captain for the traveling production of “Memphis” is most definitely a time of gain and increased self-awareness.

“If you want to understand yourself and the human spirit around you, book a national tour,” the Los Angeles native says. “Seeing the same faces every day for an extended period of time reshapes you.”

“Memphis,” the winner of multiple Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards, also is a story of gain and loss. Set in the smoky halls and underground clubs of 1950s Memphis, the narrative charts the cultural revolution that occurs when a white DJ falls for a black chanteuse amid the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.

“Memphis” features an original Tony-winning score with music by Bon Jovi founding member and keyboardist David Bryan and lyrics by Bryan and Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). DiPietro also wrote the musical’s book.

The show, part of the Broadway Across America touring series, stops at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts Jan. 8–13.

For Leland, “Memphis” marks not a revolution, but an evolution in a dance career for which he believes he was destined.

“Dance came to me indirectly, but choreography was given to me by my high school drama instructor as she set her musicals at Nathaniel Narbonne High School in Harbor City, Calif.,” Leland says. “Formal training came later.”

That training began at choreo-grapher Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy, where Leland participated in a talkback session after a performance of “Pepito’s Story.” Allen liked his comments and invited him to take a free lesson; Leland ended up with a full scholarship and spent three years with Allen.

Stints as a backup dancer followed, most notably one for singer Mylene Farmer. That’s a name that few Americans recognize, but she’s one of France’s most successful recording artists of all times.

“Tens of thousands of fans would faint, scream and claw their way through a sea of (people) just to catch a front-row glimpse of their idol,” he says. “As her dancers, we were treated like royalty.”

That period of success ran it course. Soon Leland found himself waiting tables at a restaurant in New York’s meatpacking district and wondering what his next move would be.

“After a year of that, I looked in the mirror and was unrecognizable to myself,” he said. “What was I doing? Why wasn’t I satisfied? Where do I belong? I put in my two-weeks’ notice with no prospective job in sight and immediately called my agent to tell her to put me back on the market.”

A month later, Leland was teaching hip-hop dance classes in New Jersey, assisting the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and auditioning as much as possible. Then “Memphis” called.

“This was my third audition for the show in a year and a half,” he says. “Six years of New York auditions teach you to detach from the process, mostly to preserve your sanity and wellbeing. But leaving my serving gig must have signaled the universe that I was ready.”

Leland was given a six-month contract to serve as a replacement for an injured dancer. He went on to dance in four of the show’s numbers, eventually inheriting a fifth number. Next, he landed a role as dance captain, working with Sergio Trujillo, the award-winning choreographer after whom Leland began to pattern his new career.

“Watching Sergio work was an enlightening experience,” Leland says. “He spoke the language of every department, from the directors to the soundmen to the lighting engineers. (He) had a passion and assertiveness that I really admired and modeled my leadership on.”

Which brings Leland to where he is today, a period of gain after loss. The journey thus far has taught the dancer/choreographer to be true to himself and follow his heart. Those same emotions guide the characters in “Memphis,” particularly in terms of the inter-racial relationship, a love forbidden in its day. It’s part of the show’s ultimate message, he says.

“Being free to love whomever we choose is the highest gift we can give to ourselves and to each other,” Leland says. “The dreamer risks everything in pursuing his dream, for the journey is more important than the destination at which he may never arrive.”

Leland’s destination still lies ahead but, at this point in his career, the dancer/choreographer is confident that he is on the right course.

On stage

“Memphis” runs Jan. 8–13 at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit www.marcuscenter.org.