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Orlando Ballet’s Arcadian Broad has been called 'the future of ballet'

Wunderkind? Prodigy? Unicorn?

Christopher Belt May 2, 2018 1:00 AM

The first time I saw Arcadian Broad, he was on my turf, attending a networking event at the Timucua arts house, the venue I direct. I think it was his first time there, and he paced slowly through the lobby. His measured steps suggested he might be assessing how much space there was for a jeté. There was slight tension on his face as he processed the sounds and semiotics of his surroundings. Maybe he was calculating how long he needed to be there. Maybe his mind was somewhere else entirely, reviewing steps for his next performance, or working out choreography for his upcoming ballet about the Mad Hatter, or refining a melody for that ballet or the next one.

I introduced myself and I told him I was going to be writing a story about him. My editor thought, as a fellow musician, I might have a fresh take on his work. At the end of the conversation I realized I had no sense of what he was thinking. He's comfortable, sure of himself, but doesn't give anything away. I was intrigued by his reserve – not the usual mode for an ambitious young artist at a schmoozefest, I thought – and then I went back to work, schmoozing.

It's happening: I'm inserting myself into the story, the pitfall of the celebrity profile. But don't we all do this with the wunderkinder, the child prodigies, the Macaulay Culkins and Harry Potters and, now, Arcadian Broads – measure ourselves against their outsize accomplishments?

Broad has been dancing professionally since he was a child, competing and supporting his family for years, and now at 22, he moves through the world with the confidence of LeBron James. How do I get to know someone so self-possessed – so, well, guarded – well enough to talk about him and not have him hate me for it? These are the thoughts in the back of my mind on a warm April morning as I walk up to Lineage in Mills 50, where I'll interview Orlando Ballet's celebrated dancer-actor-pianist-composer-choreographer.

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But first, a little background.

In 2016, Orlando Ballet presented Arcadian Broad's Beauty & the Beast, which he both choreographed and composed, a massive rarity in the world of dance. Since December 2017, Broad has been Orlando Ballet's official Artist-in-Residence – the first ever named. Fittingly, his path to that unusual title has been anything but typical.

"I was 5 when I started, and it wasn't long after that I started going to clinics and stuff and doing the summer-course type of things ..."

Broad's not talking about dancing. He's talking about golf.

The Titusville native started golfing to be with his dad. It seems a rare happy memory with his now deceased father, who left the family when Broad was young.

"I still golfed heavily until about 14," Broad says. "That's when I started ballet." He was studying not just ballet but also jazz and hip-hop and taking piano lessons when the then-director of the Orlando Ballet school told him, he says, "'It's either ballet or nothing. You can't keep dipping your fingers in all the different pies.'

"And so I quit ballet."

Photo by Rob Bartlett

A Google search of Arcadian Broad will net you a somewhat infamous clip of him at 14 years old, competing on Season 4 of America's Got Talent. After an incongruous but spirited performance, a hybrid of ballet and hip-hop in homage to High School Musical, Broad stands onstage sweating in a jersey and shorts and holding a basketball, awaiting America's judgment. David Hasselhoff loves it, but Piers Morgan says, "Are you good enough to get into the final? ... The answer to that question is no." A sardonic smile starts to form on Arcadian's face. I know that smile – it's the same one that landed me in detention in seventh grade.

It's a great moment, with Arcadian emotional – this matters for him – but also full of such obvious disdain for the circumstances: the stupid jersey and basketball, the judges and the routine – none of it fit. Standing before a TV audience of over 10 million people, you can see he is already looking past it all to the next opportunity, the next challenge.

After making it to finalist for the title role in Billy Elliot on Broadway, after winning numerous competitions (medalist in the American Dance Competition from 2006-2011; first prize in the Youth American Grand Prix in 2012), after studying at Juilliard, there was no doubt that he was ready to step into the spotlight he so obviously craved. But also, there was no doubt that he would refuse to be contained in just one role.

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"It's a lot and it does overwhelm him at times, but I think that would be the case for anyone who's taken on what he's taken on at the age of 22," Orlando Ballet Artistic Director Robert Hill tells me over the phone.

From early on, Hill has been a father figure for Broad – proud, and also protective. ("He taught me how to tie a tie," Broad tells me.) Hill says, "I met him at an age when he was living with his mom and two sisters and he was kind of the man of the house. His measly Orlando Ballet second company $75 a week or whatever it was was supporting the family. He was very serious about it and it was heavy on him."

I ask Broad if he ever felt pressure to just be one thing – dancer or choreographer or musician. "When I first started, yes," he admits. "I did have to figure out how to fit into the mold, and I did have a crossroads when I started ballet." This was the notorious "dipping your fingers in all the different pies" moment, when he decided to quit ballet.

When Hill hired the ballet school's next director, Dierdre Miles Burger, in 2010, the first thing he tasked her with was getting Arcadian back. At 16 years old, he was hired as the company's youngest professional dancer.

As a kid he was competing for our attention, pushing for recognition of his talent – any talent – even as he outgrew role after role. Now, as OB's official unicorn, dancing and choreographing and composing music, he's a highly touted, heavily marketed featured attraction. Hill has called him "the future of ballet." Talk about pressure.

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Broad is pushing his hand through his hair as he addresses the crowd at Uncorked, an Orlando Ballet event where members of the company dance and speak to a live, well-paying audience – a sort of peek behind the curtain.

Demonstrating how it all comes together, Hill extemporaneously choreographs some elegant steps for three pairs of dancers – male/male, female/female and female/male. They memorize their parts, the music starts, they dance for about four bars and then freeze as the music stops. There is applause.

Now it's Broad's turn, and where Hill chose movements that the three pairs could memorize easily and execute gracefully, Broad is in Mad Hatter mode, tying the dancers into Twister-esque knots, occasionally leaving them momentarily confused or bumping awkwardly. He's brainstorming, circling the performers and envisioning one step at a time, never losing the connection from one step to the next.

The two male dancers twist and turn until they emerge from a sort of floppy grappling, suddenly and unpredictably, into a moment of beauty and repose. The audience lets out a gasp and then cheers loudly. It felt like 10 minutes to work out four seconds of music, but the payoff is real, and Arcadian is grinning.

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"His talent speaks for itself," Hill says.

"When he started conducting his first rehearsals," he says, "there was a lot of scorn and 'Who do you think you are, don't tell me what to do' [from the other dancers]." Hill didn't tolerate dissent or disrespect for his protégé, and now Broad leads like a veteran – tight ship, loose grip.

Photo by Rob Bartlett

On a Friday morning I arrive at the ballet studio to observe him in rehearsal with a few male dancers from the company for his new work, "Mad Hatter's Wonderland." The premise, choreography and music are all Broad's own, with the Mad Hatter exiled to the London of the 1920s. Broad's score is equal parts Sergei Prokofiev and Danny Elfman, with buoyant, off-kilter motifs in a colorful harmonic language. There is a tension between elegant and angular, but there is always his dancer's connection to rhythm.

This weekend's Contemporary Wonders program at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts features a half-hour preview of "Wonderland," which will eventually be a 70-minute, three-act ballet involving as many as 50 dancers, Broad says. "Everything from the production department to the wardrobe department to the makeup department is shaping up to be something that I haven't seen a ballet company do yet."

Broad waves to me and gets back to teaching the steps for a solo by the White Rabbit. He pushes the dancers through explosive leaps with eccentrically precise landings, then through twists and hops evoking the dances of the Jazz Age. They're following along, relaxed and laughing but very much on their toes; they're sharing the same easygoing feeling of discovery as guys in a garage band teaching each other songs.

The piece culminates in a hyper-exaggerated reveal of the White Rabbit's bête-noire: his pocket watch. Broad has refined the stop-on-a-dime movements into a signature language for the fidgety, high-strung Rabbit. If every number captures its character this well, "Wonderland" will be a smash.

I ask Broad about his method for choreography. Does he write it down on paper? Use notation software? No, he says, he envisions point A and point B and then works out what comes between in his head, in rehearsal. He improvises, and the dancers follow him. They trust him.

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Back at Lineage on that warm April morning, I ask Broad how it feels to be the Future of Ballet.

"I mean that statement alone is kind of heavy," he says. "Everything you do is going to be analyzed, scrutinized, and people are going to want to dissect it. Which is scary. But also if you look at it from the other perspective, like, you have nothing to hide and all to give, then that's not a bad thing."

The young artist projects a nervous, occasionally mischievous energy – eyes darting back and forth, talkative but sincere. There's none of the cold, stern seriousness of the archetypal ballet dancer, but he is unmistakably confident, showing a remarkable level of comfort with the demands and expectations placed on him.

Broad is aware of the abnormality of his circumstances – he has been his whole life. Feeling like he didn't fit in with other kids, being bullied and then home-schooled, national television appearances – none of it has been normal, much less the rapid path to being a professional dancer.

"Normal is you spend eight years in school and two years in a second company and then you gotta spend however long in the corps before reaching soloist and principal," he tells me. "I spent – what, seven months in the school? And then nine months in the second company, and then I was a professional."

"It's unheard of," he continues, "and almost frowned upon."

He clearly knows that some ballet purists will be skeptical, that some people will use the spotlight shined on him to look for blemishes. He tightens up a bit when I ask if his career trajectory would've been possible in New York or London. "Maybe. Maybe. I don't actually know. We can speculate." But then he softens again and considers whether Orlando's unique circumstances helped shape him. "Maybe."

Only time will tell if Broad's career will bear out his mentor's predictions. To realize just how unique a talent he is, it's enough to look back at how few dancer-choreographer-composers there have been at all. Many dancers become choreographers, certainly, but adding composition to the mix is rare. It bodes well that many great choreographers were also accomplished musicians – George Balanchine, arguably the most important choreographer of the 20th century, was a gifted pianist trained at the Russian National Conservatory – but there are few if any memorable choreographer-composers. Could Broad be the first?

"I definitely consider myself an artist, as opposed to a dancer, composer or whatever," says Broad. "But the world needs those titles."