Walking through the hallways of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts feels like stepping into a fantasy dreamed up by Jason Schwartzman’s character Max Fischer in the movie Rushmore. The density of precocious professionalism is staggering, almost comical. You hear tinkling piano keys echoing through the halls, interrupted by the rat-tat-tat of tap shoes in a nearby studio. Over here, visible through a window, a gaggle of girls in black spandex leaps and spins, then collapses on the floor in response to an abstract command barked by their teacher: “Feel the void!”
I’m here to meet a dozen or so young dancers in a studio in the back corner of the second floor. Two months earlier, these girls auditioned for the revered composer, conductor, and Broadway showman Marvin Hamlisch. Hamlisch is one of very few showbiz professionals who can boast of having won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (they call these freakishly talented performers EGOTs; the acronym was the basis for a subplot on 30 Rock). He is also the new Dallas Symphony Orchestra Pops conductor, and walking through the Arts District one sunny summer afternoon not long after his arrival in Dallas, he asked his hosts about the old building that sits on the district’s far eastern edge, a red brick counterpoint to the aluminum and steel of its name-dropping neighbors. Hamlisch was told the legend of Booker T., the school that has produced Erykah Badu and Norah Jones (just to name two), and he hatched an idea on the spot. Booker T. students would audition for a number in the DSO Pops holiday program. If they were as good as everyone said they were, the kids would perform at the Meyerson with Hamlisch.
On the day of the auditions, in August, Hamlisch sat for hours in the cool dark of Booker T.’s auditorium, watching performance after performance. A hulking man with a sharp, triangular nose that juts from the center of his great round head, he filled up his seat in the center of the hall. His chin rested on his hand, and a stack of papers sat in his lap, each bearing the name of a student who dreamed of impressing him.
The students appeared from behind the curtain—pianists, singers, violinists, guitar players, songwriters, jazz dancers, modern dancers, ballet dancers, and tap dancers. Some bounced out with worked-up enthusiasm, others tiptoed into the stage lights hesitantly. The parade of talent continued for the better part of three hours.
Hamlisch sat patiently, watching and listening, his serious expression rarely changing. Occasionally he bounced his head with the tune or jotted down notes. Then he would throw up his hand midperformance and bellow over the music, “Okay! Thank you!” The students froze and stared back. It took a moment for it to settle in: their time was up. Even the best of the lot got only about 90 seconds onstage.
“I learned when doing A Chorus Line that there’s no better way to do this,” Hamlisch said, turning to the handful of people sitting in the hall with him. “And that’s a shame, because this is terrible.”
Now it is mid-October, and in a second-floor dance studio at Booker T., 11 girls bang on the floor in tap shoes. They have just landed the gig of their young lives. The Marvin Hamlisch has picked them for the DSO’s Christmas Pops performances.
“He’s an intimidating guy,” Evelyn Roberts says. “I’m sure he is a big teddy bear on the inside, but that face could haunt anybody.” Roberts says she spent two weeks practicing a tap routine during her lunch hour before the audition, but she was still surprised when Hamlisch picked her.
Mallory Michaellann Brophy is not a tap dancer (she’s a singer) and wasn’t going to audition until she heard the conductor was willing to see non-tap dancers perform. “I think, like a lot of kids from this school, we know who Marvin Hamlisch is,” Brophy says. “Just the opportunity to dance for him is exciting.”
The choreographer charged with creating the dance and whipping these kids into shape is Misty Owens, a Booker T. grad who recently moved back to Dallas after dancing professionally in New York for many years. Pulling off the performance won’t be easy. Booker T. students have notoriously busy schedules. The dancers’ tap talent ranges broadly, and some don’t yet know the dance. The music only just arrived, and there’s bad news: Hamlisch wants a brisker tempo than the one they have been practicing.
But the girls just keep dancing. And after they clip and click, spin and clod through a section of the piece, they end with a great collective stomp on the shiny wood floor of the studio. For the briefest moment, everything is quiet. I can hear the faint whine of a solo violin echoing in the hallway outside. In the mirror, I see only the floor, the studio’s white walls, a half dozen freestanding balance bars pushed up against the windows, and the girls. Looking into their faces, they seem to be staring off at something else, their faces caught in lights, glowing and framed in blackness. Before them, there is a crowd that has stepped in off 42nd Street, sitting, quiet and still, caught in that frozen, precious moment before the applause erupts.
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