On the Rise

December 21, 2008

During a sticky afternoon last summer, fledgling choreographer Grady McLeod Bowman took a break from a New York International Fringe Festival rehearsal to run through the steps he’d just learned as a dancer in the Broadway musical Billy Elliot. Practicing in the narrow hallway, his wide shoulders set firmly above his sturdy 5′ 4″ frame, his face remained calm. He glided into a soft-shoe sequence with swift footwork reminiscent of his idol Gene Kelly, only to switch to slamming taps filled with stomps and jumps. Back in the studio, he patiently began teaching an eight-count of hip hop isolations to two dancers in the festival’s experimental musical The Johnny.

At first glance, it might have seemed that three different performers tricked the eye, but it was only one exceptionally versatile one. At 26, Bowman has performed in a striking range of projects, from Broadway’s Pirate Queen, South Pacific and Billy Elliot, to Pilobolus commercials and concerts. The breadth reflects Bowman’s credentials as a true triple threat: a dancer, singer, and actor who can excel in each. Lately, he’s been hired as an audition assistant, assistant dance captain, and fight captain—signs of growing success in the musical-theater world.

Versatility has been Bowman’s secret weapon. “I can tap, do ballet, and jump off walls,” he says. “In the Billy Elliot audition we had to be gritty and pretty much run an obstacle course. For South Pacific, the movement was very loose. The more you know how to do, the more marketable you are.”

And while “marketable” wasn’t always in his lexicon, Bowman has had to be realistic about the business of show business. “I’m a very specific type: short, stocky, and bald,” he says. “You’ll never see me audition for The Producers or Grease. But while I’m not right for many parts, I’m extremely right for others.”

Bowman didn’t start out this focused. At first, he was just a boy looking to move. He got the urge to tap when he was 10, after he started to act in local productions. He began studying with Eddie George, a hoofer-turned-boxer who worked as a mechanic at a local garage and gave private tap lessons using scratchy jazz records.

George taught Bowman not just dance but history. “Eddie would bring in books and show me tons of video,” says Bowman. “The first half of the lesson was done sitting in chairs, tapping our feet to the beat and catching up.”

For five years Bowman took lessons with George and participated in competitions using his tap skills. When Bowman turned 15, George urged him to study dance more seriously. At fellow competition-kid Jared Grimes’ suggestion, Bowman joined Gene Medler and the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble in Chapel Hill. But it wasn’t until a chance audition for a local Nutcracker that Bowman decided it was time to master other techniques.

“I hadn’t been trained at all, but they needed guys who were strong enough to lift girls,” explains Bowman. “There were a couple of male ballet dancers who could leap and turn. I wanted to do that too.” The more dance Bowman saw, the more he wanted to learn. When a local competition dancer needed a partner, Bowman decided to take ballet and jazz lessons at the Linda Kinlaw School of Dance in Fayetteville. Later, at the urging of another teacher, Kirstie Tice, Bowman applied—and was accepted—to the North Carolina School of the Arts.

“While I don’t remember a point where I thought ‘This is what I will do,’ I never had an itch to do anything else—at all,” says Bowman.

At NCSA, Bowman took classes in Limón, Cunningham, and release techniques. But in 2003, after attending a Broadway Theatre Project summer intensive in Tampa, Florida, Bowman took a detour. During the summer program, which had teachers like Ben Vereen, Bowman was offered his first professional job dancing in the tour of Fosse.

After finishing the tour, Bowman returned to school, graduated in 2005, and moved to New York. Within just two months, he landed three regional productions and his first Broadway gig—The Pirate Queen. The call took a while to come, however: Bowman had auditioned for the musical almost six months before.

Though Pirate Queen’s run was short, from then on the jobs kept coming. When Bowman became assistant dance captain for South Pacific, he knew he had gained a solid foothold.

“As a dancer, Grady gets the whole picture: He can combine style and telling the story,” says Wendi Bergamini, South Pacific’s dance captain. “It’s unusual to find a dancer whose ability is equally high in each area, but Grady’s skill level is extraordinary.”

With some stage credentials under his belt, Bowman is now focusing on another dream: choreographing full-time. After making the dances for a friend’s musical when he was 16, Bowman says he fell in love with creating movement, as well as performing it. A long run in Billy Elliot could yield the time and regular income Bowman has been longing for to develop his choreography skills. “I love the whole creative process: painting a picture onstage, looking at the work, dissecting it, and changing it,” he says. His work on the Fringe Festival show, The Johnny, was a small but significant step in that direction. “My big dream in the sky is to have a steady gig now so that eventually I can just choreograph.”

Lauren Kay is assistant editor at
Dance Spirit.