On the Rise: Khori Petinaud
Photo by J. Medlock, Courtesy Steps on Broadway
Say Khori Petinaud’s last name fast enough and it sounds “pedigree.” That’s apt for this triple-threat dancer who will make her Broadway debut in the ensemble of Aladdin in March. Petinaud’s sleek lines and soaring jumps were refined at institutions like Dance Theatre of Harlem School and The Ailey School.
Born in Atlanta, Petinaud, 26, spent most of her childhood in Centerville, Virginia, near Washington, DC. At first interested in sports, she started dance classes late. When she was 12, she saw Dance Theatre of Harlem perform Firebird at the Kennedy Center, and it galvanized her. “The beautiful ballerinas looked like me,” she says. “I wanted to be in their company.” The next year she started classes at Russell’s School of Ballet in Chantilly.
With the encouragement of her teachers there, she attended a DTH summer program. The pointe-heavy schedule pushed her both technically and artistically. Yet despite her talent and the positive feedback she received, Petinaud remembers comments that made her feel self-conscious about her body. “I was already developing by the time I started dancing, and I had bigger thighs from playing sports as a kid,” she says. The next summer, she attended University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ summer dance program and was told “I could be something if I lost weight.” It put a sour taste in Petinaud’s mouth.
By her later teens, Petinaud knew she wanted to combine academics with her college dance studies. She took an Ailey summer program with an eye to Ailey/Fordham, but ultimately went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. There she finally found her artistic voice. “I understood storytelling from the more fluid modern dance perspective,” she says. “I finally saw dance as more than just a technique to master.”
When she graduated, the road became bumpier. “I didn’t want to be in modern or ballet companies anymore. I was depressed and confused,” Petinaud says. Strapped for money, she stopped taking class and worked at a hotel. She toyed with dropping dance altogether. Then on a whim, she decided to audition for The Lion King. She was immediately cut, but she had caught the Broadway bug. With persistence, she eventually made it as far as the final round for the Las Vegas company. “The casting director told me he loved me but I needed to lose weight,” Petinaud remembers. “I was destroyed, but that kicked me into gear. I fought hard to get back to dance class and into shape.”
She also started taking a musical theater career seriously. She continued auditioning, and in the meantime earned a slot in the Steps Repertory Ensemble, the resident contemporary dance company at Steps on Broadway. “I learned how to adapt to different aesthetics, choreographers and environments,” she says. “That’s handy in Aladdin: Casey Nicholaw, the choreographer, has assistants and each has a different approach.”
Then in 2011, Petinaud finally got her first shot in a musical, as a replacement on The Color Purple national tour. Returning to New York, she booked a regional production of Sweet Charity; she also worked with choreographer Josh Prince in his The Broadway Dance Lab. “Josh taught me that the girl who’s a strong actress making bold choices is more intriguing than the one with perfect technique,” says Petinaud. She added acting classes at the Jen Waldman Studio. “It opened me up to a new world of possibilities with using acting to enhance the choices made as a dancer.”
Richard J. Hinds also hired Petinaud for Evita at the Flatrock Playhouse. “I had already seen Khori in my class at Broadway Dance Center,” he says. “She would take the choreography and make it her own. For Evita, I told the dancers I was looking for grounded movement. With Khori’s strong modern background, I found many of the dancers looking to her to see how to interpret the steps.”
Before booking Evita, Petinaud had gone to the Aladdin audition, enticed by the large number of people of color slated to be in the ensemble. She was not chosen, but her agency resubmitted her after the initial audition. She was taken by surprise when they called to congratulate her a few days later: She had her first Great White Way gig.
Petinaud finds working on Aladdin with Nicholaw inspiring. “Casey never uses a meaningless step,” she says. “So as an actor, it’s almost like a cheat sheet. I’m overjoyed to be working with someone who understands subtlety.” She cites the number “Friend Like Me.” “We get to play a lot of different characters,” she explains. “I get to make so many choices that will be set as part of the show. Any reproductions will have my stamp, and it’s thrilling that’s now part of my path.”
Lauren Kay is a New York writer and dancer.