CFT Mini-Grant Report: Visiting Ballet Instructor Kevin Thomas

On Tuesday, April 27, Kevin Thomas, artistic director of Collage Dance Collective was a virtual guest teacher for Ballet II and Ballet III. On that day, these classes were also open to any Sewanee students who have ever expressed an interest in theatre and dance.

As Mr. Thomas introduced himself, he joked about his extensive use of French, his native tongue, when he teaches. He shared a bit about his background as a former principal soloist with Dance Theatre of Harlem, a guest performer with the Royal Ballet, and on Broadway in Phantom of the Opera. He taught from one of the studios in Collage’s newly opened 22,000 square foot complex (built during the pandemic!) where the professional company rehearses and he and his faculty train 250 students. We were inspired to learn that they also engage with an additional 500 students in the Memphis community each week.

I was particularly impressed with Mr. Thomas’ ability to “read the room” over video and teach the mixed levels of students who were present, offering them specific, useful feedback that they can continue to work on beyond this class, and offering appropriate levels of challenge. The students commented that he made them feel simultaneously at ease and inspired to put forth their best effort. As a participant-observer, I danced parts of the class with the students while observing them and, at other times, stood back to fully observe and remain out of the camera’s view. It was a gift for me to witness the different approaches to exploring concepts that the students most connected with and which images and phrases allowed them to access familiar ideas in new or more fully-realized ways.

I also observed Mr. Thomas’ values as a teacher emerge as he guided the students through the class, some of which illuminated areas that I tend to place less focus, and revealed some areas that I can place more attention in my own teaching. In particular, an emphasis on strength in the arms coming from the back, “like bird wings” was a powerful image for the students. We now have access to visual examples of Collage’s professional company performing this imagery in Kevin Thomas’ re-imaged choreography of The Firebird ballet, inspired by African culture. The ballet premiered the same week as our classes in an on-air broadcast by a Memphis television station. We all left the classes sweaty, uplifted, and inspired.  

-Courtney World, Associate Professor and Director of Dance