Since his Broadway debut at age 16 in the first revival of On the Town, Chet Walker (DT March 2005 cover) has performed in, choreographed and directed a staggering list of productions, including the Tony Award–winning musical Fosse. The 55-year-old veteran choreographer continues to perform off-Broadway and on tour with his New York–based musical theater company, Walkerdance (also known as 8&ah1).
Walker also travels the globe to teach jazz dance and direct companies in Argentina and Norway. And for the past 10 years, he has directed the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance summer program at the School at Jacob’s Pillow. To celebrate his decade at the Pillow, Walker invited a number of former students to perform in a star-studded benefit, “A Jazz Happening,” on August 23.
Dance Teacher: How has the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance program progressed under your direction?
Chet Walker: At first, my approach was to inform young dancers about the type of dancing I did on Broadway. Then I moved in the direction of masters Matt Mattox and Luigi. I then channeled Donald McKayle and Robert LaFosse, to show modern’s and ballet’s role in jazz heritage, and Milton Myers for the connection with modern and Horton technique, along with Mr. Ailey for the way he brought jazz to his company. Next I introduced Jack Cole, the father of jazz and a student of Ted Shawn. In the second year, I went out on my own to find students from around the world, and financed scholarships for them. The Pillow is an international institution, and the school needed to reflect that. [Students now hail from over 40 countries.] And three years ago, I started “A Jazz Happening” to bring in professional dancers and show students the payoff for their own work.
DT: What’s new about this summer’s culminating benefit?
CW: Performers will include former students Andrew Fitch of Spamalot and Rockette Alyssa Epstein, plus Emanuel Abruzzo from Les Ballets Grandiva and Ric Ryder of The Music Man. I will perform with my “partner in crime” Dana Moore [of Fosse and Chicago], and probably with all the former students who will be there. Walkerdance will also perform as part of a tribute to Jonathan [Phelps, who passed away in January]. He was my partner and muse for 10 years, and I’ve been so grateful to know how he’s remembered.
DT: What dance professionals have influenced you the most?
CW: My teachers were Luigi, Madame Valentina Peryslavic, Maria Svoboda and Betty and Danny Hoctor. Those choreographers who had the biggest influence on my life were Bob Fosse, Ron Field and Gwen Verdon.
To be a teacher, not just someone who gives class, you need to be diligent. There should be a partnership between the teacher and the student, and that takes time. When a teacher moves you as a human being, not just as a dancer, you will carry that experience with you.
DT: So where do you draw the line between carrying on a tradition and creating your own style?
CW: When you solely carry on someone else’s tradition, you re-create their work. That becomes your own life’s work. My work is certainly structured like Mr. Fosse’s, but my style, steps and vocabulary show more than his influence. When you choreograph, you can’t go back and say, “What did he do?” It has to be about what the music says to you. It’s like someone reading great literature and then deciding to write their own novel.
DT: How do you advise students hoping for a professional dance career?
CW: I ask, “What sets you apart? What is your ‘it’ factor?” We all have something different to bring to the table; no one’s career is the same.
Jennifer Brewer is a dancer, teacher and freelance writer in Saco, ME.
Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow