Many people say you have to hit your lowest point in order to reach a place of greatness. In this case, celebrity choreographer and dancer Anthony Burrell has had many lows.
Although he’s created amazing work with artists like Beyoncé and won awards for music videos like “Formation,” he’s also had some bleak moments.
One such moment came when Mariah Carey had her notorious New Year’s Eve 2016 debacle on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest. Burrell was Carey’s creative director at the time, and he says a lot of the blame was put on him for Carey’s chaotic show. Later, it was revealed that an ear piece issue caused the bad performance, but that didn’t stop Anthony from feeling down.
“I went into a depression,” Burrell said in a phone chat. “I was like ‘damn my name is tarnished.’ I was all over the press and everything.”
But now, Burrell has used the low moment to kick-start one of his biggest dreams ever – to own a dance center.
Burrell opened The Anthony Burrell Center for Dance on October 15, 2018 in Atlanta, and he has major things planned for the venue. On Sunday, they’ll be hosting a fundraiser to raise money for student scholarships, costumes, and special events. Notable guests such as Jussie Smollett, Brandy and even some of the Real Housewives are expected to show up.
Burrell is definitely excited to get things moving. I chatted with the Philly-raised, Alvin Ailey-trained entrepreneur to discuss what’s in store for the center, what he learned from stars like Mariah, and how his traumatic past is being used to inspire others.
So first off, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is coming up. Anything special planned for the holiday?
Absolutely. For MLK, I choreographed a piece called “Endangered Species,” which is about six Black men that were slain, from Emmett Till all the way to Stephon Clark. We are expected to perform Endangered Species at several universities and around maybe six or seven middle schools and high schools.
We want to shed light on what’s true. And I think that’s the great thing about art is that you can put the truth in front of people’s eyes and force them to ingest them. Let them see that we’re still dealing with the same racial conflict and gun violence that we dealt with when it happened with Emmett Till years ago.
You also have a summer intensive program that’s very personal for you. Can you explain that a little?
The summer intensive I hold is called “Breaking Barriers.” It’s an initiative to bring dancers from the inner city and give them access to dancers and choreographers who are in show business. So they’ll have the opportunity to train with people like Frank Gatson, Jamal Sims, and Aisha Francis.
We’ll also teach them how to create a proper resume, we’ll have head-shot opportunities and we’ll have what we call the “circle session.” With this, we take an hour and we just kind of go through what makes us insecure as dancers. What are some things that broke us down. And I try to be as relatable to them as possible, speaking about my own parent’s drug addiction and you know, the child molestation I experienced from a family friend – everything that happened in my life to let them know that I’m not perfect. I overcame all these things and if I didn’t have those experiences, I don’t think I’d be who I am today.
You mentioned how the Mariah Carey New Year’s Eve fiasco was a low point for you, and it even helped catapult you into opening your studio. What was this process like?
At the time of the Mariah Carey situation, they put all the blame on me because I was the creative director, and they needed a scapegoat. I took a year off from everything. I stopped working commercially.
Then, I went back to choreographing for companies and going back to my art. The Alvin Ailey type choreography. The things that I studied and trained for all my life. And I had a huge savings because Mariah paid me amazingly, and I put that money into buying this school. Other than Alvin Ailey, this was the only thing that I ever wanted.
Throughout your career, you’ve always been business minded. Do you have any tips for dancers trying to connect their art to business?
You know the crazy thing is, some of the most successful dancer are the ones that know their business. A lot of the multi-talented dancers fall by the waste side because they don’t understand the business. They don’t know how to say “no” to the job that doesn’t pay them what they’re worth. They don’t know how to market themselves and book outside jobs other than what their agent gets them.
As a dancer, you have to be a business person, you have to be able to create jobs on your own. You can’t wait for an agent. And that’s what I learned once I left Alvin Ailey the second time. I had to solicit myself to these schools, to these colleges, to these dance companies in order to get outside work. You gotta go out there and structure your own business plan. Put it on paper so that you can see it and make those things come into fruition.
And now having worked with Mariah and Beyoncé and all these top-tier artists, are there any experiences that you hope to pass down to your students?
I think working with world class artists like that you learn about performing and knowing that just living in the moment is so much better than a dancer that’s contrived or just a classroom dancer.
Like you’ll see Beyoncé and she’s out there dancing and singing her little life away. And there’s mistakes but even during her mistakes, she’s super committed. She’s super confident. She makes you believe, and that’s what I tell these dancers. Believe in yourselves. Be honest in your performance. When people see a reflection of you, that’s what we feel as an audience member. You gotta be honest or it’s going to come across like you’re doing the most.