Taye Diggs has had a blockbuster career, from "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" to his recurring role on "Empire."
But he keeps coming back to dance. After co-founding a contemporary dance company, his latest effort melds theater and dance.
"If you change the definition of something, you don't have to follow the rules," he said before a rehearsal of the off-Broadway play "Thoughts of a COLORED MAN on a Day When the Sun Set Too Early" in Manhattan's Theater District.
The play didn't originally have dance (or music) when theater artist Keenan Scott II started writing it ten years ago, at age 19. But Scott's background on the poetry-slam scene gave rhythm to the monologues that express specific emotions as men try to find their way in the world.
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"The rhyming so poetic— even when you just read it in your head," said co-choreographer Jenny Parsinen, who collaborated with Diggs when the show's producer, Royal Family, saw an opportunity to add movement.
Diggs and Parsinen worked together, as they have for years, to create what they call a "pedestrian" style that requires no training from the actors, but calls forth natural expressions.
Taye Diggs and Jenny Parsinen rehearse the cast of 'Thoughts of a COLORED MAN.'Russ Rowland
"I think of it as 'movement,'" said Diggs. "If I asked any of these brothers if they had dance training, they'd say no and in a normal audition, they'd be eliminated. We try to use natural movement. We try to see body types and how people move naturally."
That approach worked well for the playwright, who wanted to the audience to empathize with the characters onstage, especially in terms of the ironies or surprises of real life.
"We wanted to show the stereotype of emotions, and then we turn it on you," said Scott. "Love isn't always perfect. Happiness isn't always happy. You will sympathize with lust."
Scott, who himself is in the play, said his perspective on what dance is has changed through his work with Diggs and Parsinen.
"This was a first for me, and a lot of guys in the cast can relate," said Scott. "I'm a trained actor. Any movement in a work I've done has been dance with the counts, shuffle-ball-change. And this type of movement…is more about self-awareness."
The eight emotions in the show — depression, love, lust, anger, passion, despair, happiness, and wisdom — are paired with steps that might be as simple as walking with a military emphasis or a full-bodied dance, as in a tribal celebration.
For Diggs, the free-form style is rooted in a natural love of dance, rather than in training — an approach he connected to when studying from the influential dance maker Garth Fagan.
"When I was younger, if you don't have good feet or good turnout, then you couldn't be a great dancers," said Diggs. "Once I changed that for myself, I realized I was a great mover."
Jenny Parsinen and Taye Diggs.Vii Tanner/Broadway Dreams Foundation
While Diggs may be best known for his acting — from "The Good Wife" to "Private Practice," — and his style (check out his camouflage onesie!), he co-led the dance company dre.dance from 2005 to 2012 with friend Andrew Palermo.
That experience led him to a rich creative collaboration with Jenny Parsinen, who says her artistic friend has way more to give on the dance stage.
"I don't think people have yet seen what he has to offer the world creatively," she said. "Movement spills of him like walking or breathing for other people."
The cast of "Thoughts of a COLORED MAN" in rehearsal.