Kevin Thomas is creating a more diverse, inclusive space in the Memphis Arts scene as the Artistic Director of Collage Dance Collective. While he is now a mainstay in the dance world in Memphis, Kevin actually hails from Montreal. “I have three passports,” Kevin says. “Canada, United States, and Trinidad and Tobago. (I was born in Trinidad.)” The Collage Dance Collective, which was originally founded in New York City in 2006, relocated to Memphis, and Kevin soon followed.
Kevin began dance lessons at age 9 and went on to study with Ecole Superieure de Danse du Quebec. He has also danced professionally with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Cleveland/San Jose Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) in New York City. Kevin has also made appearances with the Royal Ballet in London, Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York, and with Flemming Flindt and Peter Schaufuss in Denmark. He even appeared on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera.
This guy is a rock star, but his focus now is as a servant leader, ushering in a new generation of dancers, many of whom would not have the opportunity to receive formal dance training without Collage Dance Collective. We chose Kevin because of his commitment to adding diversity to the arts in Memphis as well as his amazing talent for shaping young lives in Memphis!
If you could describe your work at Collage Dance Collective in three words, what would they be?
Transformative, exhilarating, and rewarding
Why did you choose Memphis as the location for the Collage Dance Collective?
The demographics of Memphis are quite similar to that of Harlem, New York. Our mission is to inspire the growth of ballet and to increase diversity in the classical arts. There is a place for all of us to shine in this art form, and I think Memphis is the perfect city for ballet to grow and change lives.
Tell us about the kids you serve. Why is this work important for them?
The kids I serve come from different socio-economic backgrounds and 90% of them are people of color. They are all very beautiful! We are now close to an enrollment of 200 students at our conservatory, with an age range from 2 to 18. Many of them want to pursue a professional career in dance which makes me proud. Ballet gives you discipline, passion, and tenacity. This art form teaches you to work hard and to also be able to take criticism. Even if you don’t become a dancer, the lessons you learn prepare you to succeed. These are valuable lessons to learn at a young age.
What is the favorite part of your job?
I love watching my dancers grow and improve – from my youngest creative movement babies to my professional company dancers. This excites me! But, the favorite part of my job is the production of our concerts. The united effort of the dancers, choreographers, designers and overall production team is all very magical. We see the beauty and growth of the dancers on stage and I get to experience the audience’s love for dance and their appreciation of our community of artists and their hard work.
How has ballet superstar Misty Copeland changed the landscape for ballet programs like yours?
We have celebrated the ascent of Misty Copeland to the ranks of principal dancer at America Ballet Theatre which has been an incredible feat for female dancers of color all over the world! But there have been many before Misty who were well deserving of this star status but the classical ballet world at that time (before social media and greater social acceptance) was not ready to acknowledge their accomplishments. Now, ballet companies are slowly warming up to diversity – often times to appease funders and to prove their relevance in an increasingly modern, diverse world. I wish that more support could be given to the few Black dance institutions that have been in the trenches, creating and supporting dancers for many years, long before diversity in ballet was a trending topic.
What’s been the best part about living in Memphis?
My work in Memphis means a lot to me and is the reason I am here. I love what I do! But I am also in love with Memphis. There is a lot of important history in Memphis that relates to my cultural identity; history that should be explored and not forgotten. It also inspires my work.
Besides Collage Dance Collective, what’s another favorite arts organization and why?
Lila Hood has created a violin program for young students, The Blue Violin Foundation, which I think is wonderful! She is addressing the need for inclusion and diversity in the classical arts. Lila who is an African American woman is an accomplished violinist who also studied ballet.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in Memphis?
Cars crashing into inanimate objects such as lamp posts, trees, etc.! This is a frequent occurrence in Memphis and very weird!
What are your three favorite restaurants?
Owen Brennan’s for brunch, Tsunami and Erling Jensen for dinner.
Who are two people destined to change Memphis (and why)?
Derwin Sisnett is the founder and managing partner of Maslow Development Inc. (Maslow), a nonprofit organization that develops communities around high performing schools. His tremendous work in building Gestalt Community Schools has been a value-add to the city’s education landscape. Derwin is bright, driven and humble and his holistic approach to community development is inspiring.
Cynthia Daniels. While I don’t know Cynthia personally, I have admired her work ethic, her PR savvy and her positive community messaging. I think it’s awesome how she has created events and programs that highlight positive things in the African American community. She is an excellent example of taking control of your narrative.
If a friend were coming in town to visit, what would your itinerary look like?
We would start with the National Civil Rights Museum then the other museums such as the Pink Palace, Mud Island River City, and Graceland. We would walk on the river front off of Beale and Mud Island. We would walk around the Overton Square area. Definitely shop along Broad Avenue, visit the zoo and enjoy an outdoor concert in Overton Park. And, of course, attend a College Dance Collective performance!