The Manzari brothers are a couple of cool dudes. So low key and under-the-radar that during a master class at the Duke Ellington School the great dancer and choreographer, Maurice Hines himself, didn’t intuit they were from the same family. It wasn’t until he singled them out from dozens of dancers that he discovered that the teens were in fact brothers. The following day Hines invited them both to an open audition at the Lincoln Theatre. It was during the third day’s callback that they were cast alongside leading man, choreographer and virtuoso performer, Hines, in the newest production of “Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies”.
In the world of dance improvisational tap scenes are called “trading”…a friendly challenge in which the dancers trade tap licks and push the percussive envelope ever higher. In a recent YouTube video Hines narrates his encounter with the amazing and adorable prodigies, John Manzari, 17, and his brother, Leo, 15, and the three do a tap-off together. You can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/user/arenastage1
Growing up in DC they danced around the living room watching PBS’s “Sesame Street” and “Zoom”, shows that presented rhythm tapper Savion Glover, doing his “free-form hard core” tap, and veteran pioneers like Maurice and Gregory Hines. Their mother, Mary Manzari, told me they started dancing when they were just tots, though none of their relatives had ever been performers.
Last fall they heard about the master class at the Duke Ellington School from Leo’s best friend’s mother who rang up Mary. They both decided to go.
While they have performed the Nutcracker with the Washington Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre at the Kennedy Center and, later worked with Debbie Allen in her Kennedy Center production of “Brothers of the Knight” and the world premiere of “Walking the Winds: An Arabian Tale”, this show will be a professional regional theatre debut for the boys, who take classes five days a week from 5 till nearly midnight. Yes, folks, that’s what it takes.
Their style is both similar and different. John describes it as, “Leo, takes the role as creator and I manipulate it so it fits with what I’m doing till we find common ground. It’s a complicated process but it makes sense.”
“We still want to stay as a brother act. My main goal is to bring tap into the R&B world of music. I want to combine the two,” says the younger Leo. “Everyone talks about how revival tap is coming up, but I want it to be a new thing that we’ll do as a brother act. When we’re dancing to music we like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.”
John graduates in June from The Field School on Foxhall Road, which both boys attend, and will enter college this fall.
Wright – Tell me what it was like to work with as highly respected and accomplished a star as Maurice Hines.
John – Mr. Hines has taught me versatility. He taught me to dance to the crowd, make your movements bigger.
You never know what to expect from him. His character stays the same but it’s what he does with it that’s fun and when we have fun the crowd has fun. When it comes to step-wise with all the technical stuff, he “gives” it to us, but even more so the performing stuff…cause that’s his main thing.
Leo – Mr. Hines is a great mentor. I’ve learned a lot and I can’t wait to start performing. Just working with a legend and being part of the whole experience just makes me happy, I guess.
John – I’m really excited about the show. I was intimidated at first but then everyone was very, very kind…the whole cast, the director, the stage manager, everyone. We’re just a family…we blend together. It’s very heart-warming.
Wright – How has your ballet training helped your style and endurance?
John – Mr. Hines told me that age doesn’t matter and watching him it’s true. I forget that he’s not 17. Also I do feel that if you have ballet training you can dance a lot longer because you know how to control your body and take care of it and what muscles to build. Tap is very, very, very demanding of strength and stamina because you’re constantly pounding into the floor. You have vibrations going through your legs and even though you need to build muscle, you have to relax those muscles at the same time. So I can’t really say that one style of dance is more strenuous than the other.
Catch the break-out Manzari brothers captivating audiences in “Sophisticated Ladies”, the hot and sassy musical featuring the life and music of local legend Duke Ellington.
From April 9th till May 30th at Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre. For tickets and information visit www.arenastage.com
This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Jordan Wright. For questions or comments contact Jordan@WhiskandQuill.com