It’s August 2020 and Darius Barnes was supposed to be dancing in the much-anticipated Michael Jackson Musical on Broadway, for which he had signed a year-long contract as the show’s Dance Captain. The cast was scheduled to start rehearsals in May and open for previews in July followed by an official opening this month. Then COVID hit New York City, derailing those plans as well as the entertainment industry as a whole. We caught up over Zoom in April while we were both in the midst of lockdown (him in NYC and me in Bermuda); and when this bizarre COVID pandemic was still a relatively new phenomenon.
“I’m gainfully unemployed” said Darius with an ‘o-well, what can I do about it’ kind of chuckle. With Broadway’s usual buzzing streets at an airy standstill and the world in a state of both shock and chaos, a performing artist’s present and future was looking concerningly uncertain. “I’m fortunate because I work in commercial theater so I have a bit of savings because Broadway pays pretty well, but it’s really ravaged the arts community. A lot of people need a lot of help and we’re waiting on gigs to come up.” Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the ‘Big Apple’ he believes he was among those infected, having seemingly caught the virus a few weeks prior to our chat. “I had a very mild version and I’m self-diagnosing myself because I didn’t go to get a test because I wasn’t that bad. But I did have a fever for two and a half days but that was it, I had very mild symptoms; and then once the fever broke I was back to my health and myself.” He said he has been extra careful since that experience: “I stay in my house, I wear gloves, I wear a mask, I’m trynna’ be smart.”
Darius and I met in 2005 at the Bermuda Dance Foundation’s first ‘Dance Bermuda’ summer intensive in partnership with the American Ballet Theatre (and for which Catherine Zeta Jones, who at the time lived in Bermuda along with her husband Michael Douglas, was a patron). He was one of the incredibly talented senior dancers from overseas that totally blew me away. “When did that happen though? Like when did we get old?” Darius asked rhetorically when I mentioned the fact that it was 15 years ago already. We laughed and comforted ourselves with the reality that ‘black don’t crack’ (loll).
While reminiscing he confirmed that one of our Dance Bermuda teachers sadly passed away earlier this year at the young age of 35, and I would like to give him a mention because he was such an amazing teacher with the most energetic, motivating and personable aura. His name was Danny Tidwell and he was also the runner-up on season 3 of ‘So You Think You Can Dance’. Darius said Danny was like a mentor to him.
A Baltimore native, Darius attended high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts until he moved to New York at 16 to complete his training at the School of American Ballet (SAB). When we met at Dance Bermuda, Darius was about to enter his second year at SAB and he eventually accepted an offer to join the New York City Ballet (NYCB) two years later, at the age of 19. He performed professionally with NYCB until he was let go due to the 2008 recession – (so the current pandemic isn’t the first time in his professional career that he has experienced the effects of an economic downturn) – and that’s what led him to attend various auditions and ultimately pursue opportunities in the Broadway world. Following NYCB Darius danced in The Met Opera’s 2010 production of ‘Aida’ and then the Susan Ferrell Ballet before joining the Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Rockette show. He was doing 15-shows per week with Radio City when he decided to take one of the slower days off in order to audition for Memphis, and at the end of the process (spread over a series of days) he got the job. “That’s literally how theater started. I just like booked the show.”
After Memphis Darius performed in a series of other stellar Broadway musicals: Spiderman (alongside Bermuda’s Rebecca Faulkenberry), Cinderella, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Kiss Me Kate and Mean Girls (which he was a part of when the pandemic hit). “The whole theater thing has sort of been learning on the job” he said. “Every day has kind of just been ‘show up and see how it goes.’” He laughed.
Darius performs 8 shows per week and said his favourite theater job thus far is Memphis: “Memphis was great because it was a bunch of really talented black people. There are not really that many black shows and if you get to be in one it’s such a magical thing to be at work and not have to explain yourself, you know; we just have a code and a way with each other. Black people pray before their shows, you know what I mean. I haven’t had that experience across the board but if I’m in a show with black people we’re praying before the show, without even a doubt about it.” He also said he learned a lot from his Memphis castmates: “all of these people were amazing and taught me everything. My partner was this woman Bahiyah Hibah. She was a principal in Alvin Ailey, she was a principal in Frankfurt Ballet, she’s incredible. She’s been in 100 shows and she’s in Moulin Rouge right now – she’s a literal dance legend – I grew up watching her when she was in Ailey and she was my first partner on Broadway; this like Ailey-Diva-Legend.” He added: “So even partnering her every day I was like ‘oh my God, if I drop this legend’…I just learned so much.”
Darius spoke about the contrast between working in theater and ballet. “Comparatively I would say that the theater world is more human” he chuckled. “The ballet world in general is very constricting and it might be getting lighter now with a lot of changes happening but it’s a very rigorous world and very rigid. Humanness is not taken into account a lot; you’re just supposed to show up and produce, which is the entertainment world in general, you know, no one really cares how you feel they just want the finished product but the day to day of the ballet world is hard and strict and rigorous and rigid.” In comparison: “theater people are a lot more bubbly. They have a ton of personality because they’re kind of always performing so it’s a lot more joyous, I would say a lot more human, a lot more loving. But it’s also performing and also a side of entertainment so they’re sort of similar…there’s still cattiness, there’s competition, there’s ego, you know all that other stuff. But being in theater is fun.”
Darius elaborated on those “fun” theater vibes and said he experiences “crazy highs” on opening nights, which include exciting red carpet moments. He also told me about a time when he was working on a “bootcamp” for the musical Hamilton when the show first opened – (he explained that bootcamps are designed to develop a method of learning and teaching a particular show) – and he, along with the cast of Hamilton, was invited to a party that Prince was putting on one night. He said “it was like New York who’s who” at the party including celebrities Maya Rudolph, Trevor Noah, Jennifer Hudson, the cast of The Color Purple and Nicole Scherzinger. “It was like an open bar, it was lavish and like so New York, like it was crazy.” He continued the story about this amazing party (which he was unfortunately unable to document as pictures weren’t allowed): “So I go to leave at like 1:45 in the morning and Prince pops up out of nowhere like on a balcony somewhere and is like ‘Hey guys, let’s go crazy’ and proceeds to DJ his music for like 80 minutes – DJ, sing, he had girls dancing around him, Nicole Scherzinger sang, Jennifer Hudson sang, like it was ridiculous….So there are moments like that that happen where you’re like ‘what is life? What is going on? How am I here? Who are these people? Like how did this happen?’, and then the rest of it is like work, you know, day to day stuff.”
Nonetheless however, he did also say there can be similar moments of glamour in a ballet dancer’s career: “Well I was in the NYC Ballet so we were very fortunate, they have a lot of money, so the galas were very lavish” and “having celebrities come see you dance was very nice; but that’s like one night out of the whole year.”
In addition to dancing with the NYC Ballet and 6 Broadway musical productions, Darius has performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem as well as on some TV shows, including John Legend’s New Years Eve special, NBC’s ‘Smash’, the first episode of The CW’s ‘Katy Keene’, the music video for Estelle’s song ‘Conqueror’, the off-Broadway show Sweet Charity starring Sutton Foster, and he has performed excerpts of Broadway productions on both Good Morning America and the Today Show. He also sings and acts (a triple-threat brotha’, holla!), and he was voted one of Broadway’s 10 hottest choir boys by Time Out New York in 2017.
He has been contemplating transitioning into theater directing however, with his general career goal being to make a positive impact in the arts and inspire those coming up behind him. He has been assisting colleagues with a community project called ‘Move New York’ that was started “to bridge the gap between high degree dancing and diversity.” He is one of the teachers on the program.
Nonetheless, his immediate focus, as well as that of his fellow entertainers, has been adjusting to the changes that have arisen as a result of COVID, such as figuring out how to transition from the studio or classroom to online platforms, how to fill each day and, for some of his peers, how to make ends meet. “I have friends all over the spectrum: people who are totally fine and then people who live gig to gig and their gigs are all gone now – in like a week everything was cancelled – and so it’s very hard, and they’re reaching out for grants and they’re reaching out to unemployment and they’re reaching out to, you know, anything that can help them buy groceries and pay rent.” He said he’s trying to maintain a positive outlook despite the effects of the pandemic on the world. “I haven’t had too many down days other than when I was sick. I was only sick for like 3 days but it probably affected me like for a week; but besides that I’ve been like ok, my mental is totally fine, I wake up every day and I’m like ‘Thank you Lord, roof over my head, I’m good’, like you know what I mean? People are in worst conditions so…” He also said ballet is his go-to lockdown fitness routine: “I take a barre every day in these corona times to keep in shape because I think it’s the thing that keeps you the most in shape. It hurts, it’s really hard, but because it’s so hard I don’t even take any other class to warm up.” Since the classes are virtual I asked what he uses in place of the physical barre that would usually be in a dance studio: “I’m using a rolly chair and hoping for the best” he replied and laughed.
**** Since the time of our interview Darius was instrumental in making the inaugural Antonyo Awards – (an African American version of the annual Tony Awards) – a reality, in collaboration with Broadway Black and the Black Theatre Society! Darius produced, directed, choreographed and edited the virtual production, which I thoroughly enjoyed tuning in to. It was superbly put together and it was awesome to see that the online realm can be manipulated in such a creative manner, making the most of this new socially-distanced way of living. During our chat Darius had said he didn’t know how performing was going to be done via platforms such as Zoom but he clearly figured that out within a mere couple of months! To watch a replay of the Antonyo Awards check it out on YouTube. ****
In honor of Juneteenth and in collaboration with Broadway Black and the Black Theatre Society, Darius produced, directed, choreographed and edited the inaugural
More show-stopping quotes and facts about Darius:
- During his 8-show weeks he prefers to spend the day time resting at home, although some of his colleagues choose to go to the gym, take classes etc. “The older I get I learn to conserve myself a lot more.”
- He has always wanted to emulated pioneering black male dancers Desmond Richardson and Gregg Burge.
- “I love what I do, I’m very fortunate but at the end of the day it’s just work.
- His advice to those wanting to follow in his footsteps: “work hard, stay humble, stay hungry”, “do this because you love it and you can’t dream of doing anything else” and “keep people around you who inspire you and keep you lifted and pour into you.”
What ingredients does Darius think would make the perfect smoothie? “The perfect smoothie for me would have to have chocolate in it…um…I guess fruit, I donno everything goes with chocolate though…so…chocolate and I want it to be exotic, I want it to be chocolate and like mango or guava, I donno, something like random but surprisingly tasty and refreshing…um…yeah, I donno….grapes and…I donno, I donno, but chocolate as a base. I’m gonna go with chocolate as a base in my smoothie and exotic flavours besides that.”
Follow Darius via: @dblexicon, which Darius uses for his Twitter, Instagram and snapchat. Check out his website as well: www.dariusbarnes.com
All the best in the new Michael Jackson musical when it opens Darius!! ‘Break a leg’ as they say! 🙂