Meet the Man behind the Dance Moves – Brandon Couloute
By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
Breakdancing and Shakespeare: One would not normally expect the two to have anything in common. But take traditional Shakespearean language, blend in infectious hip hop dance tunes, and top it off with high-energy, gravity-defying dance, and what you have is the popular summer program at Hartford Stage known as Breakdancing Shakespeare.
Hamlet will be the featured play this summer, which will be directed by Nina Pinchin, Associate Director of Education for Hartford Stage. Hip hop dance instructor and choreographer Brandon Couloute will return to choreograph. Couloute first became involved with Breakdancing Shakespeare in 2009 as a cast member. He has choreographed most productions since “graduating” from Breakdancing Shakespeare in 2012.
“In his role as choreographer, I am always looking to Brandon to try to tell the story as clearly as possible in a way that makes it accessible to contemporary audiences and both challenges and inspires the group of student artists we have in the room,” Pinchin said. “Brandon does a terrific job with this – particularly the inspiration part. When motivation is waning, Brandon works twice as hard as everyone else until those who are slacking can’t help but meet him half-way.”
Auditions for Breakdancing Shakespeare’s Hamlet begin on May 19 at Hartford Stage Rehearsal Studios at 942 Main Street in Hartford. The final production will be performed at the Hoffman Auditorium in the Bruyette Athenaeum on the campus of the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford August 10, 11, and 12. Learn more.
Couloute, aka BBoy Electronic, grew up in New Britain, where he has lived for most of his life. He graduated from Central Connecticut State University last December with a degree in Journalism and currently teaches hip hop at several dance studios in the Greater Hartford area. Couloute is also a back-up dancer for the Ultimate Michael Jackson Experience Show.
Couloute first discovered Breakdancing Shakespeare when he was in middle school. He heard that Hartford Stage would be combining the art of breakdancing with William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and became intrigued. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that Couloute auditioned for a role in the Breakdancing Shakespeare production of The Comedy of Errors. Although he had a strong desire to perform, the audition process left him with some trepidation; and he recalls being a nervous wreck as he stood in front of Pinchin. But Pinchin quickly recognized something special in Couloute.
“Brandon was an exciting find, not only for his enthusiasm and charm, but because he really is a B-Boy – a break dancer,” Pinchin recalls. “We call our program ‘Breakdancing Shakespeare,’ but we include many different forms of dance: popping, crumping, tutting, and a combination of other hip-hop styles. True breakdancing consists of floor work – things like six-step – and power moves (freezes, spins, flips). These power moves take a tremendous amount of upper body strength, practice, and the perfect combination of bravery and commitment to safety and control. At 16, Brandon was one of the most accomplished dancers the program had seen, but he also brought with him an amazing work ethic, respect for everyone around him, and an openness to try new things and see them through to completion.”
Pinchin notes that it is these exact qualities that made Couloute stand out as a leader in the summer program through three shows (The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing). But Couloute’s biggest challenge was yet to come: portraying Prospero in The Tempest. Pinchin recalls Couloute telling her that taking on the role was “the hardest thing he’d ever had to do in his life.”
“Playing Prospero in The Tempest was incredibly hard initially,” Couloute admitted. “I always joked with Nina about my fear of having to memorize lines. Playing the lead was not even something I could imagine myself doing. Breaking through the barrier of fear and negativity was the hardest part. Pretending to be someone else and making it look real and natural is a skill that I respect. I had a lot of trouble jumping into someone else’s mind set and out of my own.”
The opportunity to choreograph Breakdancing Shakespeare was something that Couloute had entertained from day one. At the time, Couloute had started his first job at a dance studio in West Hartford, where he started to develop his own teaching methods. By the time he was asked to choreograph Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2013, Couloute had taught at over 20 dance studios and schools. He was ready to take the leap.
“In my last year as a Breakdancing Shakespeare performer in 2012, I was starting to think about what I could do to help the program when I ‘aged out,’” Couloute explained. “Of course, the first thing that came to my head was choreography, but I never pushed that idea. I figured if I was ready, and I displayed the right traits Nina was looking for, then I would be asked. Lucky for me that’s what happened.”
Music is the key to Couloute’s choreography process – an element that he notes is the hardest. Couloute mixes multiple songs together to create an atmosphere for the audience that contributes to the overall story for the routine he is choreographing. For last year’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Couloute mixed “Reunited” by Peaches and Herb, “3005” by Childish Gambino, and “I Wanna Be with You” by DJ Khaled for a pivotal dance sequence in which the primary couples in the play reunited with each other.
“All three songs had a totally different sound and tempo, but together they gave me the atmosphere and dynamic I needed,” said Couloute. “Sometimes I know exactly what song(s) I want; sometimes I need to dig in the crates a little. Having an enormous interest in music and editing skills help a lot.”
The dance routines themselves have usually already been plotted out within the script. Couloute focuses on the story first and then choreographs around the motives of the characters.
“My job is to convey these moments through dance. It’s a challenge creating the perfect blend of story and dance. You don’t want the routine to lack narrative but at the same time it can’t turn into interpretive dance,” Couloute noted. “The large numbers that feature the whole cast are the hardest – usually the opening and finale. Establishing the setting, plot, characters, and putting awesome dance moves on top of that is super hard. But I live for challenges.”
Couloute feels that Breakdancing Shakespeare appeals to so many people because of its creative marriage of dance and acting. He tells people to think of the program as a musical, minus the singing, and way more tricks. Being personally involved with Breakdancing Shakespeare has meant many different things to Couloute through the years.
“Giving teens a free program that exposes them to so many positive people and experiences is already a strong package – paying them for doing so, on top of that, is just icing on the cake,” Couloute explained. “To me, Breakdancing Shakespeare is a good representation of what life in the entertainment industry is like and how young adults should prepare themselves if they are looking to go down that path. It is an environment where one can really make strong, powerful alliances and friends. Having a name like Hartford Stage in your portfolio as a 14 to 19-year-old is something that you can’t a put a dollar value on.”
In addition to his talents on the dance floor, Couloute creates many of his own music mixes for the dance videos that he films and edits. He has also produced expertly-crafted video features of Breakdancing Shakespeare cast members over the past few years to assist Hartford Stage in promoting the program via social media.
“Video editing is something I picked up in school after taking a few broadcast courses. Also, at the dance studio I work for, we do a lot of multimedia projects. Two years ago, I got really interested in the skill and have been trying to get better ever since. It compliments my dancing very well. I like to make up routines and create videos that feature my work,” Couloute explained. “Having a picture in your mind and having the ability to make it real is something that I have grown to appreciate. I would love to make it into a career. Dance is always first when I think about what it is I’d like to do as a career, but if the opportunity presented itself to edit video I would seriously consider it.”
This month, Couloute will be teaching a Breakdancing Master Class at Hartford Stage. Couloute also maintains his own Youtube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/bboylectronic/videos) which features his choreography and masterful dance techniques in action. And what does Couloute foresee in his future?
“My personal goal is simple: I want to take my dancing to new levels and continue to grow,” Couloute explained. “I’d love to back-up dance for someone like Usher or Missy Elliot – or dance in music videos, plays, movies or anything, really. Long-term, I would like to run my own dance studio and inspire young dancers.”